Tag Archives: narcissism

Grandparent Grooming 1 – What it looks like

(Part 1 of a two part post on the psychological grooming of children by a narcissistic grandmother.)

There have been several comments about dealing with a narcissistic grandmother which concern the emotional hold the grandmother has got over one or more children and how to manage this. It has cropped up often enough for me to devote this post to the topic of emotional grooming of a grandchild by the disordered grandparent. I read what you have experienced in your families and it makes me feel sick. I can so easily see how it happens and how powerless you feel as a result. I am so grateful to those of you who have found ways to deal with this problem and for the experience and wisdom you have shared in responding to these comments.

This is one of those topics which are hard to tackle because we are culturally programmed to believe children SHOULD have relationships with their grandparents and that we are doing something very cruel by putting boundaries around this natural relationship. Standing against this cultural expectation is the power of a parent’s protective love for their child. We can overlook some behaviour when we are on the receiving end, but if our kids get involved then our primal defences rise up. Trust that prickly down the neck, hyper alert feeling you have. Your gut instinct has spotted there is something wrong about grandma’s behaviour. Do you feel queasy? Do your shoulders grip, jaw clench, eyes narrow, do you strain to hear what she is whispering in your kids ears? Your badass parenting instincts need some respect, you are not imagining things, something dodgy is going on.

Maybe you have let this instinct slip by and not paid attention to it and now things feel like they are pulling away from you and your NPD MIL has somehow got inside your child’s head. Bear in mind there has also a great deal of grooming of YOU going on in your partner’s family. You have not been allowed to see what is going on, you have been conditioned by your partner and their family to minimise the disordered grandmother’s behaviour. That makes it hard to even think of it as abusive. It makes it hard to trust your instincts when you nearest and dearest are brushing it off or ridiculing you. Grooming and abuse are a dirty words reserved for other, really damaged people, not anyone in your family right? Wrong. Take my word for it, even people in families with rampant sexual and physical abuse grow up thinking it was normal and not that bad. They really do. Remember you are entitled to your own interpretations of what is going on, you don’t have to follow your partner’s take on it. If you feel something is wrong about your MILs relationship with your child then it is.

So what is grooming by a grandparent?

The main take away point in this article is the following statement: any behaviour by an adult which makes a child loose the trust and loyalty they have for their parents is abusive.

Turning that on its head means healthy relationships with a child always respect the primary relationship they have with their parents and never get in the middle of that.

I hope this is common sense, blindingly obvious and goes without saying. Except that somehow NPD MIL is getting between you and your child. They have managed to wheedle themselves into the position where your child takes their side against you. Maybe they plead granny’s case, maybe they blame you for tension or arguments, they turn to grandma to get things you can’t or won’t give them. They cry because they can’t see grandma and it’s all your fault. You look on in horror as your dear child acts like granny’s flying monkey. How on Earth did this happen right under your nose? They have been groomed.

The NSPCC (National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children) in the UK has this definition: grooming is when someone builds an emotional connection with a child to gain their trust for the purpose of abuse or exploitation. A lot of the time grooming of the extended family occurs also so defences are lowered and the abusive adult is trusted by the other adults in the child’s life. One step further is what is termed institutional grooming where the abusive person presents such a convincing face to institutions such as schools, doctors, social workers etc that these professional services believe their act and do not see the abuse.

The most pernicious and obvious grooming occurs with the intention of sexually abusing a child. A great deal of information on the internet about grooming pertains to this particular situation, including warnings about online grooming. This is not what we are dealing with in most cases of a narcissistic grandparent. Instead the grooming is for the purpose of using the child as a weapon against the parents, as a substitute of healthy adult relationships, as a prop for the narcissist’s egotistical needs. The abuse is emotional and psychological. This sort of grooming is also found in families where there is physical abuse or dependencies problems. It is the behaviour of a drug pusher trying to ensnare a new customer, of an abusive man or woman dazzling a potential new lover with attention, the religious fundamentalist recruiting youngsters to their cause, the con artist stealing money from an elderly person. It is the behaviour of a date rapist (see Anton de Beckers book “The Gift of Fear” for many examples of red-flag behaviours that abusers use early on, precursor signs). Grooming is not unique to the sexual abuse of children. Once we are comfortable with that idea it becomes easier to assess if our disordered MILs are acting in this way and what to do about it.

Grooming follows a set series of steps which enable the abuser to worm their way into someone’s trust and affections and then control them once there. Here’s a brief outline of the typical behaviours.

Stage 1: Target a child – size up the child’s vulnerabilities. That could be emotional neediness, lack of self-confidence, social isolation, distracted parents, financial strain in the family etc.

Stage 2: Gain their trust – Trust gaining behaviour on the surface appears nice, that is the point of it. It can involve offering advice or understanding, buying gifts, giving the child attention, using their professional position or reputation, taking them on trips, outings or holidays.

But hang on this is normal grandparent behaviour right? The damaging aspect of grooming is not building trust but the intention behind all that attention and what comes next. Next is divide and conquer in secrecy. Once a groomer has the child’s trust, once the child sees them as a friendly person who does nice things for them the next stage kicks in. The grooming person has to exert control over the child and to do this they use isolation, secrets, dependency, guilt and fear.

Stage 3: Fill a need – emotional abusers are very good at spotting the achilles heel of a target. This stage is where their influence starts to be applied behind the backs of the parents. Got a new baby sibling, never mind grandma is here. Mum and Dad didn’t get you that cool Christmas present, here’s one I bought earlier. No one to talk to? no one understands you like I do. The subtle message here is “I can provide for you in a way your parents can’t, lean on me”. She may be spoiling one child over and above their siblings and cousins and telling them how special they are to grandma. Along with this special level of attention is the equally subtle imposition of indebtedness to the grandmother.

Stage 4: Isolate the child – The grandmother wants babysitting, visiting, holidays, day trips, phone calls and other access to the child apart from the rest of the family. Parents can unwittingly enable this if for example the grandmother is teaching the kid to play the piano, takes them to a ball game, pays for their dance class and so gets to take the child to class. Parents are grateful for the opportunity for the child to do something they like. A family with a new baby, several children or a child with special needs will also really appreciate grandma taking one or more of the kids off their hands for a while which overrides any feelings that the attention may be getting a bit much.

