Having a narcissistic mother-in-law: what can you do and expect and how does it affect your relationship?
A relationship can be quite a challenge when you have a narcissistic mother-in-law (or father-in-law), because of your in-laws’ involvement and the way you and your partner respond to them. The relationship between the narcissist and their children can be very intense or almost non-existent at all. This page focuses mainly on the situation where you are still in touch with your narcissistic mother-in-law.
If you have a narcissistic mother-in-law you’ll notice that:
- it’s difficult for your partner to set healthy boundaries (regarding your in-laws),
- for your in-laws to respect your boundaries,
- that they will probably not like you,
- that they criticize you and your partner a lot (or refrain from making compliments), and
- that they are trying to sabotage/harm the marriage.
You may also notice that they like to play the victim and that it’s difficult to feel at ease around them. Despite the fact that you probably have your own issues with them, it’s important for your relationship that you support your partner. This page offers advice for each stage your partner goes through (unawareness, realization, acceptance, adjustment, and change). This page describes each stage briefly and offers advice for you to help and protect you and your partner.
For more information:
- What is narcissism?
- NPD symptoms.
- NPD test.
- How to live with a narcissistic person?
- How to deal with a narcissistic parent?
- Facts about narcissism.
- Online treatment for narcissism or guidance for those living with a narcissist.
- Take me to the homepage.
At Barends Psychology Practice, narcissistic personality disorder treatment is offered. Contact us to schedule a first, free of charge, appointment. (Depending on your health insurance, treatment may be reimbursed)
Stage 1: Unawareness
Having a narcissistic parent most likely means that the child has been exposed to emotional abuse, such as manipulation, blackmailing, splitting, gas-lighting, and guilt tripping (click here to read more about these types of abuse). A narcissistic parent uses these techniques to get what they want: control, power, and satisfaction (they enjoy it when they can humiliate someone). For a child growing up in such conditions, it’s likely that they are unaware of the emotional abuse taking place and that they see their narcissistic parent as the person who is always right. They simply have no-one else to compare to and it’s normal to assume that parents are always right. Some children of narcissists even believe that their narcissistic parent is wonderful.
Comparison with other families around them
When these children grow older and become adolescents or even adults, they may notice that other parents are usually kindhearted and friendly. They may also notice that something is odd about the way things go at home, but that’s as far as most children of narcissists go. In this stage, they are not ready to admit to themselves that their parents are not such good parents after all. And this is a huge mental obstacle, because it basically means that all they believed in is a lie: their parents do not love them unconditionally, it’s not normal to be blackmailed, guilt tripped, and manipulated. In this stage it’s often te case that the child of the narcissist defends or trivializes their behaviour.
This stage could be very frustrating, because you can see what’s happening. You can look at their interactions and relationship with a healthy distance, and you can see how badly it affects your partner. At the same time your partner isn’t ready to see this, which creates a lot of tension and probably some fights as well.
Relationship in-laws and son-in-law/daughter-in-law
It is likely that your mother-in-law surreptitiously tries to drive the two of you apart. Subtle comments where you feel insulted or unwanted/not accepted, are common examples of such behaviour. By actively opposing your mother-in-law (or by complaining about their behaviour a lot) she gets exactly what she wants: being in control of the situation. A narcissist who is in control of the situation is very dangerous. By complaining a lot or by opposing your in-law, your partner feels forced to choose between the two of you. 9 out of 10 times your narcissistic mother-in-law will act like a victim, which increases the chance that your partner will side with your in-law.
Be aware of the fact that every significant person in your partner’s life means that their narcissistic parent experiences less control over their child (and also that they get less desired attention from them). And this is something that is unacceptable! So you are an enemy.
Another often used strategy narcissist use (especially when they are jealous of their own child) is to win over the friends and partners of their own children. They do this by being very charming and friendly to you, while publicly or confidentially down-talking your partner (their child). At first, you won’t be aware of this strategy, while your partner is suffering by the way they are being treated. It’s even likely that you will start doubting your partner’s complaining, ‘because your in-law is such a kindhearted woman’. <-- if this is the case, then it's very likely you are not aware of the fact that you are dealing with a narcissistic-mother-in-law.
