Tag Archives: emotional abuse

Mother Knows Best

I hate the whole Disney Princess thing. I hate pink, fairy princess marketing full stop. My daughters haven’t been indoctrinated into the mystique of being a girly princess and the eldest has only seen three Disney cartoons in her life. One is Tangled which we downloaded out of desperation a couple of years ago when we were marooned at my parents house and the kids had a sickness bug. Today we watched Tangled for the second only time.

The first time I was struck by the creepy Gothel character, the old woman who stole baby Rapunzel. She is absolutely a dysfunctional and abusive mother-figure and not just for the obvious child abduction reasons. She manipulates Rapunzel in a way which made me cringe the first time I saw it and again today.

Here is the opening dialogue between Rapunzel and Gothel

GOTHEL -RAPUNZEL! Let down your hair.

RAPUNZEL (to pet) – It’s time. I know, I know. Come on, don’t let her see you.

GOTHEL – Rapunzel, I’m not getting any younger down here.

RAPUNZEL – Coming, mother. Hi, welcome home, mother.

GOTHEL – Oh, Rapunzel. How you manage to do that every single day, without fail, it looks absolutely exhausting, darling.

RAPUNZEL – Oh, it’s nothing.

GOTHEL – Then I don’t know why it takes so long. (Laughs) Oh, darling. I’m just teasing.

Ouch! I really wish I knew if Dan Fogelman who wrote the script had a narcissistic mother. This is my mother-in-law but without all the false charm projected by Gothel. For fun I’m going to show how she is narcissistic and how her interactions with Rapunzel are emotionally abusive.

Scene 1:

RAPUNZEL! Let down your hair. There is no “please” you’ll notice, she orders and expects to be unquestioningly obeyed.

Rapunzel, I’m not getting any younger down here. Impatient and self-absorbed, it doesn’t occur to her that Rapunzel may be in the middle of something.

RAPUNZEL – Coming, mother. Hi, welcome home, mother.

GOTHEL – Oh, Rapunzel. How you manage to do that every single day, without fail, it looks absolutely exhausting, darling. Notice she doesn’t greet her “daughter”, the mock concern and patronising use of the word darling. If she were really concerned she’d get a bloody rope and climb up herself.

RAPUNZEL – Oh, it’s nothing. Yep, well learned Rapunzel. No child of a narcissist ever complains about their treatment, mummy comes first.

GOTHEL – Then I don’t know why it takes so long. (Laughs) Oh, darling. I’m just teasing. Oh wow, every time I read that it packs the same punch. Rapunzel walked straight into the trap. And then the bit that makes me shudder because my MIL does it, the light laugh and “oh darling” (again belittling) “I’m just teasing” er no, she bloody is not!

It is a classic trap used by emotional abusers, it should have its own name. First deflect and disarm by leading the other person to believe you are concerned for them, with a great dollop of belittlement and condescension thrown in, then when the victim of your trap attempts to brush off your concern slam them with the real criticism you were intending all along. And throw in the revolting sting in the tail by then laughing in the face of their obvious distress at the stinging remark and implying that their lack of perspective or sense of humour is what has made the remark hurt in the first place. This last comment is also defensive as it acts to protect against any comeback, it was a joke, I was teasing. Vomit inducing.

If Rapunzel had replied “Yes it really is exhausting” she would have got the other side of the trap, “Oh! I had no idea that safely bringing you mother to greet you every day was such a burden” cue massive self pitying sulk.

The scene plays on and poor Rapunzel gets more of the same.

All right…so, mother. As you know tomorrow is a very big day. Ha! Good luck with that, nobody else has a big day in a narcissists mind, she’ll hijack it somehow.

Rapunzel look at that mirror. You know what I see? I see a strong, confident, beautiful young lady. Oh look, you’re here too. I’m just teasing, stop taking everything so seriously. This is an overtly narcissistic comment, vain and self absorbed, though not all narcissists revel in their physical beauty. This interaction also shows how the mother always notices herself ahead of others.