Stage 5: The abuse – This is the emotional incest I’ve discussed before where the child is used as a substitute adult by the grandmother. The child listens to the grandmother’s problems, her bitching, her opinions on everyone and everything so they are groomed to be her obedient audience. It may be that the stealing of the child’s affections from the parents and the opportunity to berate the parents to the child is the goal, as punishment to the parents. It may be that the birth of a baby to the adult child of a narcissist causes a conflict in the narcissist’s perception of their status so they insist upon becoming the parent to the new baby even though it is not theirs. This is about control and maintenance of their position as absolute head of the family. There are a myriad of ways a narcissist can use a weaker and more easily manipulated person to their advantage, it all boils down to satisfying a need the grandmother has. It has bugger all to do with what is right for the child.

Stage 6: Maintaining control of the child – When the grandmother starts to tell the child how bad/cruel/hurtful/unreasonable the parents are and if only the child could speak up for them and then they do you know the child is being controlled. The child is being pressured to buy into the disordered grandparents world view. If the child has disclosed secrets to the grandmother then these can be used against them. The grandmother may lie and imply the child is not really loved by the parents. She may feed them a sob story about how she has no one else and if the child doesn’t pay them this attention they will leave granny bereft. They can imply the child is ungrateful for all the special attention they never asked for in the first place. The narcissistic grandmother will use the exact same manipulation she uses to control your partner and turn them on your child.

Now we know what it all looks like let’s consider the effect this has on the child and how you can fight back. Please don’t feel powerless, that is part of her game. Abusive manipulative people work in ways which always leave victims feeling they are stuck. You are not stuck. You are the parent and you have enormous untapped power there. She really is nothing, has nothing to offer your child that you can’t give in droves. Narcissists are emotionally bankrupt, their pot of giving is empty expect for false promises and material treats. The goal is to untangle your child before they realise this several years down the road and are hurt by it. The most damaging thing you can do in this situation is nothing, then you are betraying your child. You must protect your child from the harm being caused by an emotionally and psychologically damaging narcissist even if the child screams, cries, pleads, begs, blames and hates you in the short term. They have been brainwashed and you need to help them see what has really been going on. That’s what the next post is about.

Some further links on grooming:

A woman’s experience of her narcisistic mother and the effect on her child:  http://narcissists-suck.blogspot.co.uk/2007/09/narcissist-grandparents.html

A summary of the steps which groomers take to ensnare a child: http://www.oprah.com/oprahshow/Child-Sexual-Abuse-6-Stages-of-Grooming

The NSPCC’s information about child grooming: http://www.nspcc.org.uk/preventing-abuse/child-abuse-and-neglect/grooming/

Understanding grooming of adults, often by narcissists looking for a romantic relationship. This is similar to the honeymoon stage some people describe as having with their NPD MIL before she turns nasty: https://drkathleenyoung.wordpress.com/2012/06/25/how-to-avoid-an-abuser-understanding-grooming/

Hoe grooming extends to families and institutions: http://safe-at-last.hubpages.com/hub/The-Fine-Art-of-Grooming

A research publication on the familial and institutional grooming by abusers: http://www.researchgate.net/publication/249692446_’Setting_’Em_Up’_Personal_Familial_and_Institutional_Grooming_in_the_Sexual_Abuse_of_Children

A brief overview of grooming by personality disordered people : https://outofthefog.net/CommonBehaviors/Grooming.html

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Filed under Controlling behaviour, Describing narcissism, Effects of NPD on others, Examples of narcissistic behaviour, family roles, How NPD MIL affects a marriage, Manipulations, narcissistic mother, NPD MIL and grandchildren

Managing a Narcissistic Grandmother

OK so how do you manage the minefield that is grandchildren interacting with a personality-disordered grandmother? You do need to manage it. You need to recognise that this woman is not normal and you can’t treat her as a normal grandparent. While her behaviour will not be as damaging to your grandchildren as it was to her own children it can cause harm.

Favouritism between siblings must be dealt with firmly. We spelt out that if we thought one child was getting nicer, more expensive or more frequent presents than the other, all presents to everyone ourselves included would be rejected. Equal treatment or no treatment. We would stand together as a family. As my MIL uses gifts as a way of trying to control people or convey messages of worth rejecting all her gifts would be a real kick in the teeth. So she has a choice, not display favouritism through gifts or loose out on being able to manipulate anyone with gifts forever. So far she has chosen to keep gifts to equal value for both children.

Not all favouritism is that obvious however. At Easter an arrangement was made for MIL to meet my husband and daughters in a city half way between our two hometowns. The eldest child became ill and was on antibiotics so plans changed and my husband said he’d just bring the youngest, less favoured child. MIL cancelled the visit. She then proceeded to do a classic bit of psychological projection and attributed all her thoughts to the eldest child, “she will be feeling upset, she will want to see me, it will disappoint her” etc. At no point in any of the conversations around this matter did she mention the younger child, it was as if her other grandchild didn’t exist.

Now my MIL is slippery, she would argue that by cancelling the visit because she couldn’t see the eldest, favoured grandchild she was in fact treating both children equally. So you need to be clever too. Cancelling the trip doesn’t bother me, what bothered me was how she made no reference to the other child at all. That is where the unequal treatment is evident so this is what should be tackled. “We feel upset that you have made no mention of youngest daughter and what she may want in this conversation. Someone listening to this would think you had only one grandchild. Both our children deserve equal recognition”. Equal treatment and equal recognition, you can’t argue with that.

What you do if this request is not complied with to your standards is up to you but there needs to be something done. Not reacting to an infringement of your boundaries is tantamount to not having any in the first place. Shut down any conversation by saying “I’m going to hang up because…” or “I am not continuing this conversation because…” where there continues to be a problem with the way one child is talked about or ignored. There will be some times when one child has won a prize or been in a show when they do warrant some extra recognition but within reason. If MIL is constantly harping on about one child’s achievements spell it out, “goodness you are going on a bit, she’s not won an Oscar”. She will be huffy about that sort of comment, but so what.

The same applies to any manipulation and emotional abuse that you witness, it must not be tolerated, “do not manipulate my child”, “do not criticise my child” call it out and name the behaviour. Your child needs to see you standing up for them. If MIL cannot take the message then she is ejected from your house or you leave hers.

At this point I want to briefly talk about “making a scene” as my mother would phrase it. This was generally regarded as bad thing in our house when I grew up. Now there are several reasons for that, a big factor being that my mother was an immigrant. They were poor, Irish and regarded as second-class citizens in the UK when they arrived. It was important to them, as it is to many immigrant families, to keep their heads down, work hard, not get into debt and generally be accepted in their community. Hence not wanting to “make a scene”.

Many people are brought up believing the best thing to do in a situation is maintain a calm and pleasant manner. This is especially true of women who are still not encouraged to be ballsy and assertive. I remember reading a survey which revealed that most women would stay in a train carriage seated next to a man who was creeping them out rather than get up and move and be thought of as rude. Oh boy. When the majority of women would compromise their own personal safety in order to keep up appearances you can see how many of us just sit and wince but still just sit, while MIL does nasty things to the kids.

