Through stories passed down from our grandmothers, mothers, and aunts, we learn about how their lives were completely devoted to proving loyalty and respect to their in-laws. Their lives revolved primarily around conforming to the expectations and regulations imposed by their in-laws, often at the expense of their own autonomy or having the freedom to lead independent lives with their partners. But what our mothers and aunts did not realise was that they were actually dealing with narcissistic mothers-in-law - a personality disorder characterised by an excessive sense of self-importance, self-centered behaviour, and a strong desire for admiration.
While it sometimes can be difficult to pinpoint a narcissistic mother-in-law, there are some telltale signs that you can look for, such as a need for admiration, lack of empathy, and a high opinion of herself. Narcissistic mothers-in-law tend to be controlling, critical and manipulative. They are very insecure and it is very difficult for them to share their son with another woman. They may feel threatened and competitive. A narcissistic mother-in-law can also have a negative emotional impact on you, including a drop in your self-esteem, or developing depression or anxiety symptoms.
Clinical Psychologist and Lecturer at Bahria University, Karachi, Sidra Farooq Butt, while shedding light on the matter, says that narcissism is a personality trait where individuals are self-centred and lack empathy for others. They are mainly focused on their own needs and often have a grandiose self-image while struggling with low self-esteem. This behaviour typically arises from deep-rooted feelings of inferiority, causing narcissists to overcompensate (when a person feels inferior and will go out of his/her way to feel superior) for their own shortcomings.
Narcissists can exhibit some truly unpleasant personality traits. They have a knack for being incredibly cruel and unreasonable, which means they might do and say things that are deeply hurtful and don’t make sense. Playing favourites is another characteristic of theirs, as they may treat certain individuals with preferential treatment while neglecting or mistreating others. They have a tendency to isolate, manipulate, or exclude those they dislike or wish to control. They can also have unreasonable judgment, meaning they might judge people unfairly or be overly critical. Upon learning about narcissistic personality traits, it strikes a chord with many of us that this pattern is prevalent among many Asian families, however, it is crucial to highlight that it is specifically a mother-in-law with narcissistic personality disorder who is driven to sabotage the marital relationships of her own children.
“Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) develops early in life, and individuals with this disorder consistently strive to assert their dominance in every relationship. As parents, narcissists exploit their children to further their own interests. Moreover, when these narcissistic individuals become in-laws, they inevitably attempt to exert control over their child’s married life,” elucidates Farooq.
In an interview with Insider, Trauma Therapist, Shannon Thomas explained how narcissistic in-laws can be detrimental to a marriage, especially if the spouse remains unaware of the manipulative tactics employed by their parents. According to Thomas, narcissists have an insatiable desire for control, even at the expense of others’ safety and well-being. This excessive need for control suppresses individuality, personal choices such as career decisions or even choosing one’s meal are not allowed in such situations.
According to Thomas, it can be tough to explain why these behaviours are hurtful, as they may seem trivial to others. However, when endured over a long time, these actions can have a significant impact on the spouse’s well-being and should not be overlooked or dismissed.
A recent debate has emerged regarding the role of patriarchal norms as a significant contributing factor in the perpetuation of narcissistic behaviour. The sense of entitlement among narcissists is often reinforced by the patriarchal power dynamics that exist within our family structures. In South Asian culture, marriage extends beyond just the union between two people. Rather, it involves marrying into the entire family of one’s spouse and proving loyalty towards them. Women are expected to be submissive throughout their lives, and after marriage, their lives are predominantly governed by their spouse or their spouse’s family. Such circumstances are conducive to making narcissists feel validated.
Studies have shown, a narcissistic mother-in-law may even interfere with the intimate matters between the couple, and they are often stripped of their autonomy in decision-making, such as naming their new-borns or wives having access to their spouse’s finances.
The control freaks
Narcissistic mothers-in-law often engage in belittling behaviour, mental torture, and exploitation. They tend to control their daughters-in-law and treat them like a doormat. They usually shame their daughters-in-law for not sleeping in their own room and instead choosing to be with their husbands. They would constantly degrade the daughters-in-law’s family, making them feel inferior and unwelcome. This scribe has come across many stories where the daughters-in-law are being exploited or harassed by their controlling mothers-in-law. In one case, a mother-in-law would invade her son and daughter-in-law’s privacy by entering their room without even knocking and insisting on keeping the door open at night. It has been seen that narcissistic mothers-in-law can often subject their children’s spouses to constant scrutiny and judgment over trivial matters. This may include everything; from what they wear, where they go, and whom they socialise with.
“Since a narcissist has raised their child in a narcissistic manner, they also interfere in their child’s partner’s matters too and try to control them. In collectivist cultures, it can be difficult for individuals to move out of such situations,” observes Farooq.
“Narcissistic behaviour can be passed down to the next generation, where their children may control their spouse, just as they observed the prevailing controlling dynamics in their family. Narcissists possess low self-esteem but often put up a grandiose facade. If this behaviour persists, the child of a narcissist may also adopt these narcissistic traits, which can cause difficulties in their relationships with their partners and potentially lead to breakups,” elaborates Farooq.
A recent study discovered that people who were constantly praised and treated as special by their parents may have a higher chance of developing NPD. On the other hand, children who were ignored or mistreated may also develop NPD as a way to survive. They may believe that they need to fend for themselves because they feel like no one else will take care of them.
“We diagnose NPD after 18 years of age and at that time we offer a complete personality assessment and then psychotherapy for this. For children displaying narcissistic traits, we can help by showing them empathy and love, assisting them in building healthy relationships,” points out Farooq.
Several studies reveal that individuals with milder narcissistic tendencies tend to respond better to mental health therapy compared to those diagnosed with clinical NPD, also known as pathological narcissism. While there is no known cure for NPD, seeking treatment can help in managing specific symptoms.
How to cope with a narcissistic mother-in-law
Numerous studies suggest effective approaches for dealing with a narcissistic mother-in-law, which include, maintaining distance and setting strict boundaries and building a strong relationship with your spouse. “Children who are unable to develop a healthy relationship with their parents may develop borderline personality disorder, which includes identity crisis, impulsivity, and anxiety. Therefore, it is important to have open communication with your spouse, but it’s crucial to approach conversations carefully to avoid defensiveness. Setting boundaries for communication and keeping personal and family plans private can also safeguard your emotional well-being,” advises Farooq.
While maintaining a physical distance from in-laws may not be possible due to cultural norms, experts recommend practicing the Grey Rock technique, where you remain emotionally unresponsive, as a way to cope with toxic in-laws when cutting off contact is not possible. Seeking professional help from a therapist or coach who understands NPD can be beneficial for both the spouse and the relationship.
It’s not easy to deal with a narcissistic mother-in-law; you have to put your foot down somewhere in order to retain your sanity. When she goes into being verbally abusive and demeaning towards you or your children, kindly and firmly tell her that’s not going to work out.
“The most important thing is to try to stay calm and rational when dealing with a narcissistic mother-in-law her. Don’t engage in arguments or try to compete with her, as this is what she wants,” warns Carla Corelli, a counsellor and a survivor of narcissistic abuse.
“Another thing you can do is to try to empathise with her. Narcissistic personality disorder often arises from a deep feeling of insecurity and low self-esteem. So, try to see things from her point of view and be understanding towards her,” adds Carla.
Last but not least, focus on building your self-esteem. A nasty mother-in-law makes you feel inferior, but you should not be intimidated by her. Remember, the key to happiness and saving your marriage is in your own hands. So, don’t allow anyone to snatch your happiness and peace of mind from you.