Okay, so mother. I was thinking tomorrow… 

Flower, mother’s feeling a little run down. Would you sing for me, dear? Then we’ll talk. Repeatedly she ignores her “daughter”‘s need to talk putting her own needs first, the hallmark of a narcissistic parent.

-OH! Of course, mother. Again the child has been trained so well she responds without arguing (cue a bit of singing in the cartoon).

So, mother, Earlier I asked if tomorrow was a pretty big day, and you didn’t really respond, So I’m just going to tell you. It’s my birthday! TADA! In the world of the narcissistic parent you have to remind them when it’s your birthday, and having them not respond to you is completely normal.

No, no, no can’t be. I distinctly remember. Your birthday was last year. Crazy-making at its height, denying a fact everyone knows to be true. Minimising the other person’s claim for attention.

That’s the funny thing about birthdays. They’re kind of an annual thing. Mother, I’m turning eighteen. And I wanted to ask, what I really want for this birthday. Actually what I want for every birthday…

Rapunzel please, stop with the mumbling. You know how I feel about the mumbling. Blah, blah, blah,…blah. It’s very annoying. I’m just teasing, you’re adorable I love you so much, darling. Totally ignores what the girl is building up to, no empathy here at all just jumps in with her criticism. Rapunzel should stop mumbling because Gothel hates it, her wishes come first.

Oh, I want to see the floating lights.

-What? Snapped out, not a question more of a challenge. NPD MIL frequently snaps out things when loosing control of the conversation in some way.

-Oh,…Well I was hoping you would take me to see the floating lights.

Oh, you mean the stars. Again deliberately misunderstanding the other person’s needs.

That’s the thing I’ve charted stars and they’re always constant. But these, they appear every year on my birthday, Mother. Only on my birthday. And I can’t help but feel that they’re, they’re meant for me. I need to see them, Mother. And not just from my window. In person. I have to know what they are. Rapunzel clearly articulates a deep, yearning need.

You want to go outside? Oh, why Rapunzel. Look at you, as fragile as a flower. Still a little sapling, just a sprout. You know why we stay up in this tower. Questions her daughter’s need, undermines her with infantilising comments and attacks her independence and self esteem to make her more emotionally reliant on the abusive parent.

-I know, but…

Thats right, to keep you safe, and sound, dear. Guess I always knew this day was coming. Know that soon you’d want to leave the nest. Soon, but not yet. Shhh.. The core of all abusive behaviour is to put one person’s needs ahead of the others, in this case the mother’s need for her daughter to keep her young and beautiful ahead of the child’s need to grow and become independent. Keep them dangling and hoping for a change but don’t deliver it.

-But

Trust me pet, Mother, knows best. Finishes with the ultimate put down to any child, the parent’s views and in this case needs automatically trumps the child’s simply by virtue of the relationship between them, no one can argue with “because I’m your mother and I know best”.

The reason this entire scene horrifies me is because it as an almost exact replication of interactions I have seen between my husband and SIL and their mother. And Gothel in the story is an evil, child stealing witch for goodness sake, the worst sort of fairy tale villain. The most vile way of protraying an abusive parent that the scriptwriter could come up with is an almost exact description of my MIL!

6 Comments

Filed under Controlling behaviour, Describing narcissism, Examples of narcissistic behaviour, Manipulations, narcissistic mother

How to manage a narcissistic mother-in-law part 1

Here is the first in a multi-part post which outlines ways to manage a narcissistic, difficult, controlling, emotionally abusive MIL. The first posts are positive, a summary of effective methods. I thought I’d start with this as so much material about NPD is very negative. It is reassuring to read something can be done to fight back. The concluding post is a summary of what doesn’t work or worse, what can escalate her difficult behaviour.

It has taken me a long time to work out how best to cope with and manage NPD MIL’s machinations. I met my husband more then 10 years ago, and I first met her a year later. On reflection  it should have rung an alarm bell that it took my husband an entire year before he made any attempt to introduce us. I had already met his sister, father and all his friends by that time. Back then I had no idea what NPD was nor did I have any expectation that my future MIL would be anything other than normal and pleasant. Well that assumption was slapped back in my face the very first time I met her.