For goodness sake stop doing it. Move away from the creepy man in the train, who bloody cares if it looks rude. Get some boundaries in place and stop tolerating your MIL. What is the worst thing she could do, the absolute worst thing, the thing that stops you acting, what is it? Could it be that you will cause such strife and upset with your MIL that your spouse will leave you? That your spouse won’t back you up and you’ll be left trying to stand your ground looking increasingly isolated and ridiculous? That they will assault you?

Will that happen, I mean really happen, if you say something like “we don’t speak to the children like that MIL, it is hurtful please apologise” and then “if you are unable to apologise we would rather you left and came back when you felt able to respect our families rules”? No. You will have been assertive while polite. If your spouse would rather allow the kids to be treated badly, do you really want to be with them? Should their own behaviour be looked at a bit more closely? Parenthood means protecting your children.

Which brings us nicely to babysitting. My rule is MIL is never left alone with the kids. You can decide your own but you need to spell out your expectations regarding her behaviour and your family rules regarding, food, manners, bedtimes etc and also be very clear on what you will do if these are not respected. Do you say no more babysitting or some other sanction?

What if you need the grandmother to babysit so that you can work? Think about it, do you really need someone with a personality disorder to babysit your child; is there no one else more suitable? You get to choose who looks after your children, that is not set by other family members. Any expectation that they will automatically get babysitting rights needs to be quashed early on. If you have not done this already then a simple statement that you have had a rethink regarding childcare and will be starting a different system is all you need to say. Remember don’t justify, argue, defend or explain you decisions, you are an adult and they are your kids.

If your spouse is in denial they may feel their mother has a right to babysit and compare your views on your MIL babysitting with your attitude towards your own parents babysitting. Why should it be one rule for your family and a different one for theirs? A fair question. Give them a straight answer, you don’t want MIL to babysit your child, explain why and insist on it. You don’t think their mother is normal, she is not emotionally safe to be around, you are not having it.

It may be necessary to spell out to your other half that they are not objective about their mother’s behaviour, that they are in denial. If you spouse gets cross, explain your feelings, calmly give examples, don’t get drawn into compromising. If this is a line in the sand for you tell your spouse that. Should you find yourself wavering then that says something about your and your spouse’s relationship. Where is the give and take? You should be able to assert a different opinion and they should be able to make a sacrifice over something that means that much to you. You in turn may need to sacrifice having your mother babysit to keep things fair in your spouse’s eyes, but so be it, hire someone instead.

How much time your children spend with their grandparents will depend upon how much time you and your partner wish to spend in her company. The amount of contact with a personality-disordered parent follows a predictable pattern. Initially no one accepts there is a problem and a high level of contact occurs, all birthdays, high days and holidays with weekend visits thrown in too. Then the problem starts to become more conscious in your and your spouse’s minds. Visits feel strained and fewer occur. Conversation becomes guarded; phone calls are not returned or ignored. Then a decision to lower the level of contact is made openly between the partners. Eventually a decision to cut off all contact may occur.

Denial of the problem leads to attempts to act normally or even try to use the grandchildren to build a bridge to the disordered grandmother. Increasing awareness of the damaging behaviours she exhibits leads to less contact and a conscious decision is made on the amount and type of contact with the MIL. This is inevitable and is the topic of the next post.

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Filed under Controlling behaviour, Denial, Effects of NPD on others, Helping your spouse deal with NPD mum, NPD MIL and grandchildren, strategies for managing NPD MIL

Narcissistic Grandmothers and Abusive Behaviour

Abusive behaviour towards children takes one of several forms; physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse and neglect. It is very rare for a grandmother to sexually abuse her grandchildren. A narcissist is far more likely to be emotionally abusive or neglectful but physical abuse and cruelty can also occur.

I’ve described the tendency for NPD MILs to demonstrate favouritism towards their children and grandchildren. This is a form of emotional abuse. It compares and excludes and thus implies inferiority or flaw in the excluded. Such conditional affection is typical. Demonstrations of love by an NPD sufferer really depend on what you can do for them. Sadly they often decide that the best thing one grandchild or set of grandchildren can do is provide them with an archetypal “bad” family for them to dump all their negative emotions on. Psychologists call this splitting. The damaged personality of your MIL is unable to contain good and bad and all shades in between in their mind at once so all the good gets projected onto one child or grandchild and all the bad onto the other. That way they enact their own internal split between the false perfect self they display to the world and the deeper flawed self they are so disgusted and ashamed of.

If your spouse was the disfavoured child when small, seeing this repeated in their own children can be incredibly hurtful. It is baffling as it is wounding to see one new little helpless baby being ignored while the older child is doted on or vice versa. It can be just the smallest thing that triggers the rejection. In the case of our children the eldest had blonde hair and thus reminded MIL of herself and her own children, the youngest had brown hair when born and so looked like me and was rejected. There is always some justification in the MIL’s mind for the favouritism, the rejected child did something to deserve it.

Other emotionally abusive behaviours towards grandchildren include name calling including unkind nicknames, belittling, undermining, unfairly comparing siblings or cousins, criticism, mockery, withdrawing affection, sulking, passive-aggressive acts like “forgetting” a birthday, withholding praise or compliments, denigrating parents or friends.

I think one of the most insidious things a MIL can do is undermine parental authority thus creating confusion in the child’s mind as to how their parents’ rules should be viewed. Narcissists think they know best and my MIL positively enjoys feeling she has got one over on an authority of some kind. Combine these two and you can see how she is never going to accept our parental authority over our children. If you say bed at 7pm and grandma who is babysitting cheekily ignores this, whispers to the child how this is their little secret and sends them to bed at 8.30pm you have one confused, guilty and manipulated child.

Any conversation with a relative where a child is pressed to keep a secret is abusive in my opinion. I try to use the word surprise rather than secret when talking about birthday presents or plans. A surprise is something that is kept quiet for a while before being revealed, a secret is something you never tell to anyone. Children should not be asked to keep secrets from their parents by anyone. This interaction is abusive. By taking a child into their confidence an NPD MIL elevates them to equal status, something that should not happen because they are not intellectually or emotionally the equal of an adult. Then using their status as an adult relative they coerce silence and cooperation. The only way people can or should keep a secret is if they are equals and they do so through mutual consent. Children cannot do this. If your child tells you “grandma says it’s a secret” or similar you need to take action. This is a red warning flag of further manipulation and emotional abuse.

