This post is written for adults in committed relationships, where you can see that your partner’s mother or father is a narcissist, but your partner denies it. Even though I am using the phrase “in-law,” these ideas apply whether or not you are legally married to your partner. The information provided here assumes that the relationship is both consensual and safe (i.e., no physical, sexual, or emotional abuse is taking place). Additionally, the post is written with the assumption that at this time you are wanting to stay in the relationship.
A narcissistic in-law whose behavior goes unchecked creates an environment of insanity for everyone involved.
Narcissists intentionally surround themselves with people who do not challenge their ideas and behaviors. People who have their own opinions and do not blindly follow the narcissist’s lead will typically not last long in the family system. They will either be banished by the narcissist or will leave on their own. If you are starting to recognize that your in-law is a narcissist, speaking up is likely to be difficult because you are a part of a group of people who agree (either explicitly or implicitly) to go along with the narcissist’s behavior.
When one partner denies the narcissism of his/her/their parent, that partner is effectively supporting the status quo. The narcissism within the family system remains unchecked and this leads to an environment where bad behavior takes place on a regular basis. There is a good chance that your partner is not the only person in the family who is going along with things; however, it is important for you to come to terms with the role your partner is playing. (As a side note: you are also playing a role in the narcissistic family system! If you have not taken an honest look at your own role already, you will need to do so.)
Bad behavior can look like many things. Here are some examples of bad behavior that I have discussed with clients who have a narcissistic in-law:
Insulting and Derogatory Remarks
Lack of Boundaries
Emotional Toll on Young Children
It is often the case that my clients who have narcissistic in-laws are wanting to use rational and reasonable approaches to address the situation and the in-law. Clients can get caught up in trying to “work the problem.” Sadly, the typical ways that adults ask for things, resolve conflict, and communicate needs and wants do not work with a narcissist or in the context of a narcissistic family system. If you have a narcissistic in-law, you might sometimes have the sense that social norms and rules do not seem to apply, leaving you baffled as to what to do. This can be frustrating at best and seriously stressful at worst.
I also see clients bend and twist themselves into pretzels trying to make things work with their extended in-law family. Clients can begin thinking obsessively about strategies to manage the situation. I often remind clients that they are trying to use a sane approach to deal with an insane situation.
A narcissistic in-law is a serious threat to a romantic relationship.
Partners need to protect each other from harm, period. Narcissistic in-laws inflict harm on the people around them. This includes their adult children, their grandchildren, and the adult partners of their adult children. When harm is taking place repeatedly, the emotional and psychological toll is incalculable. There is a triple whammy effect: First, there is the direct harm inflicted by the narcissist. Then, there is the harm of being in a romantic relationship where partners are not protecting each other. Finally, the fact that the harm is being caused by a family member makes it that much worse.
Partners need to prioritize their relationship with each other above all other relationships, period. This does not mean that couples do not have other people in their lives. It also does not mean that couple does not have any other relational responsibilities. Rather, it means that the couple makes their relationship the most important relationship. It also means the couple decides together how to manage relationships with other people in ways that work for both partners. Ultimately, when the couple protects itself from outside threats—including children, parents, friends, and colleagues—everyone wins. The partners are nourished in their primary relationship, have more energy to show up and be present in secondary relationships, and all parties are clear about what to expect.
If you have a narcissistic in-law, you might feel that your partner prioritizes his/her/their narcissistic parent over you. The needs and wants of the parent come first a lot of the time. Your partner might idolize the parent and be unable to see the parent as a human being with flaws.
The impossible dilemma of a partner who does not acknowledge her parent’s flaws.
If your partner recognizes and acknowledges that his/her/their parent is a narcissist, consider yourself fortunate. If you both recognize it as such, you are in a much better position because 1) you agree that there is an issue; 2) you can support each other as you work through the problem together; and 3) you are both more likely to make the difficult decisions that will lead to real change.
If your partner does not see their parent as a narcissist, the situation is considerably more difficult. Ultimately, having a narcissistic in-law creates an environment where you cannot relax. There is a fundamental lack of emotional and psychological trust and safety. This takes its toll over time and is not sustainable over the long-term.