Recognizing a narcissistic mother-in-law:
- Your partner’s parents are overly involved in your partners life.
- They may call each other a few times a day.
- They come over unannounced several times a week.
- Your partner feels uneasy, annoyed, frustrated, and controlled by the frequency of being in touch.
- Suggesting that something is wrong with their parents most likely results in an altercation.
- Your partner feels guilty if they are not in touch with their narcissistic parent.
- It is difficult for your partner to take time for themselves.
- Your partner keeps coming up with excuses to defend their parent’s behaviour.
- You don’t feel at home/accepted around your in-laws, or
- Your in-laws are overly friendly to you, while your partner is complaining about their partners a lot.
Stage 1 – What to do when you have a narcissistic mother-in-law?
If your partner is not ready to admit to themselves that their parent may have narcissistic personality disorder, then it’s important to take your time and approach this issue with care. Don’t try to confront your partner with it, because it will most likely end up in a huge fight where your partner keeps defending the narcissistic parent. Instead, focus on the details: every time the narcissistic parent behaves in a narcissistic way, mention it to your partner in a subtle way. Make it look like an observation without judgment. At the same time it’s important to be supportive of your partner. Whenever your partner complains, try to be understanding. Whenever your partner has an issue with the narcissist, emphasize that your partner is not to blame.
Occasionally, you can draw a parallel between a narcissist and the parent, but refrain from labeling your in-law as a narcissist. So: ‘It’s difficult for me to talk to your dad, because he always takes over the conversation and talks about himself. This narcissistic behaviour can be frustrating, especially now that I want to share wonderful news with him’. You can mention the fact that certain behaviour is narcissistic, but not that your partner’s dad is a narcissist.
In short: if you suspect that you have a narcissistic in-law, don’t force it upon your partner. Allow them to figure it out themselves. At the same time, make sure to keep your distance. Do not take everything your in-law says for granted: take compliments with a grain of salt, and don’t take insults personally (it’s not about you, but about the person their child is dating, which could be anyone basically).
Stage 2: Realization
This is the stage where your partner realizes that their parent is narcissistic. This usually comes as a shock and can have a huge impact on your partner: suddenly all your partner believed in was a lie or only partly true. Their trust in others gets a blow just like their self-esteem. For some children of narcissists it’s such a shock that they have trouble identifying who they really are.
At the same time, the puzzle pieces start falling into place: certain situations start making sense now (‘why is mama always super friendly to others, but not to me?’, ‘why do I always have the feeling mama is jealous of me?’). This can be very upsetting to your partner, because they may realize that their parent never loved them the way they perceived it.
For you it may start to become clear as well (in case your narcissistic mother-in-law is jealous of your partner (their child)) that your in-law is playing games. Feelings of confusion, anger and shame are common. Talk about your feelings and the situations that took place with your partner when they are ready for it.
How does our life change when your partner has a narcissistic parent and just starts realizing this? Stage 2 may be the most confusing stage. Despite the fact that you and your partner get a lot of answers, your partner will have even more questions and doubts. Whereas you may want to take action and start setting healthy boundaries, your partner may become irritable, numb, angry, sad, and confused, sometimes at the same time. Right now, your partner can’t move on just yet. This can easily lead to a small crisis if the two of you are not communication well enough.
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Stage 2 – What to do when you have a narcissistic mother-in-law?
The worst thing to do is say things along the lines of: ‘I told you so…’ or ‘This is what I’ve been telling you all the time’. <-- at this moment it's not about you and your observations. It's about your partner and their feelings. Here are a few things you can do for your partner:
- Give your partner some time to process things.
- Do not demand changes or action right away, because your suggestions/demands can backfire. Instead, let your partner come up with these suggestions.
- Be empathetic (‘I can imagine it’s a shock to realize that X is a narcissist’).
