narcissistic in-law

What to Do When You Have a Narcissistic In-Law

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You’re with an amazing spouse, and you’re generally happy with the state of your marriage…except for one thing. You have a narcissistic in-law, and they are driving you absolutely crazy! No matter what, they’re creating drama and generally making your life more difficult. 

Narcissistic relatives can be draining and frustrating for everyone involved. But things can get even more complicated when you’re dealing with your spouse’s family. Here’s what you need to know and how you can cope.

Signs of a Narcissistic In-Law 

Maybe you know something is off with your in-law, but you aren’t exactly sure if you’re overreacting (or if they’re just particularly difficult). As you might now, narcissism can be confusing, and it often manifests itself in different ways. Here are some clear signs that you’re dealing with a narcissist. 

Always Needing Attention 

Whether the attention is positive or negative, the narcissist absolutely needs to be in the spotlight. This need for attention is limitless. They will interrupt people, monopolize conversations, and even feign dramatic crises just to get people to listen to them. 

Exploiting Others

Narcissists care about their needs far more than they care about anyone else’s. Relationships, therefore, are purely transactional. They only seek to get close to people based on what others can provide for them. Therefore, you can expect exploitative behaviors like lying, exaggerating, minimizing, or even denying certain actions.

Extreme Mood Swings

Your in-law might be charming and friendly sometimes. But, you’ve learned that their emotions can change instantly. That’s because narcissists have incredibly vulnerable egos. Anytime something threatens that ego, they feel personally attacked. As a result, they become overly reactive.

Extreme mood swings can look like:

  • Completely withdrawing from the conversation or scene
  • Screaming, threatening, or projecting blame onto people
  • Crying and becoming inconsolable when others try to help
  • Responding passive-aggressively 

Constantly Fishing for Compliments

Narcissists want to be admired, and they make every effort to ensure that others provide them with praise. A steady stream of validation maintains their narcissistic supply.

Fishing for compliments can look like:

  • Outwardly boasting about their achievements 
  • Making self-deprecating comments (knowing that others will challenge them)
  • Humble-bragging 

Disregarding Your Needs

Narcissists will only care about your needs when your needs benefit them. There are very few exceptions to this rule. And so, you can expect the narcissist to continue denying, minimizing, or even downright making fun of your needs. If they don’t align with what they want, don’t expect them to care. 

How a Narcissistic In-Law Can Impact Your Marriage

There’s an old saying that says when you marry someone, you marry their entire family.

And when it comes to narcissists, this statement probably hits a little too close to home. You may not have asked for these parents, but you probably feel stuck with them. In addition, these relationships certainly matter, and research shows that 11% of couples cite their in-laws as a key factor in divorce. 

Your narcissistic in-law is likely to cause the most damage if your spouse is unable (or unwilling) to recognize the severity of their behavior. If they’re continuously defending their mom or dad, it’s going to cause problems. You’ll likely feel lonely, frustrated, and resentful if they don’t want to change the dynamic. 

How you set (or don’t set) limits can also define the quality of your marriage. If you avoid the issue or hope that it resolves on its own, you’re bound to feel disappointed. As you may know, narcissists don’t readily change their ways. This is especially true if they have no incentive to stop their outlandish behavior.

Finally, narcissists can cause serious ruptures if you have children. They often believe they’re entitled to participate in your parenting. As a result, they will frequently try to meddle, overrule you, or even “play favorites” with your children. 

How to Deal With a Narcissistic In-Law 

Life with a narcissist is never easy. And even if you want to cut ties altogether, doing so might not be practical. If your spouse wants to maintain a relationship with their parents, you will need to keep the following strategies in mind. 

Talk Directly to Your Spouse 

It’s one thing if your spouse recognizes the toxic behavior and addresses it effectively. It’s another thing if you’re stuck in this power struggle where your spouse stands up for their parent and takes their side in an argument.

The first step is patience. Discovering narcissism is painful, and even adult children often want

to protect their parents and give them the benefit of the doubt. Your spouse might not be fully ready to recognize the severity of the situation. Likewise, they may be so emotionally abused and gaslit that they only see themselves as having the problem.

However, it’s important that you identify the problems you notice. Be as specific as possible, and don’t shy away from expressing exactly how you feel.