Many clients with a narcissistic in-law show symptoms of anxiety. The anxiety can be rooted in:
years of suppressing anger and resentment toward the in-law;
feeling alone and isolated in the larger family system;
searching for coping strategies to deal with the in-law’s confusing and strange behavior;
lack of understanding and emotional support from partner; and
tolerating the in-law’s bad behavior without saying anything.
Clients with narcissistic in-laws face an impossible dilemma. If you choose to ignore the narcissism, you keep your partner happy but sacrifice your own well-being. If you choose to confront the narcissism, you are forced to put your relationship at risk to care for yourself. This is one aspect of the insanity of narcissistic family systems. In other words, in healthy relationships, the individual does not need to choose between taking care of self and taking care of others. The mutual regard that exists in healthy relationships allows plenty of room to do both.
There are things you can do on your own to bring temporary relief now.
When there is a narcissistic in-law, the best-case scenario is one where both partners work together to support each other and to find a mutually agreed upon solution. Also, in the best-case scenario, both partners can talk to each other, and listen to each other, such that the dialog about the narcissistic in-law is ongoing. A narcissistic in-law can bring couples closer together if both parties are willing to do the difficult work.
Even the strongest couples are likely to need support working through the dynamics of a narcissistic family system. If couples counseling is an option, this can be an ideal place to start. Even without counseling, you will need to work together with your partner in some way to realize even the smallest changes. My work with clients often involves brainstorming ways to initiate these conversations with a partner.
If working on this in collaboration with your partner is not possible, there are some steps you can take on your own to get some relief:
Find allies – It is important to have someone who is on your side and who gets it. This could be a friend, a family member, a support group, or a professional counselor or coach. Look for someone who believes you, is a good listener, is available, and can provide emotional support.
Set boundaries with your in-law – When it comes to your personal relationship with your in-law, you have every right to set the boundaries you want to set. It is trickier to set boundaries that involve your partner or your children, but you can begin setting personal boundaries today. Potential areas for boundary setting with your in-law include the topics you discuss, how much time you spend together, and use of personal items.
Speak your truth – I often see clients who have kept quiet for years. There are usually reasons for this, rooted both in the past and present. The act of expressing yourself—both to your partner and/or to your in-law—can be incredibly liberating. It can be difficult, but clients often report feeling a lot of relief in the simple act of speaking up. There are a lot of ways to speak up without being a jerk and that still honor your core values. There is also value in speaking up for its own sake, regardless of outcomes.
Make requests – Ask your partner for what you want. This is a practice for you to get in touch with your own wants and needs, and to begin imagining a different kind of relationship. There is often a lot of fear associated with asking for things. Facing these fears of being rejected, not getting what you want, or even getting what you want, is another way to support your own growth and transformation.
Lead by example – Do the thing you want your partner to do. For example, if you want your partner to prioritize you over other people, find ways for you to explicitly prioritize your partner over other people. In some cases, this strategy creates pressure for the partner to behave differently. Common sense should be applied: if you are constantly giving and doing more without reciprocation from your partner, this is probably not the best example to use in your relationship.
In conclusion, a narcissistic parent is a difficult situation for anyone to navigate. At the same time, it is an incredible opportunity for growth and transformation, either individually or together with your partner. Your partner has been shaped by a narcissistic parent, and there is healing to do. At the same time, you are playing a role in a narcissistic family system. In my experience, clients do not find themselves with narcissistic in-laws by accident. There are reasons for it rooted in your own growing up. The more willing you are to look at yourself and your situation honestly, the more possibility there is for real change.
If your partner is the adult child of a narcissist you can find more information at this link.
About the Author
Diana Calvo is a coach who helps people get unstuck and transform their day-to-day experience of work and life. After 20 years successfully climbing the corporate ladder, Diana experienced her own journey of healing and awakening. She discovered her true calling to guide others on their journey out of suffering and into a life of purpose and joy. Diana left the corporate world to start her own coaching business. She lives in Denver, Colorado with her dog Joey and a beautiful view of the mountains. She works with clients across the globe.