- Narcissistic parents-in-law are incredibly cruel, often going out of their way to make sure their son or daughter’s spouse doesn’t feel welcome, according to trauma therapist Shannon Thomas.
- If the child from the narcissistic family is oblivious to the harm being caused, it can slowly tear apart their marriage.
- Sometimes they are wise to it, but it’s still incredibly hard to deal with their mind games.
- For example, narcissistic in-laws will play favorites, isolate the target from their own children, and lie about anything to fit their narrative and make the target feel excluded.
- Narcissists often act like they’re reading from the same instruction manual, so there are some telltale signs that a toxic in-law is what you’re dealing with.
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Imagine marrying into a family and realizing your mother and father-in-law are hellbent on destroying your entire life, relationship, and self-esteem. It may sound like the plot of a psychological thriller, but toxic, narcissistic in-laws are a reality many people live with.
“Narcissistic in-laws are incredibly cruel,” trauma therapist Shannon Thomas told Insider. “Everybody wants to be a part of a healthy, fun family, but when you are the target, with that sense of belonging and wanting to be one of them, they make it extremely clear that you are not.”
Narcissistic in-laws can ruin a marriage, Thomas said, especially if the son or daughter is oblivious to the games their parents are playing. Thomas said it’s probably because they are in denial about the level of toxicity their family has.
Read more: Narcissistic parents identify their children as either a favourite or a scapegoat, and they pit them against each other
The child of a narcissist will sometimes already be wise to their parent’s behavior, but other times they have to be made aware of it by seeing them through their partner’s eyes.
“I think it’s the partner saying it again and again and pointing it out,” Thomas said. “It’s pulling the curtain back on the family dynamic, and kind of holding up a mirror so the adult child of the narcissist can see it.”
If the child from the narcissistic family is oblivious to the harm being caused, it can slowly tear apart their marriage.
“I get a lot of folks coming in and they’re not sure about the marriage because they don’t feel supported, and there’s a lot of tension, which is exactly the narcissistic parents’ goal,” Thomas said.
“What we start unpacking is, is this a normal family situation where two personalities don’t get along? Or is there something a lot more poisonous going on?”
Narcissists often act like they’re reading from the same instruction manual, so there are some telltale signs that a toxic in-law is what you’re dealing with.
Narcissistic in-laws like to play favorites
It can sometimes take grandchildren to be in the picture for the narcissistic in-laws to show their true colors. For instance, in one family Thomas knew, two grandchildren had the same name.
“One grandchild would text the narcissistic grandparent but she wouldn’t reply,” Thomas said. “But then she’d text the targeted grandchild and say ‘oh oops I accidentally texted you. I meant to text the other grandchild of the same name.'”
She did this to show she’s available but is purposefully ignoring the grandchild of the spouse she doesn’t like, Thomas said.
“If it’s a one off, sure, but if it happens three different times, you’ll notice it’s more than just a mistake,” she said. “Narcissists are so lacking in self awareness they don’t remember that they’ve already done it four or five times.”
They may also try and isolate the targeted spouse from their own children.
“Especially if they’re saying ‘hey we want to take you to Disney world’ or ‘we want to take you on this trip, or that trip,'” Thomas said. “And then while the grandchildren are on that trip, they’re being poisoned against their targeted parent.”
Certain patterns like this emerge, particularly when there are several siblings within the family. The narcissistic parent tends to choose a favorite golden child, while the others are left to fight for attention in different ways. Some become “flying monkeys” and aid the narcissistic parent in their manipulations.
Whatever the dynamic, the narcissistic parent is always working to feed their supply of adoration, all the while pitting the siblings against each other.
They like those who are most like them
When siblings start their own lives, their partners can slot into the toxic chaos in a number of ways, either being accepted or rejected, depending on how alike they are to the narcissistic parents.
“The cruelty is you’ll see them be very close to some family members, and they will definitely bring some in-laws into the fold,” Thomas said. “It’s because they like the family members that are most like them.”
It’s common for most of the members of narcissistic families to follow a similar career path, like law. But when one of their children brings in an outsider who goes against the theme of the nuclear family they can see it as an attack.
“Especially if they’ve not made an attempt to be like them,” said Thomas. “If the in-law has continued to stand in their own independence, that’s when they really attack.”
It can even rile them up if a newly-introduced spouse has a different taste in food. Thomas said they will serve them food they clearly won’t eat then “turn around and act like the victim.”
For example, a woman recently sent an absurd and disturbing letter to The Cut’s “Ask Polly” column, where she explained that her in-laws refused to stop serving her mushrooms even though she is deathly allergic to them.
Read more: A woman told an advice column that her in-laws won’t stop serving her mushrooms despite her deadly allergy, and a trauma therapist thinks it could be a sign of toxic narcissism
But Thomas said it was never about mushrooms specifically, it was about control. Narcissists are so desperate for control they favor it even over the safety and well-being of another person.
“That individualization is not allowed at all,” Thomas said. “You can’t choose your own career. You can’t even choose your own food.”
You’ll notice a lot of mean behaviors
Other games the narcissist in-laws play include:
- Planning a trip and only inviting the targeted spouse a couple of days before. This way they can say “we invited them, they just didn’t want to come.”
- They will sit down very quickly when going to a restaurant, so the targeted partner is left without a place or has to sit alone.
- They won’t say hello when the targeted spouse enters a room. Instead, they might turn to them a few minutes later and say “oh, I didn’t see you there.”
- They will try and make it seem like they know their child better than their spouse does. They will lie about things they like or what they’ve said — anything to fit their narrative.
Complaining about their behaviors sounds petty, but it builds up over time
Trying to explain why these behaviors are hurtful one at a time is difficult because they sound so trivial. But they’re not, especially when the spouse has been dealing with it for years.
In fact, narcissists probably plan their behavior very carefully so that any complaint would sound petty. Over time they can make their target feel like they’re losing their mind.
“They thrive off the chaos and some of the mean girl or guy kind of behaviors, the bullying behaviors,” said Thomas. “They actually enjoy it like any narcissist does. It’s that entertainment factor that is very much present for narcissistic parents. They enjoy being cruel.”
She said it’s important targeted partners realize they are not the distorted version of themselves the narcissistic in-laws are painting them to be. To remind themselves of their worth they should spend time with friends and put boundaries in place with how, where, and when they visit their partner’s family.
This is infinitely easier if their partner is also wise to what’s going on, she said, because then they can stand strong as a team. Otherwise, the marriage probably won’t last, and narcissistic parents are more than happy to fund an incredibly ugly divorce.
But when the couple have a untited front, Thomas said it’s not unreasonable to choose detached contact in these situations, or in extreme cases, no further contact at all.
“There’s a lot of recovery available, once someone comes to terms with what they’re dealing with and stays grounded and rooted in the life they have together,” she said. “It’s choosing health together. And that’s really wonderful to watch.”
Read more: 17 steps to leaving an abusive relationship with a narcissist