The Frustration of Dealing with Narcissistic In-Laws
By: Christine Hammond, LMHC
Hold on tight and get ready for a roller-coaster of a ride when marrying into a narcissistic family. At first the Narcissistic Parent (NP) will seem amazingly charming and the concerns the Adult Child (AC) expresses appear to be exaggerations. But give it some time and everything will change overnight. Here are some points to keep in mind when dealing with NPs:
It all begins with an engagement. Casual dating is not that threating to the NP because they have established a tell-all philosophy in the home. This gives the NP time to weave their “concerns” about the potential new spouse, spread untruthful rumors, and re-introduce the AC to previously approved (because they are easily manipulated and controlled) partners. But once the engagement is announced, the war begins. Suddenly this new spouse is an inadequate, unsuitable, and unacceptable addition who will destroy their AC. The NP projects their unhealthy motives, lack of boundaries, and controlling tendencies onto the new spouse. There are even threats of not attending or supporting the wedding unless the NP’s standards are precisely met. The NP intends for this drama to cause conflict between the AC and the new spouse in hopes that the engagement will end.
The wedding day is not a safe day. Having made it past the rough engagement, the couple erroneously believes the wedding day will be perfect. It will not. The wedding dress will be the wrong color or style, the NP’s family will believe they are being victimized, or the seat assignment will be improper. NPs need to be at the center stage and when they are not they will literally take the stage. They will do this before the ceremony, even during the ceremony, or most especially at the reception. What comes out of the NP’s mouth is likely to be shocking and they want it to be that way because they want to be remembered at this event more than the ceremony itself. The NP will long be remembered for how they acted and what they said by others who recount the day in amazement.
Marriage will not make a NP go away. The intense drama that precedes a marriage does not stop once the vows are made, it only becomes more subtle. The new spouse will be met with private jokes, inappropriate sarcasm, and bigotry towards their socioeconomic class, culture, or religion. They will be isolated from family discussions through the constant recounting of stories and people from long ago. There will be a join family effort to demonstrate to the new spouse that they could never “fit it” with the NP’s family. The AC will go along with the NP seeing such comments as harmless and an overreaction by their new spouse. This is the first wedge the NP successfully injects into the marriage and it can be their most damaging because it is setting the stage for a “my spouse is crazy” argument.
The NP is in this for the long haul. There are two major things that are at stake for the NP: image and control. NPs will oscillate between showing approval and strong disapproval depending on what’s at stake, who is watching, and how they can or cannot benefit. For instance, some NPs privately bash the new spouse while publically expressing their excitement. Other NPs want assurances that they can remain in control of their ACs life. Any indication to the contrary is met with intense rage, verbal assaults, and promises of withholding love, attention or money. The end game is to maintain the image they have erected to the public and maintain control over the AC.
It’s all about strategy. The new spouse needs to be able to safely communicate their concerns to the AC and an outside person for assistance without feeling like they are betraying the NP family. This should not be a family member but rather someone who has an intimate knowledge of narcissism. In turn, the AC must take on the main responsibility for communication with their NP family. This will be well received by the NP as they really just want the AC for themselves and it will reduce the new spouse’s stress. Strong boundaries need to be communicated in advance of holidays, birthdays, and visits with the AC and new spouse in complete agreement. A united front must be presented at all times regardless of any personal struggles. The AC also needs to be prepared to defend the new spouse even for slights and never join in an insult. The new spouse will need constant protection for many years to come by the AC against the terror the NP will repeatedly inflict despite the setting of boundaries.