It’s been a slow, painful slog through disbelief, confusion, hurt, bafflement, mounting anger, cold hatred until the red line was crossed and I put my foot down. I am a quiet person when you meet me, not brash or extraverted. My Myers-Briggs personality type is INFP. One writer commenting on personality types made the statement:

“INFPs are flexible and laid-back, until one of their values is violated. In the face of their value system being threatened, INFPs can become aggressive defenders, fighting passionately for their cause.”  http://www.personalitypage.com/INFP.html

You said it. She crossed the line and I finally said enough. This is what worked.

Keep Your Distance Physically.

I originally trained as a scientist. To me the word physically doesn’t just mean anything to do with my body it also means things relating to physics, like telecommunications. So lets consider how to keep a physical distance in both senses of the word.

MIL is kept at a physical distance in that I do not sit near here if I have to be in her company. I get up and move away from her frequently to have a break from her stultifying presence by leaving the room and fortunately (oh so fortunately) she lives 3 hours drive away. I am adamant that she does not live near us and would move house to keep away from her. My husband made the decision not to apply for a rare job advertised in his field because it was located near her home town.

If we go out for lunch, which we almost always do when she visits as the range of foods she will eat is small and she is unutterably snobby about anything served to her that we cook, I make damn sure I am not sat next to her. Diagonally across the table is best with my husband closest to her and I busy myself with the children. A persistent NPD MIL may try to place themselves near you or call you over to sit next to them, deciding who should sit where. Hold your ground with a firm “I would like to sit here” and put your bum on the chair with no further comment.

I feel deeply for people suffering from living close to their MIL, even in the same house as her. I cannot imagine how you cope with that. It is trite to say move away as you may have roots deep in your community or strong cultural pressures to stay with your husband’s family. If she lives in your town do not give her a spare key and always lock or chain the doors so she can’t just walk in. Put opaque blinds or curtains up in the front room so she can’t see if you are in and just don’t answer the door. If you live with your MIL get a lock and put it on your bedroom door. Make a big, outraged fuss about your privacy and if necessary imply your MIL has an unhealthy interest in your husband’s and your sex life if she intrudes.

What about electronic contact? I have no phone, email or written contact with my MIL. I have never given her my email address or phone number but she has got my mobile phone number somehow. She has sent me texts in the past and I never respond. Now she has given up. Only on one occasion when my husband and I first laid down the law to her, nearly 2 years ago, did I email her to communicate my feelings about the situation. I created an email account solely for the purpose of sending that one message and shut it down afterwards. In that one email I told her I did not want any written or emailed communication from her.

If she rings the house we have caller ID on the phone and I let it ring until the answer-phone kicks in. I do not ever pick up the phone.

I do not use Facebook or similar social media sites. If your toxic MIL has hijacked your Facebook page, quit it and after a suitable pause restart and only share your new page with select friends. Do not accept “friend” requests from her, her family members or acquaintances.

This is how far we keep our distance; my daughter’s primary school has permission forms which parents have to sign to allow the school to use photos of the kids on their website or in local newspapers. We don’t sign. That way she can’t follow what our daughter is doing via the web.

My husband now refuses to arrange separate visitations at birthdays and holidays for her to attend without the possible presence of her ex, my FIL. She won’t be in the same room as him so she doesn’t turn up to these events as often as she used to when my then deluded husband would go to the trouble of organising double birthdays etc. I don’t go and visit her in her own home, my husband takes the kids maybe twice a year. They stay for one night at most. I feel uncomfortable with this as frankly if she is too nasty for me to be around then I don’t think the kids should be there either but my husband is in the early stages of getting to grips with her behaviour so I don’t push it. If she is unpleasant to one of the girls, ever, these visits will stop.

I cannot emphasise enough the need to keep her proximity to your physical self and access to you as limited as possible.

Plan each meeting like a military campaign

This sounds a bit over the top, but it isn’t. I am at war with this woman, I am like the Resistance in the Second World War. I am a guerrilla, a ninja. Like chess, you need to thinking several steps ahead with NPDs. This works. NPDs consider themselves more intelligent than all those around them and therefore frequently underestimate their opponents. Use this to your advantage.

