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How to deal with your mother-in-law

Wendy Behary is the author of Disarming the Narcissist. She is also the founder and director of The Cognitive Therapy Center of New Jersey and The New Jersey Institute for Schema Therapy. She has been treating clients and training profe...

Surviving and thriving

You want her to like you, accept you, and respect you. You have your own mind, and it's been a pretty good mind at that. You are smart, have opinions, and ideas all your own. But… forget it! She is always right! She has to win! It's her way or no way! Who is she?!


You know the one. She can launch a look of disapproval, disgust and disinterest like no other. You are dismissed with an eyebrow, a sigh or a chuckle. She is the ultimate button-pusher. You guessed it. She is your narcissistic mother-in-law. And you are engaged in an interpersonal battle like no other. For you are one of her greatest rivals and narcissists love to compete and to win. Okay - off your knees, deep breath, straighten your posture, chin up, and ready your stride. You are up for the challenge. Hang on…Quick definition of a narcissist: someone who has an exaggerated sense of self-worth, is highly self-absorbed, entitled, condescending, superior, show-off-ish, competitive, and approval-craving. They do not appreciate the impact of their often obnoxious behaviors on others. They have a lot of trouble with empathy and with the notion of give and take.

Who Stole My Voice?

You stammer and struggle for words, but somehow they have vanished. It's as if someone has pressed the mute button on your vocal chords. Why does this woman have this effect on you? Perhaps you have simply resigned yourself to the "keep quiet and keep the peace" mantra. Rest assured, you are not unique. For most of us, dealing with a narcissist can be a daunting task, but dealing with a narcissistic mother-in-law, who has to be right about everything, surely ups the ante. She is family, after all. She will be a part of your life for a potentially long time. She already is, or will be, a grandmother to your children. She is not just a difficult encounter. She is your partner's mother.

What do you do?

First, you gather as much information as you can about her history, in order to understand how she became the person she is. 1.Was she simply spoiled and indulged as a little girl and this is all she knows? 2.Was she loved conditionally, based on her performance and achievements? 3.Was she harshly criticized when she was not being perfect in the eyes of her parent? 4.Why should I care, you ask? The explanation behind her narcissistic style equips you in confronting her about her unacceptable ways. The explanations are not to excuse her ways but to better hold her accountable. Here's how…

Empathic Confrontation & Setting Limits

Empathy is not agreement. It is not sympathy, nor is it compassion. It is simply the art of walking in another's shoes. With empathy you can give her some benefit of the doubt, but she must be confronted in order to help her appreciate the affect she has on you and others. Limits must be set and boundaries declared as a means of protecting your rights, territory and sanity.Here are just a few examples of how you can use empathic confrontation and limit setting with the self-righteous mother-in-law in your life: 1. "Jane (your mother-in-law), I know how hard you work to maintain a very enjoyable reputation as a great hostess with many artistic talents. I know this was a priority in your own family growing up. We have benefited from these talents as well. [Okay, here comes the Confrontation part] But this is my first home and I know you can understand how exciting it is for me to make my own decorating decisions - right or wrong. I am sure I have a lot to learn and I appreciate your ideas, but I need you to respect my opinions as I do yours, even if we disagree. Your tone and persistence makes it sometimes feel like a contest. I don't want it to be a contest. I don't want it to hurt our relationship."2. (Phone Rings — Oh no…it's HER again!) "Hi Jane. I only have five minutes as I am running to an appointment, but I didn't want to miss your call again." (Okay — small white lie — but a good limit setting approach) You can increase the number of stress-free days and moments by limiting your exposure. Keep the calls short and infrequent, same with visits when possible. Remember: you cannot change a narcissist by yourself, but you may have some influence over the way they behave with you. You can also control the impact it has on you by limiting your contact and clarifying the boundaries when you are with them. 3. For example, "Jane, I appreciate your concern for little Timmy and what you see as his over-attachment to his teddy bear. I know you watch Oprah and read articles about child development, and feel you have some expertise in this area. It is okay for you to offer your input to us privately, but it is not acceptable for you to discuss this in front of our friends or in front of the children. This must not happen again. I am counting on you to respect our wishes, and I'd appreciate your commitment to this effort while in our home." There - you said it, graciously but firmly. So, let's say she sighs, waves her hand in the air, as if to dismiss you like an annoying flying insect, or puffs up and gets defensive. Simply and nicely let her know that you had no intention of offending her nor are you inviting her into a debate on the matter. Again, "Jane let's not let this hurt our relationship." And leave it at that. These skills take time and practice. You may want to solicit a friend or even an audio taping device so that as you practice your new skills you can collect feedback on your word selection, tonal quality and measure the sturdiness in your voice. You want your message to be communicated with authenticity and to achieve the impact you intend. You may also want to consult an expert who deals with narcissism to see if there is any personal baggage that you need to discard in order to enhance your capacity to be a better advocate for yourself. Some experts can even provide interpersonal coaching for dealing most effectively with situations like this one.

More tips on keeping the peace

How to deal with your mother-in-law
Mother-in-law Manager
Dealing with difficult people: 17 Tips to keep you sane

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