Remember that your spouse might feel anxious, guilty, or upset about the possibility of being “stuck in the middle.” This is normal- they’ve spent their entire life trying to manage this impossible situation. Try to be as supportive as possible while also standing your ground. 

Collaborate on Boundaries

Narcissists are like toddlers who never grow up. They are self-centered, ego-driven, and focused only on meeting their own needs. Your narcissistic in-law has probably shown you that- time and time and time again.

Whether your narcissistic mother-in-law wants to spend every waking moment with your kids or your narcissistic father-in-law becomes explosive when things don’t go his way, setting limits is essential if you want to maintain any semblance of a functioning relationship.

And so, you and your spouse need to come together to decide which boundaries you two want to implement. Ideally, you should be a united front as much as possible. Because when narcissists assume they can triangulate themselves between others, they will. And they will happily pit people against each other just to get what they want.

Some clear boundaries might include.

  • “I will not tolerate your mother criticizing my parenting. If she does, I will leave the house immediately.”
  • “I will not spend time with your father alone. I am okay visiting with him as long as you are with me.”
  • “I only want to stay with your parents for two hours. If you want to stay longer, I will take a separate car.”

Define Clear Exit Strategies

Most people find that they need escape plans when dealing with narcissists. After all, things can escalate very quickly. And sometimes, it just no longer feels safe to be in the same room.

Having a plan of action can help. Whether it’s a code word you share with your spouse or a reminder you have for yourself, it’s important to know when to leave. 

Don’t feel the need to apologize. You are an adult, and you are allowed to limit your time with toxic people.

Anticipate Pushback

You can and should prepare for resistance anytime you set a limit. Narcissists are used to getting their way. When that doesn’t happen, they typically become enraged.

You can expect some of the following reactions: 

  • Trying to convince your spouse you’re the problem
  • Threatening to disown you or cut you off from the family
  • Making fun of your boundaries or acting like they are childish
  • Crying or becoming overly apologetic as a way to gain your sympathy
  • Pretending as if you never set a limit (and continuing to act in their usual ways)
  • Gossipping or trying to smear you to others

This pushback will be undoubtedly frustrating. But it has nothing to do with you. It’s simply how narcissists react when others stand up for themselves.

Stop Trying to Win

It can be so tempting to stoop down to the narcissist’s level. After all, if they get to scream, cry, or make idle threats, why shouldn’t you? If they get to cause all this drama, why shouldn’t you give them a taste of their own reality?

But here’s the thing: you can’t win a fight with a narcissist. That’s because you two are on entirely different playing fields. One playing field is rooted in reality, and the other is in a complete fantasy land. 

And believe it or not, they want you to compete with them. They want the battle, even if they’re pretending like they hate it. 

So, let go of the arguments and power struggles. Trying to win them is futile. 

Instead, try to focus on protecting your own integrity. If you have children, make sure that you are also looking after their best interests. Even if you feel “mean” or “selfish,” remember that those feelings are likely due to you feeling entangled with the narcissist’s agenda. In other words, their behavior triggers you to feel that way.

Final Thoughts

Coping with a narcissistic in-law requires insight, clear communication, and strict boundaries. If your spouse is on board with you, the work becomes much easier. If you two aren’t on the same page, it’s still essential that you take care of yourself. After all, nobody has the right to disrespect or harm you.

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2 comments
Carla Corelli says May 28, 2022

Thought provoking post. I think that another factor that comes into play is the status of our spouse in the narcissistic family, as in – were they the scapegoat or the golden child? It is likely to be easier to extricate yourself from the in-laws clutches if your partner was the scapegoat, but much harder if he or she was the golden child. At the end of the day, of course, your advice makes sense in both cases, but if you are with a golden child then your strategies need to be “on steroids,” to quote another recent post of yours 🙂

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Karen says April 30, 2022

Having a bad day it is our sons birthday on Tuesday no contact for two years. I am being honest I got annoyed not the same as anger but frustration upset with him because he was going along with the abuse she was dealing out to his family and sometimes joined in with this. I and others at that time did not know what we were dealing with. I needed help for me but neglected myself and my mind was on everything else. Doctor stated I sometimes do not except things my mind shuts off from upsetting situations to cope then when it opens it opens with depression. We miss him so much .

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