She boasts, she brags, she thinks she’s GREAT!
She goads, she nags, you’re feeling IRATE!
Intruding, competing, she makes you feel SMALL!
Deluding, defeating, she’s pushed you to the WALL!!
What do you do? You’ve “stolen” her SON!
What do you do? She’s still number ONE!
Our brains are naturally equipped with a fight, flight and freeze switch that activates when we’re faced with an enemy, a threat to our survival. The narcissistic mother-in-law can be a mighty button-pusher of our “red alert” system.
If you are dealing with one of them – welcome! You are now on the “emotionally endangered species” list. But don’t despair …
Here are some of the top tips for dealing with this difficult grand dame:
1. Empathy – understanding (not sympathy and not agreement), and an offer of some benefit of the doubt
2. Confrontation – holding her accountable by confronting unacceptable “performances”
3. Set Limits – making clear the line of demarcation – your space and hers
4. Clarify Expectations – best when you can anticipate potential glitches, but also helpful in the moment; being clear about who, what, when, where and how
5. Compromise – when it does not violate your fundamental values and rights
6. Collaboration – “we” statements are nonthreatening and allow you to model desired outcomes by taking responsibility when appropriate
Here are some examples:
No matter how pushy and intrusive she gets – this strategy gets you nowhere, and her sense of entitlement will flourishes. The narcissistic mother-in-law will only see you as angry, ungrateful or completely unreasonable. She will not hear the real message you are trying to communicate.
Instead of fighting back …
Do: Empathize, Confront, Set Limits and Clarify Expectations
This tip involves understanding, accountability and setting limits while setting and re-setting expectations clearly and firmly. She says, “I insist on inviting (all of her friends) so-and-so, and so-and-so to your housewarming party.” You say, “I know how important your friends are to you, but it is really our wish to keep our housewarming party small and limited to our closest friends and family members. I am grateful for all that you are doing to make this a nice event, but we prefer to manage the guest list. We appreciate your understanding and support, as this is important to us.”
No matter how much she brags about herself, butts into your life or belittles you as she competes for her son’s attention and approval, avoiding her will only cause you more internal stress, create conflict with your spouse and enable her to be off the hook for her inappropriate behavior.
Instead of hiding under the covers …
Do: Empathize, Confront, Set Limits and Compromise
This tip involves understanding, accountability and setting limits while proposing options for reasonable negotiation. She says (with a wry smile and a chuckle), “You certainly try hard, sweetie, but you know how much my son (your husband) prefers my turkey stuffing. I guess I was just born with that special touch; ‘some kind of magic’ is what I believe John might call my cooking. How about I just sprinkle my magic on the whole dinner this time around?” You say, “Yes, John has always spoken highly of your cooking, and I know how much you enjoy your reputation (tiny zinger). I also know that your intention is not to put me down but to feel a little closer to your son. I have to tell you, though, that your way of saying it can sometimes feel a bit off-putting. I am really fine with preparing the meal this holiday and plan to do so, and I would certainly appreciate you contributing any dish that you like.”
Don’t: Give In!
No matter how hard she tries to mettle in your relationship – decisions about parenting your children, vacations, career moves, home purchases, home decorating (yikes!), caving in will only lead to potentially intense levels of resentment, feeling subjugated, and a serious loss of marital and individual autonomy.
Instead of surrendering …
Do: Empathize, Confront, Set Limits, Collaborate and Hold Your Ground
This tip involves understanding, accountability, setting limits and taking responsibility while not abandoning your own fundamental nonnegotiable values and lifestyle choices. She says, “No child of mine would ever be allowed to … I think the children should have a bedtime of … The sofa should be on the far wall … Red will never work in this room … Interest rates are a bit high now … This is not the best time to invest … Why Italy? … The best time for traveling in Europe is …” (AGHHH!) Take a deep breath and say, “While I appreciate your concern for us, as I know this is what prompts your very strong, and perhaps even wise, opinions, we can only factor them in as suggestions, as we need to make these decisions on our own. Sometimes the style with which you offer your ideas can be offending and a bit dismissive of my needs, and I really want to feel good about our relationship, so it would be great if we made a pact to pay very careful attention to our mutual styles of communication – I am sure that I am not always as thoughtful as I could be.”
Wendy T. Behary is the author of Disarming the Narcissist … Surviving and Thriving with the Self-Absorbed.