Even normal conversation can result in the child being used as a go-between “Little Jenny, will Mummy let you have a biscuit?”, “Little Johnny wants to go to the park, don’t you?” as people with personality disorders struggle with direct communication. Watch closely how your NPD MIL phrases things, children can be made to feel they have to serve their grandmother’s needs, “Grandma is sad, give me a cuddle”, “I want to read you a story, come and sit with me”.  Manipulation at its heart is the use of covert ways to get someone to do something they would not have otherwise done. Some NPD MILs will goad a child into doing something wrong, “go on take the biscuit, no one is looking” a then go and tell on the child, watch them get told off and delight in rescuing the child from the nasty mum or dad who is disciplining them. They have little empathy and play with people creating discord and antagonism and they enjoy doing this.

My MIL views her grandchildren as treats to be wheeled out for her enjoyment. On one of her birthdays she wanted our two year old to be delivered to her to be taken out all day as MIL’s birthday treat. I said no. Children are not objects to be ordered like a new toy, played with then sent away when bored. They are little people. Narcissistic MILs will not appreciate this fact.

I have not experienced my MIL being physically abusive or hurting our children. She has done that to my husband under the guise of discipline by forcing him to eat pureed food from the meal before that he hadn’t finished, or “jokes” like spraying him with cold water from a hose repeatedly until he ran away down the street and also through outright neglect by leaving him unattended and uncovered on a beach for so long he had second degree sunburn. I can make sure this doesn’t happen, she does not have contact with our children without myself or my husband being there. She cannot slap, poke, pinch, shove or otherwise interfere with them under our noses.

The first and only time I left my MIL to babysit was in her own house with our then just two-year-old while my husband and I went to the movies. We arrived to stay for a few days and found the front room filled with dozens of toys, books, colouring pens, paper and thirteen jigsaw puzzles piled up in boxes on the floor. She didn’t think this was enough however and said she would go up into the loft and get yet more down. Now this was unnecessary and since our daughter had worked out how to climb up loft ladders we said we’d prefer if MIL didn’t do that. While we were out this instruction was ignored.

I have no idea what my very overweight and arthritic MIL did with our daughter while she waddled into the spare bedroom to set up the wobbly stepladder she uses to squeeze herself through the loft hatch. MIL’s house has never been childproofed with safety catches and poisons out the way, we arrived one day to find she had taken up the carpets and left all the carpet grip exposed for the baby to crawl over.  Our daughter was either left alone out of sight and sound of her grandmother who risked knocking the ladder away from the hatch, getting stuck or falling, or she took the toddler into the loft with her, despite being sufficiently incapacitated that she struggles to get herself up from the floor. All for some paltry, plastic toy. Both of these scenarios would have exposed our small child to a significant risk that MIL failed to recognise. If our childminder had done this while caring for our daughter I would have complained, I would never leave a friend’s child unattended out of sight and sound and go rummaging around in our loft if I were babysitting. Would you?

Then to run salt in the wound she bragged about having done this in a phone conversation with my mother. She bragged that my husband had been upset when he found out that she had done exactly what he advised her not to. It was funny to her and worthy of a boast to show how she wasn’t ordered around by anyone. My mother was sufficiently disturbed by this to ring me and ask if I knew that MIL had left our child unattended while supposedly babysitting.

Narcissists overestimate their capabilities and this includes their physical abilities. They think they can manage physical feats and take risks that you or I would think twice over. MIL has rung us to say how she has been up a ladder chopping trees with a chainsaw or walking along the sea wall while huge waves are crashing around her. She does not see herself as nearly seventy, obese and creaking at the seams. In her mind she is fit, strong, attractive and capable and how dare we suggest otherwise. Narcissists think they are omniscient so don’t need to be told to keep their eyes open for cars or dogs loose off their leads when out with small children, they just know, right? This is something that makes a narcissist dangerous when around children. They do not correctly assess their own capabilities, they think they know best and so they are poor at determining risk and acting sensibly to minimise that risk. I cannot trust MIL with our kids and she hasn’t babysat them again. She never will.

If you have an NPD MIL your children will be in a relationship with a woman who has a track record of harming people close to her. Just read that through again to make sure you have grasped the full importance of that sentence. Your MIL is a bitch and you know it. She will be a bitch to your kids, it is simply a matter of time. She will make them feel bad, she will manipulate them and she will do these things to you in front of them.

Unless you have some very firm boundaries in place they will see her do this and think that either it is OK to treat others that way or that the best way of dealing with hurtful behaviour is to meekly take it. Your reaction to her abusive behaviour potentially more damaging than the behaviour itself as your relationship to your kids is much closer. They will follow your example, not just with her but into all relationships with difficult people. This includes school bullies, boyfriends or girlfriends as teens, work colleagues, their boss, their spouse.

So how should you intervene to ensure as little harm as possible comes to your children if you decide it is worth them having contact with their grandmother? Managing the narcissistic grandmother is the topic of the next post.

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Filed under Controlling behaviour, Describing narcissism, Effects of NPD on others, Examples of narcissistic behaviour, Manipulations, NPD MIL and grandchildren, strategies for managing NPD MIL

Attachment Theory and Your Spouse

I have been busy and have not posted for a while as we are selling our house. We have outgrown it and need to move to a larger home. It has been hectic, cleaning and presenting our house, viewing others, accepting and making offers, dealing with estate agents and solicitors. It all seems to be sorted, we have sold and we have somewhere to move to which is not bad given our house went on the market at Easter!

Moving house is cited as one of the most stressful things you can do in your life, beaten only by a death of a close one and divorce. Stress does funny things to people, I get butterflies in my stomach and find it hard to eat but I also find it quite energising. My husband gets very anxious and feels it somatically in his body as a pounding heart, tense shoulders and headaches. Anxiety is something he suffers with in many spheres of life. Looking at his relationship with his NPD mother helps explain why.

John Bowlby was a British psychotherapist who after the second world war researched the effects of being orphaned on children who were victims of the war. He developed a very influential paper on maternal deprivation for the United Nations and expanded this to a full theory of the emotional and psychological attachments formed by young children and the effects that they have on the child into adulthood. This is, hardly surprisingly, called Attachment Theory.

Attachment Theory Basics

The basic assumption of attachment theory is that a child needs to form a single, secure attachment to a loving and responsive caregiver (usually the mother) for the child to develop healthy emotional structures and ways of relating to others. Things that can disrupt this attachment would include being orphaned or separated from one’s mother, like during the war, or having an emotionally unavailable or abusive mother. You can see where I am going with this right?

Children form a particular pattern of behaviour as a result of the type of attachment they have with their main caregiver, I’ll just use “mother” from now on as I’m assuming like my husband your spouses were mostly cared for by their mum.

