5 Tips for Tackling your Spouse’s Narcissistic Family
By: Christine Hammond, LMHC, NCC
There are some days when the thought of knocking down a relative or in-law seems tempting. This is especially true following an unforeseen passive-aggressive personal attack. But if this person is a narcissist, they seem to have the resilience of a linebacker who takes the blow just to bounce back up again with even more determination to dominate the next time.
Winning in such an environment feels like a lost cause. Many happily settle for flying under the radar so as to avoid the attacks all together. Or they retaliate with similar passive-aggressive remarks in a game of tit-for-tat. Some even plow through the initial casual remarks with quick aggressive jabs designed to attack first.
Unfortunately all of these are usually met with heavy resistance from the other family members or worse yet a spouse. This can create an environment of isolation and turn the family gathering into them versus me atmosphere. Of course, this is the intent of the narcissist because it accomplished two things: allows the narcissist to remain the center of attention and allows them to play the victim when needed.
But, there is a better way. Here are five suggestions for surviving the next family event:
1. Do pre-planning. Every winning team knows that one of the key ingredients to being successful is to understand your opponent. Families, both functional and dysfunctional, have a rhythm. Take a moment to step outside of a past gathering and make observations about how the family makes decisions, talks and treats each other and outsiders, has fun, negotiates, and determines who is in charge. What is important to the family: values, morality, religion, logic, feelings, or connection? This is not about finger pointing or trying to alienate one person or idea regardless of the dysfunction. Rather it is about information gathering.
2. Form a strategy. Timing is everything. Just because a strategy did not work in the past, it does not mean that it won’t work in the future. Be open to all strategies and carefully select the best one depending on the nature of the event and the participants. For instance, in a large family gathering when the conversation gets dicey, ask the narcissist a question about themselves. This simple redirection will keep the person asking the question in good graces and redirect any unwanted negative attention. By doing so some reading on narcissism and understanding what makes them tick, several strategies can be formulated.
3. Gather the team. The team might be a spouse, kids, or other safe relatives that see the narcissism for what it is. Don’t bother trying to enlighten the non-believers for now, family gatherings are not the place for indoctrination. Rather be intentional in the strategy phase to formulate a plan which gently exposes the narcissism. This is planting a seed for the future upon which more information will be layered for the non-believers. With the team, devise a boundary that can be easily agreed upon and reinforced when overstepped. Then logically share this boundary with the non-believer before the event. Everyone being on the same page in advance will increase chances of success.
4. Work the plan. It might be necessary during the function to remind the team of the plan. In the case of a boundary being set, one person will have to courageously confront the narcissist when it is violated. Always do this in private first; embarrassing the narcissist in front of others will result in an immediate attack. Prior to the confrontation, inform the team that the boundary has been exceeded so they are ready to provide support after the altercation. This removes the narcissist’s ability to gather support afterwards. Be prepared for a bit of sulking from the narcissist when they realize that others are supporting the boundary and offer a compliment as an olive branch. This will endear the team towards the boundary setting mentality even more and reduce any level of discomfort.
5. Evaluate the situation. Immediately following the event, review what worked and what didn’t before small bits of valuable information are lost. These nuggets include observations of body language, any eye rolling, withdrawing of a family member, negative self-talk, blatant lies, manipulative behavior, or multiple references to feeling guilty. It might be easier to select one family member at a time and review their spoken and unspoken behavior. This information can be used for recruiting more team members or placing them clearly in the narcissistic camp. Remember this is not about conversion; everyone must come into realization in their own time. Being patient with other’s timing demonstrates love.
While it may seem like this is a lot of work, and it is in the beginning, in the end it is worth the effort. Thinking long-term commitment rather than short-term alliance maintains a healthy perspective and a hopeful outcome.
To schedule an appointment with Christine Hammond, please call our office at 407-647-7005.