Before she arrives we have an itinerary planned. We organise the visit so there is no down time when conversation may sag and give her the chance to be bitchy and manipulative. We greet her together at the door, we get tea and biscuits, we discuss the kids and general family news, then we go somewhere. This usually involves a trip to the playground or similar and then lunch out. We return home for more managed small talk. We plan a list of topics which are not to be discussed and have set phrases to shut down any attempt by her to open them up. It is easy enough to divert her into playing with the kids while we prepare some snack or drinks. Neither of us spends time with her alone without either the other spouse or the children. She is her most manipulative and downright unpleasant when she has no other witnesses.

The visit is wound up as we make it clear the children need a quiet time at the end of the day around teatime and then they go straight to bath and bed. So she knows in advance when we are expecting her to leave then. We verbally give prompts for this saying things like “darling daughter looks tired”, “are you ready for some tea daughter?” and then wave her off. In no way does she suspect that we have managed her so completely.

We arrange the seating so my husband and I are sat together on the sofa and she is apart on another chair. We sit next to each other and make sure we interact comfortably and naturally with each other including jokes, teasing, hugs and other small gestures and physical contacts.  This new arrangement of the players on the set reflects what I have insisted upon, that our marriage and family are the predominant relationships. Before my husband would hover around her like she was some duchess and he the attendant. We all felt tense and I was often sat on the floor or off to the side in my own front room.

The shift has been in power, we now call the shots. Before my husband was on side I would follow his lead, resentfully, as he nervously focussed on her and whatever she wanted. She set up the conversations, sat in the dominant position in the room and basically held court in my lounge. Ha! Not anymore she doesn’t.

Set your own boundaries with MIL

A lot of support sites for managing difficult people talk about setting boundaries. This is hard to understand at first. We both struggled with what on earth it meant. It is not rules that you impose on the offending person, it’s not at all like the boundaries around behaviour we are familiar with from rules in schools or sports. In a school a rule is a direction “do not run in the corridor” or a positive affirmation if you prefer “we walk in corridors” which have a punitive consequence attached. Boundaries are not like this.

A boundary is more like a psychological Rubicon. You don’t have to tell the other person what your boundary is. You just need to know in your own mind, clearly and resolutely what you will not accept. Then you decide what you will do to keep yourself, your loved ones and your property physically and emotionally safe if the situation arises where one of your boundaries is crossed.

My husband went to visit his mother with a list of 4 things he wanted to discuss and to ask her to stop doing them. It was a mixture of don’t do this and do this instead with the punitive consequence not spelled out. This was not effective boundary setting.

One of the 4 terms he laid out was for her to stop slagging off his father and trying to turn him against his dad. This is not a boundary. The boundary is for him to realise he hated this, to affirm this in his own mind and to just stop the conversation and tell her he would not listen to anymore, then get up and leave if she didn’t. THAT is a boundary, this far, no further. No explanation needed for your actions, you have had enough, you say stop, you remove yourself if it continues. If it happens in your house you ask them to leave.

Of course you can also have the boundary AND tell the person you have a problem with certain behaviour and you want it to change. But understand this, you cannot make them change their behaviour. You can remove yourself from situations you do not like. That is the essence of self respect.

So here we have the first few ways to effectively manage the difficult MIL. A mixture of practical things that shape the external factors of your encounters with her and psychological protection to build your resilience from the inside. In the next post I’ll discuss setting boundaries with your spouse, speaking freely about what is going on, getting psychological support and keeping your emotional distance from a toxic MIL.

25 Comments

Filed under Effects of NPD on others, Examples of narcissistic behaviour, Helping your spouse deal with NPD mum, narcissistic mother, strategies for managing NPD MIL, Uncategorized

NPD MIL: Spouses making progress

It’s been a long, slow process from “she’s just like that” with a shrug and slight embarrassed laugh to “I know she will never change. I can just change how I respond to it”. It took 18 months with a therapist, reading extensively and repeated, in-depth conversations with me and his father before my husband could begin to see his mother for who she is. Talk about hard work. But the dam that has held back all rational and critical consideration of how he was raised and his mother’s behaviour has been breached. The first little trickles dribble through.