The most common attachment is a secure attachment that forms with a good enough mother, 60% of adults have this sort of attachment. The good enough mother hugs the child when they are distressed, mirrors their smiles and grimaces, makes lots of eye contact, strokes them, responds to their interactions and carries them close when they’re little. There is an approach to parenting babies called attachment parenting advocated by William Sears and others which encourages the key interactions that foster close, secure attachments. He advises skin to skin contact with newborns, lots of carrying and cuddles using slings if necessary, breastfeeding and eye contact and cuddles if bottle feeding, having the baby sleep close to the mother for 6 months, next to her bed within touching distance.

There is a lot of evidence that shows these sorts of interactions ensure the healthy, secure attachment forms. This then means the child grows up expecting their interactions with others to similarly be secure and they feel comfortable expressing their emotions and needs and responding to others emotions and needs. Thus the securely attached child forms healthy adult relationships and friendships with a good balance between independence and intimacy.

But not everyone has this secure pattern. There are other sorts of mothers with other kinds of interaction styles which lead to less healthy attachment patterns. There is an anxious pattern, an avoidant pattern and a fearful pattern. Some research has suggested a final ambivalent pattern of attachment formed by inconsistent caregivers. Mary Ainsworth carried out several experiments with children aged around 1 year old, small toddlers, which extended much of what Bowlby had described in war orphans.

The patterns of attachment in small children are best observed when they are confronted with new situations or their mothers leave them temporarily in a play group or similar setting. The securely attached child goes freely forwards and back to the mother, touching base and venturing forth. If the mother leaves they are upset and cry for her then show they are comforted when she returns.

An anxious child has a different reaction. They are clingy, find it hard to cope with their mother not there and need constant reassurance. Without the presence of their main attachment they are panicky and have no real security in themselves. What sort of behaviour from the mother creates this type of attachment? An excessively controlling, over-involved mother who doesn’t allow or encourage risk taking or the independence of the child.

An avoidant child doesn’t seem upset when their mother leaves and doesn’t show much comfort or pleasure when she returns. This child may even ignore their mother or turn away from her, not responding to being picked up by her. The child doesn’t feel much of a bond to the mother. The mother in this case is unresponsive to the child if they cry, in fact even discourages them from showing upset or distress and pushes them to be independent of her.

The fearful or disorganised child freezes or rocks when their mother returns, they try to approach her for comfort but are so unsure of the response they do this with their back turned or creep round the room to get to her. This is a hallmark of an overtly abusive mother. The child wants comfort from the person they fear.

Now there is a theory, not espoused by Bowlby himself who worked purely on children, but developed in the 1980s that adults can exhibit similar patterns of attachment in their adult romantic relationships. Cindy Hazan and Phillip Shaver spotted similarities between the ways adults react to the presence or absence of their romantic partners. In both situations the relationship with a person, the mother or lover, provides an opportunity for bonding and the enactment of expectations about the nature of close bonds that the adult has internalised through their previous close relationships. The most influential relationship in forming ideas and expectations about close emotional ties is the one we have with our main carer when we are small children, i.e. our mothers.

What if you are married or in a close relationship with a person whose mother has NPD? What sort of attachment behaviour will they have and how will it show itself in your relationship?

Attachment Theory and Adults

Having a mother with NPD means you could have any attachment pattern expect the secure one. Unless of course you weren’t actually raised by your mother but by another, psychologically normal person like an aunt or grandparent. You are reading this blog because your partner has a difficult (to say the least) mother who exhibits a lot of unpleasant and abusive behaviour. Your partner will not be fully secure and confident in their adult relationships unless they have done a lot of work on themselves in coming to terms with their family and its effects on them.

Hazan and Shaver described 4 patterns of adult attachment similar but not identical to the patterns of attachment in tiny children. They called them secure, anxious-preoccupied, dismissive-avoidant and dismissive-fearful.

Now my husband and I did an online test of adult attachment patterns http://www.web-research-design.net/cgi-bin/crq/crq.pl which is free and asks a series of questions where you choose your response on a scale of strongly agree to strongly disagree. I came out with a secure attachment style, not surprisingly as my main caregiver as a child was my good enough mother who gave hugs, played with me and responded appropriately to any distress or upset I showed. My husband has the anxious-preoccupied style. I am absolutely sure if my SIL did this same test she would be dismissive-avoidant.

How do these patterns show themselves in adult behaviour? My husband needs constant reassurance that we, our relationship, is OK. He needs me to act in ways that reassure him and he resists anything that makes him anxious, things that may hint at a distance between us or possible conflict or separation, not just physically but of ideas, views, aims and emotions. He cannot argue or tolerate my showing anger as this makes him so anxious. So he diverts the conversation away from the difficult topic onto something else, like my tone of voice (unpleasant) or blunt talk (can’t you phrase that nicely). He finds it very hard to deal with if I am unable to be there emotionally for him due to a crisis of my own. Postnatal depression a couple of years ago for a few months was the worst thing ever to happen to our relationship as far as he is concerned because I was not there for him.

The underlying dynamic involves his expectation that I will soothe his anxiety by modifying my behaviour or he will try to change my behaviour through control of some kind including passive aggressive acts, sulking, withdrawl, blaming, diversions etc. He sees his emotional regulation as being the job of an external person, the person he is bonded to. He is not clear where he ends and I start. This is entirely due to having an engulfing, controlling mother who expected him to cater to her moods and change himself for her. She dictated what emotions he could show and how he showed them. He people-pleases to ensure the continuation of the relationship thus avoiding his extreme anxiety at being abandoned or rejected.

His sister is dismissive-avoidant in her behaviour. She has had a series of unsuccessful relationships with unsuitable partners and works extreme hours, in a job involving extensive overseas travel making herself unavailable for long periods of time. When confronted with an emotional situation she shuts down. Told some upsetting news she failed completely to react, got down on the floor to play with her nieces as if nothing had been said. She avoids her own emotions and other peoples. Keeping others at arms length is normal for her. Her emotional regulation is to suppress and deny her emotions and needs for intimacy acting in a very independent and self-sufficient way.

Of course she had the same mother as my husband but she was the second child and so had less of her NPD mother’s attention, much less if her behaviour is anything to go by. She comments on how much fewer photos there are of her as a child compared to my husband and how she was given all his hand-me-down clothes. She was not the substitute spouse in the same way as my husband, my MIL was clearly overly involved with her son alternately infantalising him to keep him close and using him for emotional support.

Both these patterns have been described as pseudo-independent by Robert Firestone. True adult independence requires a complete sense of yourself as separate from others combined with a capacity to be fully able to emotionally connect with another at an appropriate time. It is all about balance. These two attachment patterns are unbalanced.

