‘Everyone thinks my narcissistic mother-in-law is amazing. I feel so alone’
Narcissistic traits are often an under-acknowledged problem when it comes to family relations. But what happens when ego starts to affect your marriage? Two women on how issues with their MILs have put strains on their other relationships
The vision of motherhood is supposed to be based around protection, security and nurture. But that isn’t always the case.
“It took me a while to put my finger on her personality traits” explains Emer — a mother of two who fears her mother-in-law is a classic example of someone craving constant egotistic admiration.
She says red flags began to show when her husband’s mother offered to host the christening of their eldest daughter. “It was like her show. She wanted everything done her way, and not for the benefit of us and the baby, but to show off. Everything was about how marvellous she was for organising it. She largely ignores the baby usually, but that day she was clutching her and cooing over her all day so everyone took photos of the ‘doting grandma’.”
She was turning into a pathological liar.
And the grandiosity didn’t end there.
“When she first met my parents, she told them that she had gone to UCG to study architecture and finished top of her class. Later, I found out that she hadn’t even gone to college. Nothing wrong with that, but her idealised self-image meant she was turning into a pathological liar.”
Now, Emer doesn’t trust anything she says and tries to keep her distance. But for her own daughters and husband, she finds it hard that they spend time around such a toxic person.
Narcissism is named after the Greek myth of Narcissus who fell in love with his own image reflected in a pool of water. The formal term describes a disorder that sees the pursuit of gratification from vanity and it includes self-flattery, perfectionism and arrogance.
Although widely (and incorrectly) used to describe someone who is full of themselves, Narcissistic Personality Disorder is actually quite rare and only truly affects around 1% of the population.
Rather than an excess of self-esteem, the disorder, which presents on a spectrum, is more about a craving for appreciation or admiration. This sense of superiority and expectation of special treatment is what often proves damaging in relationships.
Olivia, a beautician, says her mother-in-law had a lot to do with her and her ex-partner separating last year. “Now, I see it as a lucky escape in a way. But at the time, she didn’t like me and she made it her mission to poison my partner against me.”
He was just a pawn in her life, a way of reflecting her greatness.
It sounds dramatic but those who have experienced this type of relationship say that the power a narcissist can wield and the length they will go to get what they want are extreme. “She’d go on about what an unbelievably good mother she was to her son. That all his accolades were really hers. She was disparaging about my own qualifications and would put me down constantly about my background.”
Finally, it was her partner’s lack of a backbone when it came to dealing with his mother that pushed Olivia away most. “He couldn’t see what I could see. He’d been exposed to it his whole life. He was just a pawn in her life, a way of reflecting her greatness. I felt so bad for him but he was blind to her power over him.”
So how do you deal with having to have a relationship with such prickly character traits? Author on the topic is Dr. Sam Lopez Victoria who wrote How to Spot a Narcissist. He says being around those who manipulate and exploit others is perpetually frustrating.
They create a false identity. This identity is not the true person inside
“No matter how socially skilled an extreme narcissist is, they have major attachment dysfunction, frozen in childhood or at the time of a major trauma of separation.”
Dr. Victoria believes that their emotional age and maturity usually corresponds to the age they were when they experienced the trauma. “In order to survive, this child had to construct a protective barrier that insulates him/her from the external world of people. This person generalised that all people are harmful and cannot be trusted.
The protective insulation barrier they constructed is called a false persona. They created a false identity. This identity is not the true person inside.”
Emer says that through the help of the therapist she came up with ways of drawing boundaries around her relationship with her mother-in-law. “I’ve distanced myself. I understand that I can’t control her and her need to manipulate, but I can determine how I respond.”
The main problem, she finds, is that others think she is over-reacting. “She is so charming and charismatic and everyone, including my husband, thinks she is such an amazing person. When her mask slips behind closed doors, through her actions you can see she is self-centered and lacks empathy.”
Just protect yourself. The key is to make their behaviour less harmful to you
Emer says the best tact so far has been to emotionally distance herself and her children from her, remaining polite because “this woman is always spoiling for a fight and I don’t want her to put us into a situation where she can control our lives/decisions”.
David Reiss, a psychiatrist, who has been dealing with the topic for over 30 years, says removing yourself from such a relationship can be difficult.
“If you’re stuck with a narcissist, basically what you have to do is internally not let them gaslight you. Recognise that you understand reality more than they do, but that you’re not their therapist or their teacher.
“Just protect yourself. The key is to make their behaviour less harmful to you.”
This article was originally published in May 2022.