Trickle 1: The marriage counsellor

“I know this is normal for your family, but can you see how it isn’t normal for others?” Yep the Relate therapist really hit the nail on the head with that one. We had one session with her, a somewhat world weary, nicely presented middle aged woman. She was quick to stop me pouring out all my frustrations and give my other half a chance to speak, maybe she thought I was some nagging harpy? But once the various incidences of MIL’s behaviour were laid bare, me with my voice cracking and tears welling she spelled out what the issue was. It was my husband’s relationship with his mother, not so much our relationship with each other. We didn’t go back to her, there was no point.

Having someone on the outside, someone objective to his mind, to spell out that his mother’s actions were not normal was the first step.

My husband’s workplace provided some counselling, provisionally for stress, and beyond that a recommendation from the workplace counsellor saw him visiting a male counsellor regularly. His workplace counsellor was a woman, very blunt, she suggested he see a male therapist. It is hard to explore  the psychological issues you have with your domineering, controlling, manipulative mother with a female therapist.

Psychotherapeutic relationships involve projection, the transference of characteristics from the subconscious onto the therapist which the therapist can identify and use their exposure within the session to heal the patient. What do you do if you have an overwhelming, controlling mother-figure in your psyche whom you are terrified of? Projecting aspects of that onto the female therapist would not make for a productive relationship.

Trickle 2: The reading material

The Narcissistic Family: Diagnosis and Treatment by Stephanie Donaldson-Pressman and Robert M. Pressman was a book I bought for my Kindle which my husband subsequently read. He made little comment on it as he read but afterwards he talked about how many of the case study descriptions within it chimed true with his own family memories.

What I found striking about these same case studies was how many of them started with the patient saying how normal and trouble free their family life was. My husband said this too, he thought he had the ideal childhood, no rows, family together, nice school all in place. No rows. Ever. Hmmm.

The other book he found insightful was Families and How to Survive Them by Robin Skynner and John Cleese. Wittily written it is a dialogue between a comedian in therapy and his therapist about families and relationships, why we choose the partners we do, the stages of development all children go through and what can go wrong if those developments don’t occur on track.

Trickle 3: Family conversations

My husband started a conversation with his father, divorced from his dysfunctional mother, about how she behaved and continues to behave. His father is a reserved, English academic so these conversations don’t come easily. Things which had never been broached were aired. My father-in-law related how his ex-wife had tried to have him declared mentally incapacitated by exaggerating and inventing signs of mental illness then going to his doctor without his knowledge, all tearful and distraught, to beg for him to be diagnosed with dementia. She had read up on it and went armed with material about early onset dementia and expected to the doctor to take her word for it. That is how low she is. My FIL had to endure a psychological assessment and family mental health conference with his ex-wife while the mental health professionals sat and discussed his sanity.

There was more and my husband started talking about his childhood memories and family habits which now seemed, shall we say, unusual. All of it to be honest sounded unusual, from her total control of the household budget (she gave her ex-husband pocket money) to the way the family basically avoided each other under the guise of normal life (his mother and sister would go and lock themselves in their bedrooms for hours, FIL ended up sleeping on a couch downstairs). Slowly the realisation that it wasn’t all shiny, happy families at home as a child started to dawn.

So these things eroded away the dam from one side and I hammered, repeatedly from the other. It still makes me wryly smile that he didn’t consider me an “objective outsider” even though when I first met him and first commented on his mother’s behaviour towards me I was an outside observer of his family relationships. It wasn’t until that counsellor said “I know this is normal for your family, but can you see how it isn’t normal for others?” did he consider what I had been saying to have any merit. Patience is a virtue they say.

4 Comments

Filed under Communication problems in NPD, Describing narcissism, Effects of NPD on others, Helping your spouse deal with NPD mum, How NPD MIL affects a marriage, narcissistic mother, strategies for managing NPD MIL