The final adult attachment pattern is dismissive-fearful and is shown in people who want, often desperately want a close bond but are scared of being hurt physically or emotionally by the object of their attraction. They fundamentally do not trust their partners and have doubts about their intentions as they have negative views about themselves. They ask “why are you attracted to me, what do you really want?”. This form of attachment in an adult can stem from sexual abuse as a child or teen or from a childhood with significant losses through the absence or rejection of a parent. Unlike a dismissive-avoidant person they are aware that they want closeness and intimacy but like dismissive-avoidant they act in a way that restricts intimacy and don’t share their emotions.

Which pattern does your spouse exhibit? I am interested to hear what sorts of attachments your spouses seem to have and how you think this may be related to their mother’s behaviour towards them.

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Filed under anxiety, attachment theory, Controlling behaviour, Effects of NPD on others, emotions, Helping your spouse deal with NPD mum, How NPD MIL affects a marriage, marriage and NPD MIL

Narcissistic MIL and Grandchildren Part I

Management of the MIL takes on a whole new level when grandchildren appear of the scene. The overriding priority when dealing with MIL and her interactions with her grandchildren, your children, is what is best for the kids. Remember that as you reflect on your own experiences and read through a few of mine. I haven’t always got this right but of all the interactions I have had with my MIL the ones concerning my children are those which I feel most sure of. My instincts kicked in early on and I have never really given a damn if she disagrees or disapproves of my childrearing. My kids, my rules, suck it up MIL.

Narcissistic grandmotherly interventions start with the announcement of any pregnancy. There are predictable responses that a narcissistic MIL may select from. First is jealousy that the pregnancy will take attention away from her. She may choose to minimise or ignore the pregnancy or suddenly develop some health problem or other crisis in her life to get some attention back on herself. Alternatively she may decide to take over the pregnancy and give all manner of advice and opinions solicited or not, research the best birthing methods, the best baby equipment, even invite herself along to the hospital on the day and right into the delivery room.

My MIL opted for the first approach and after being told we were having a baby (her first grandchild) she refused to discuss it or get excited “in case something goes wrong” which was a very tactless thing to say to a woman expecting her first child. This lasted the full nine months. Every time she visited or spoke to my husband on the phone any news about the pregnancy was deflected and dismissed. After the birth she managed to say “congratulations” literally that one word to me and nothing else. No enquiries about how the birth went or a chat about how lovely the baby was, nothing. As I mentioned before in the section on abuse amnesia she refused to even hold the baby on her first visit which she made sure was only brief and spent the entire time moaning about her own mother whom she had been visiting, she saw us on the way back from her mother’s, we were not the priority that was clear enough.

I have heard tales from others with and NPD MIL about how they completely dominated the whole pregnancy with their interference. From buying the right vitamin pills, insisting on certain doctors only at certain hospitals, trying to use money to buy the treatment they wished for their DIL, trying to dictate the birthing method and environment, even inviting themselves to be the poor woman’s birth partner. Thank God I never had to deal with that. Her disinterest was a relief to be honest. Pregnancy is a vulnerable enough time without extra pressure from someone you dislike trying to control your every move.

There was one incident with my second pregnancy which to this day is a sore point but that was more to do with my husband than with the MIL. She knew the pregnancy had been hard, ten weeks of twenty four hour a day “morning” sickness, pelvic girdle pain, an unexpected bleed and admission at 31 weeks, then a sudden concern about my blood sugar and the babies growth rate (high) led them to put me on a special diet for the last four weeks and demand finger prick tests six times a day.  MIL decided she wanted to come and help by staying for four days when I was 38 weeks pregnant. I felt ill at the very thought. She graciously told me she wouldn’t be offended if I wanted some time to myself, in my own house, when nine months pregnant. Offended. As if my overriding concern at that time was if I was causing her offence. Mercifully the doctors decided to induce the baby early. I was so disgusted that my husband had joined in an applied pressure on me to allow his mother her chance at “helping” rather than do what was best for me which was to arrange an easy and relaxing last couple of weeks of the pregnancy. It rankles me to this day.

Having declined to show any interest in our newborn child the first time, she arranged her own special visit a couple of weeks later. This was when she started to accelerate her interest in the baby. First she insisted on buying some clothes she thought we would need. Then some more, then toys. Then she came every two to three weeks for the next six months. Each time the baby was bought more and more stuff. A lot of it was second hand from charity and thrift shops. Piles of stuff wholly unsuitable for the baby like a gardening set when she was three months old. She wanted to be the grandparent who bought all the significant items. Upon hearing that we had taken the baby to get her first pair of shoes she sent a cheque covering the cost (which I never cashed), as she wanted to buy them.

Not content with buying everything she could lay her hands on she also indulged in competitive parenting. Shades of anything you can do I can do better. For example our daughter sat playing with a jigsaw and her grandmother had to show her the correct way to do it, offering a running commentary the whole time on how she was educating the child through her interference. She went on to relate how she had done this sort of thing with my husband and SIL and then with sickeningly sweet coyness practically fluttered her eyelashes and remarked how of course not all parents did this (as she glanced across at me), maybe it was just her. The implication was clear, that somehow I was not stimulating the child sufficiently. She even commented to me that I had a much lower level of interaction with the baby than my husband did because I just sat watching the five month old play with her toes one day rather than talk to her. That I spent all day, everyday with the baby and therefor hardly needed to be constantly in the child’s face evidently did not occur to her.

One other issue over which MIL had an epic sulk was the naming of our daughters. The first was not a problem, the second was. We had first heard her unusual name when my husband started lecturing a course for a professor at his lab who had that name. We both liked it and called our second daughter after this professor, a lovely and successful woman. When MIL heard it she sulked. She assumed we had chosen it because it was also the name of her ex-husband’s aunt, a fact she was aware of as she extensively researches family trees in the belief that she is descended from aristocracy. Neither of us had any idea that we had chosen an old family name. My FIL has a large family on one side, seven aunts and uncles and he is not terribly forthcoming about these things. He only mentioned it to us some weeks after the child had been born and named. Apparently MIL had been hoping we would somehow just know that she wanted us to choose her mother’s name or her own name. The old telepathy trick again, expecting mind reading and getting upset when it doesn’t happen.

These behaviours are irritating but not dangerous or damaging. There are ways in which narcissistic grandmothers can behave that do actually tip into worrying. Outright disobedience of any rules you make regarding your children is one of these. This is a concern for several reasons. Firstly it is a continuation of her disrespect and attempts to control you and your other half, it is about power not love. Second it undermines you as parents in front of your children showing them that your rules do not need to be obeyed. Lastly it can be dangerous if your rules are designed to ensure your children’s safety.