- Find some good articles on narcissism and children of narcissists in particular and print them or mention them to your partner. Do not force them upon your partner.
- Take over some of your partners daily tasks at home (grocery shopping, cooking, cleaning, bringing the kids to bed), because they may need some time to process.
- Do not ask your partner about their feelings all the time. It becomes annoying and it isn’t helpful at all.
- Do not ask them if there is anything you can do for them now.
- Try to label certain behaviour are typical for narcissists. This will make it easier on you when they insult you and/or your partner.
Stage 3: Acceptance – Adjustment – Change
Acceptance, adjustment and change will be discussed altogether, because they overlap continuously.
Realizing that your parent is a narcissist is one thing, but accepting this ‘new’ reality is a whole different thing. Not only is it difficult to accept that a healthy parent-child relationship is impossible, it is also difficult to accept certain behaviours, comments, and ways of behaving around others. Your partner may accept something on Monday, get furious over it on Tuesday, and feel sad about it on Wednesday. This can go on for a long period of time, and expect a few relapses because your narcissistic mother-in-law (or father) will keep adding new chapters to this stage.
You partner’s reaction
How your partner will feel and behave is difficult to predict. Some children of narcissists become very insecure and need to be reassured by others around them. A possible explanation for this insecurity could be the new reality they have to deal with. This new reality tells them that all they used to believe in (child-parent relationship, upbringing, having a great parent) is not true, and that they’ve lived in a fake-reality their entire life. A common question raises: ‘How can I trust my intuition?’. During this stage it’s important to support your partner and the best way to do so is by helping your partner rebuild their self-esteem.Discuss the fact that your partner needs to be reassured all the time and that this doesn’t help your partner grow more confident. Tell your partner that you will not reassure him or her all the time and that you’re doing this to help them.
It’s likely that your partner keeps coming up with new questions and tries to find new answers. This reprocessing-quest is very important for your partner, because it helps them put all the (puzzle) pieces together. At the same time this quest is tiring and frustration for the both of you, because every new discovery or realization (puzzle piece) is associated with emotions and reprocessing. This takes a lot of energy, energy that can’t be spend on other things. This likely results in mood swings and more/longer periods of sleeping.
During this period your partner changes and adjusts to the new situation. Sometimes this means that the relationship with the narcissistic mother-in-law ends or significantly cools down, but it could also affect your partner’s self-esteem and take on life. Your partner may become stronger, more confident, and might want to pursue his or her own dreams and goals, which in turn could lead to more frustration and arguments.
How does this affect me?
For you, as the partner, this could mean that you’ll experience emotions and feelings of despair, frustration, anger, helplessness, and sadness. These feelings and emotions naturally produce the urge to change things and to protect your partner. However, this could backfire when your partner doesn’t feel the support he or she needs. Feeling pressure from two sides, you and the narcissistic mother-in-law, could lead to a marital crisis. Therefore, it’s important to invest in ways of communicating. It’s better to have a good and long conversation about ‘what to expect and how to behave where and when’, rather then making assumptions and causing misunderstandings all the time.
Regarding the previously mentioned feelings of despair, anger, frustration, sadness, and helplessness, find someone else to talk to, keep a journal or find some support groups online. It’s also important to protect yourself by creating a distance between you and your in-laws. The bigger the distance between the two of you, the easier it will be to refrain from being emotionally involved in their ‘games’.
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Stage 3 – What to do when you have a narcissistic mother-in-law?
During this stage it’s important to be there for your partner, but also to look after yourself:
- Have a good conversation about the expectations you have of one another. This way you prevent situations from escalating.
- Finds someone to talk to, someone who listens to you. You need to ventilate as well and at the moment, your partner is probably not the right person.
- Allow your partner to feel down and depressed. These mood swings are temporary and most likely have nothing to do with you.
- Give your partner some space and alone-time. Your partner is reprocessing a lot and this requires a lot of energy.
- Be aware of the fact that your partner will change a little, and that you have to adjust a bit as well.