The next post will cover some of the more concerning behaviour you may experience from a narcissistic MIL and what to do about them.

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Filed under Communication problems in NPD, Controlling behaviour, Describing narcissism, Effects of NPD on others, Examples of narcissistic behaviour, Manipulations, narcissistic mother, NPD MIL and grandchildren

Inappropriate Gifts

In response to a comments on the blog where several of you readers discussed weird gift giving behaviour I’ve put together some of my own experiences with this topic. It links in with the blog post on “Gifts with Strings Attached“.

It is a universal truth that people with NPD are poor at giving gifts. Remember that a person with NPD has little or no empathy with others and therefor have little chance of choosing something appropriate and welcome. To do so would require them to be able to imagine you as a separate person with your own valid interests and preferences, that just isn’t going to happen this side of Hell freezing over.

There are various ways in which my MIL’s attempts at giving have fallen short of normal never mind desirable. When gifts are bestowed for birthdays or Christmas she struggles to buy them without a huge fuss, struggles to get them delivered without a huge fuss and what she does choose is weird if not outright insulting.

My MIL can become stuck on one thing, having deduced correctly or otherwise that I like chocolates I will be given the same type every year without fail until I’m sick of the sight of them. Why? Because she simply can’t be bothered to put in any more effort to find out what I would really like, there is no pay off in that for her.

I mentioned once to MIL in passing that I liked writing in purple or green pen. This she took to an unnecessary level by insisting on tracking down all sorts of different green and purple biros and giving them to me one birthday. You may think this was very considerate of her but no, every pen was delivered with the most laboured description of how hard it was to find them to ensure the entire transaction was focussed on her extraordinary benevolence. Even though I hadn’t asked her for them.

Narcissists will give gifts that are all about them; a framed photo of themselves that they expect to see on your wall, a photo mug that they expect you to drink from every time they come round or something they would actually like for themselves, as why on Earth wouldn’t you want what they want? So I get sent garden centre vouchers, books on topics she likes to read about, costume jewellery that she would wear.

One year she sent me two small pairs of pliers for my birthday taken out of their packaging and wrapped up with no explanation. Yep, I was as baffled by that as you probably are. Then when I arrived at her house for a family visit weeks later she presented me with about a dozen tiny parcels that constituted the rest of my present. I had to sit and open each one in turn in front of her, talk about excruciating, while she smirked as I unwrapped small plastic bags of ugly beads and wires. She likes jewellery you see, and TV shopping channels, and had ordered some jewellery making bits and bobs on special offer. This explained the pliers. What it doesn’t explain is why she sent such a weird gift to arrive on my birthday and why she waited until I visited her house before subjecting me to trial by endless mini parcels. The explanation for that of course is control.

She uses gifts to try and control our kids also. We were adamant that we didn’t want our children stereotyped into roles before they were old enough to choose for themselves so requested generic toys that either sex would enjoy and specifically asked for no pink, girly princess stuff. Every other family member shrugged and said yeah, ok. MIL did not take kindly to be told. She sent our then 2-year-old daughter a pink, flowery tea set. When this was pointed out she denied that she knew it was pink and flowery. Despite having seen it in the shop, picked it up and carried it to the counter, taken out and wrapped it at home, despite the front being clear cellophane and the words “Pink Flower Tea Set” being written on it, despite the photo of the contents on the box, no she just hadn’t noticed.  The tea set went to a charity shop. She sulked for weeks and only sent money, no presents, for two years afterwards presumably as some sort of punishment.

The best way to deal with inappropriate presents is to laugh. Give them away and don’t expect to ever get anything really nice from her then you won’t be disappointed. Or offer them back to her, “my what a lovely picture of yourself, wouldn’t that look so much nicer hanging on your wall…”

There is another more insidious way in which a narcissist can manipulate people with gifts; they can use them to show status. Narcissists often have a preferred child or set of grandchildren. The lucky recipient of their golden child status will be bestowed with numerous and expensive presents. The unlucky one singled out for disdain and disapproval gets little or nothing. My first child was deluged in presents from her grandmother. In the first two years of her life she was given more things by MIL than the rest of the family put together. When our second child was born she got nothing for a whole year, not even a pair of booties.

We made it clear to her that if this continued we would refuse to accept any gifts at all.  The children were to be treated equally if she wanted to continue having access to them. It is trickier to deal with a grandmother who favours one set of grandchildren over another. What if your sibling’s kids get better treatment than yours? If the sibling is on your side you both sit down and talk about it. If not, the sibling has always been the favoured one, then you are stuck with this situation I’m afraid. Don’t take it personally; you do not need her approval or her presents. Be completely honest with the children, you do them no favours by trying to cover up her misbehaviour. For them to properly recognise and deal with nasty behaviour themselves they need to see you respond appropriately. That means acting honestly and with integrity. For example: “Grandma gives cousins Jane and John better presents because she is not a very well person and has little idea how to properly and fairly treat others. This is not our fault or Jane and John’s. They are not better than us. Grandma is playing favourites, a nasty game. We will not play along by getting upset about it.”

Money is also used to convey a message of worth to MIL. She uses the amounts to reflect her favour. One Christmas my husband got a cheque for £100, the grandchildren got £50 and I got nothing.

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Filed under Controlling behaviour, Describing narcissism, Effects of NPD on others, Examples of narcissistic behaviour, Manipulations, strategies for managing NPD MIL

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!

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

How to Manage a Narcissistic MIL Part 2

In the last post I discussed things that have worked for my husband and I when  managing MIL’s behaviour around us. We keep our distance from her physically and have limited contact by phone, email or whatever. We carefully manage the visit when she does come, planning an itinerary for the day and sticking to safe topics of conversation. Finally we have discussed and established the beginnings of boundaries around her behaviour.

There are three more  tips for managing the NPD MIL which I will outline below. They are setting boundaries with your spouse, talking openly about the problem and getting psychological support.

Set your own boundaries with your spouse

Hang on a minute, you may be thinking as you read this, my partner is not the problem, their mother is the problem! Nope. I am going to write a whole post on this topic but fundamentally your partner is the problem. If they had an adult, healthy relationship with their mother you would not be on the receiving end of her bad behaviour. Sure she’d still be a bitch. But there would be very clear practical and psychological limits in place around what she could do to infiltrate your family life.

But those limits aren’t there are they? No, which is why you are having troubles with your messed up MIL and why you are here reading this article at all. Of course your partner is not solely the problem, you are the problem too. Yep, I definitely need a whole post on this topic but I will summarise what I did here.

I had set boundaries with my husband because he was still in utter denial as to the extent of his mother’s manipulations. I said I would not go and stay with her one holiday. I point blank refused and that stance is what triggered the whole cascade of events which led to his complete realignment of his relationship with his mother. I did it to protect myself. I had severe post-natal depression and couldn’t imagine spending any time in close contact with her. There was no way, no earthly way I would have spent 3 nights under the same roof as her cooped up in a holiday cottage marooned miles from nowhere. The instinct for self-preservation is a wonderful thing. My boundary unshakeable and was this: I don’t like your mother, I am not going to see her, you go if you wish.

Why I didn’t like her didn’t need to be explained at that point, no justification required. My actions were clear, I am not going. I only have control over myself so I made no attempt to control my husband, you can go if you wish. I don’t know what made this simple statement so powerful. Maybe I was exposing a core of steel which my husband saw straight into. He didn’t argue with me, no “but why?” or “do it for me” what he said was “how will I explain that you aren’t there?”. His concern was not to ruffle his mother up the wrong way and to avoid a confrontation with her. He had accepted my boundary.

The other interesting thing that this boundary exposed was my husband’s vulnerability around his mother. He was anxious about seeing her on his own. I realised that I had been a human shield in some ways, having me there made him feel safer. Even though this meant she would make all manner of digs, snide remarks and slights at me throughout it was better for him to have me there than to see her by himself. I refused to be his human shield anymore and that left him facing a choice, to go alone or cancel the holiday. He cancelled.

That choice was not just turning down a free holiday, it was him aligning himself with me and our children rather than with his mother. At that point my boundary had actually triggered one in him, one that he had been unconscious of. When push came to shove he chose us over her.

I also have had boundaries with my husband around how he speaks about my relationship with his mother. I won’t accept being blamed, being guilt tripped, being told how I think or feel about things or being made to share his feelings of indebtedness and fear about his mother. I do not have to share his world view and that has really shaken him up. Before he expected me to fall into line and act and feel like he did, because he couldn’t imagine any other way to relate to MIL.  I changed things and the world didn’t end. One of the things I had to change was how I let my husband call the shots with his mother. I effectively took back my control of the situation having abdicated it to him on the grounds that it was his family so he must know what he was doing. He didn’t.

I sound very sure of myself as I read over this section of the post but up until that point I wasn’t Wonder Woman. I had gone along with all the crap for years. Gradually I began to express more and more disquiet at what was happening, how MIL treated us and first one child then the next. Finally I told him I hated her. Why did it take so long? that takes some explaining about my background. Suffice to say all this standing my ground did not happen overnight.

Be completely honest with people about how MIL behaves

Narcissists flourish in darkness, deceit and diversion. I openly and honestly talk about MIL with friends and family and now my husband. I feel so stupid that for years I didn’t openly tell him how much I hated her and was hurt by her behaviour. I have told health visitors, doctors, colleagues, random mums in toddler play groups, all sorts of people when families come up as a topic of conversation that my MIL is a controlling, evil nutcase. They are often gobsmacked by the examples I describe. Sometimes I meet other people who have relatives like this too. That makes for a very interesting conversation.

Another way I talk about what goes on is by writing this blog. It is anonymous in that my real name and location don’t appear anywhere and no names are used but I know other people read it. I also joined an on line community of people with a forum where the trials of knowing someone with a personality disorder are discussed. At first this felt wrong, my heart would quickly beat, my stomach turn and a slight sweat would appear on my hands as I typed. It felt as if somehow she would know. Isn’t that so indicative of the fear I had absorbed, my husband’s fear. Why should I be scared of accurately describing what has happened and how she acts? The fear is of the nameless, formless yet dreadful payback that will follow. This fear is what silenced my husband for years. It, that is her obvious mental disorder, is not spoken of in the family.

I use the words personality disorder and narcissism comfortably in conversation although my husband cringes away from that description. A spade is a spade so call it so. It is powerful and liberating to give words and a voice to that which has bound and harmed you. Name something and you contain it somehow. It is observable, quantifiable and can be examined. Keep it nameless and it resides not in the conscious mind but the subconscious where it can control you. Harry Potter said “Voldemort” outright, none of this “he who must not be named” crap and he defeated Voldemort.

NPD relatives should not be some horrible secret you must keep hidden away. There are parallels between the conditioning that emotionally abused people absorb and the conditioning that sexually abused children receive to keep them silent about what occurs in their families. Don’t tell or… … NO! Tell, shout it out loud, point and tell it like it is. And it shrinks away to skulk in the shadows and your fear of them goes scuttling along with it.

Get psychological support

Narcissists mess with your mind. The technical term for this is crazy-making or gas lighting. It is a trait common to many manipulative people but is particularly true for those with NPD. The process of crazy-making is to discount, indeed even deny the other person’s mental processes and replace them with your preferred version, for example “I never said that you are wrong” when you did actually say it. It makes people pause and momentarily doubt themselves, over a long period of time the doubt becomes almost constant. Narcissists do this because their world view really is the only one they can comprehend having little empathy for other people. So if they don’t want to think of themselves as having said or done something they will deny it straight to your face and they sound so sure of themselves.

You need some external reality check. A person or persons who are not internally screwed up. Go and find a good therapist and someone in the real world or online with similar problems. There are good online forums. I used outofthefog.com. Good therapy is priceless. I have spent a lot of my savings on it but it has helped enormously. My anger was vented safely away from my husband and MIL and I was able to see why I had participated in the sick behavioural mesh which had us all caught up. I also was able to see how I had “given away my power” which is a bit of a poncey way of saying I wasn’t speaking up and taking a stand.

The forum helped me see other people in the same situation and those further along the road who were managing it all better than I was. My MIL really preoccupied me for a while. I had rants at my MIL going round my head and could feel my blood pressure rocket when she came up in the conversation. Now not so much. Reality checkers help you see the longer term, bigger picture and also help you pull back and put yourself first.

And so there it is, the ways I’ve learnt to manage my MIL;

  • keep her at a distance and limit all forms of contact to whatever you feel comfortable with,
  • determine the lines in the sand in your own mind where if they are crossed how you will act,
  • discuss and plan how to orchestrate any visits by MIL and make the plan comprehensive and watertight,
  • do not take on your partner’s emotions and world view – you have the absolute right to your own, starkly different take on things,
  • talk openly about the problem to everyone,
  • get psychological support.

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Filed under Effects of NPD on others, Helping your spouse deal with NPD mum, How NPD MIL affects a marriage, strategies for managing NPD MIL

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.

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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.

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