My mother-in-law is a narcissist

She tells us way too much about her sex life.

By Cary Tennis
October 23, 2004 12:24AM (UTC)
main article image

Dear reader,

Several people have written to this column recently about how the political situation in America and the upcoming election are affecting them emotionally. Now Salon would like to hear from the rest of you. People are freaking out. They are thinking about leaving the country. They are thinking about committing election fraud. Some have never felt this way about politics before. Others sense history repeating itself.


I have not answered any of those letters yet, but will do so in a special cover package the week of Oct. 25. Meanwhile, pick the issue that's driving you crazy and write to us soon. We'll publish a rich selection of your letters.

Thanks -- and hang in there!

-- C.T. Dear Cary,


Despite the fact that both my husband and I were treated to egregiously inappropriate role models growing up, and have acted out our emotional troubles in a variety of interesting ways over our lifetimes, we have both turned out pretty much OK. We're in a happy, stable marriage. We have a happy, stable toddler. We have problems, but in general we know how to talk through them, compromise, be respectful and compassionate with each other. I expect to be married to this man forever. The main problem we can't seem to figure out is Jane (my husband's mother -- not her real name).

To say Jane has a history of choosing inappropriate partners is putting it mildly, but in fact a few of her seven marriages (including the one that produced my husband, her only child) have ended because of her infidelities rather than the nastiness of her spouses. In her more self-disclosing moments, Jane has shared with me that she regrets the promiscuities of her earlier life, particularly the way they have affected her son, who was in her custody through all the sordid years. And though I murmured something vaguely reassuring in return, probably about how he turned out OK, I think she does have much to answer for. My husband has had a lot of sexual problems over the years, starting when he was barely a teenager, and I think much of it can be attributed to the fact that Jane has too few boundaries with him. She has frequently used him as a surrogate partner (emotionally -- as far as I know there was never any physical incest, but she has been very open about her sex life with him, frequently telling him things he didn't want to know even after he told her to stop). She seems to me to still be inappropriately interested in sharing her sexuality with both him and now me, her daughter-in-law (for example, letting us know that she was sexually dissatisfied with her current husband), but until this week I had thought that the worst of her behavior was in the past, and that she was learning to be more appropriate and reserved both in her personal behavior and with her son. Her current marriage has lasted 12 years, a record for her. But now, she's acting out again, and I don't know how to handle the fallout. Here's the gist of it.

She and her husband came to visit last weekend, and while she and I were alone she let me know that she "needed someone to talk to" about "something that happened" with an Internet-renewed boyfriend from high school while she was on an out-of-state trip. This boyfriend has been married for over 30 years, and his wife is dying of an advanced, incurable disease. He and Jane have been instant messaging and talking on the phone and it's been apparent that he is using his "deep undying love" for Jane to displace some of his fear and loneliness. She wanted to talk about what had happened on her trip, but didn't want to put me in an awkward position, since she preferred her son not know the details. I stopped her there and asked her not to say more, because (as Jane knows) I don't like having to keep confidences from my husband. One of our strengths is that we don't really keep much of anything from each other, and I didn't want the burden of unwanted knowledge. Jane didn't really respect my wishes and without actually using the exact words, made it clear that she had slept with this man while on vacation and that this had crystallized her desire to divorce her current husband. I didn't say much, but was angry and resentful that she hadn't respected my wishes and that now I had this burden of confidence that interfered in the clarity of my relationship with my husband.


Things simmered for a few days. Then, Jane dropped the bomb on my husband. Not only did she tell him everything she had told me, except with gorier details, but through his protests she even embellished a bit. (Turns out the dying wife's heart was broken by the infidelity -- nice touch, isn't it?) She told my husband that the reason she felt she had to tell him all of this was because she was "afraid he would be disappointed in her." He is telling me all of this in the privacy of our bedroom, nearly in tears, while the atmosphere in the front room, between Jane and her current husband, is charged to say the least. And our toddler is running around between all the adults, trying to figure out what's wrong, people-pleasing his little head off, which just breaks my heart to see, since I have tried so hard to raise him without this precise kind of tension in his life.

My husband is devastated on so many levels, Cary. The nuances are way too deep to get into in a supposedly brief letter, but of course, there's the fact of history repeating itself (his father has been basically a nonentity in his life since his divorce from Jane, which is a constant ache); Jane's obvious narcissism is clearly not getting any better and it is dragging up decades worth of crap for my husband; Jane's current husband is the closest thing our son has to a grandfather and he'll soon be out of the picture, etc., etc., etc.


I am so angry I can't see my way through. We've just recently been through a miscarriage and hadn't really recovered from that, and now all this. Part of me wants to kick her to the curb forever, but my husband won't allow that. He loves her, even though she's crazy, and to be uncomfortably honest, I'm not sure he has always worked as hard as he could on maintaining his side of the Jane boundary. To complicate things, when she's not acting crazy and selfish, she's a generous, compassionate, loving person, a caring and sensitive grandmother, and a relatively fun person to be around. But she can't just be sat down and talked to -- you know what it's like trying to tell a narcissist "your behavior is hurting other people and needs to change." It just doesn't get through, or if it does, it takes the form of a vicious attack on their very soul and personhood. It always somehow becomes someone else's fault. And we don't have the energy to deal with it right now.

It's a credit to my husband that he turned out as sane as he did (which isn't always that sane, but he does his best, as do I). But how can I reconcile my anger at Jane, and the pain she is causing my family with her selfishness, with his need to have his mom and our son's grandmother be a large part of our life? I think it's my husband's place, rather than mine, to try to keep the fences strong and well repaired, but I am not sure he's really capable of it. And I'm not sure I want to take up the battle for him, even if I could or should. But I do know that I can't allow her to keep doing this to my family, under my roof, anymore.

I'd appreciate any insight you might have -- even if it's just a way to stop being so mad at her. I want to adopt a compassionate detachment, but I just can't stop judging her in so many ways -- for her immoral, hypocritical behavior, and her selfishness, and her complete lack of common sense and respect for other people's feelings. What can I do? She's not going away -- in fact she'll be around for her grandson's third birthday party next month. How can I get through this without throwing an emotional rod? How can I help my husband do the same?


Sad and Angry

Dear Sad and Angry,

The only defense I can think of is to say, "Stop it right there" -- and mean it, for real. Don't just say, "Please don't tell me." Absolutely refuse to hear it. Walk out of the room. Do not listen. Be unrelenting. Do not allow it to happen. I do not know how it can be done gracefully, but I imagine it can at least be done.


This will not, however, change her into a different person. Life with such a person is a chronic difficulty. There are situations you can fix and situations that you need to endure. While you're enduring, you may need emotional support. So employ a skilled counselor to whom you can run for support during or after these incursions across the boundary of your personhood.

I imagine you surrounded by wolves. An animal might play dead. Perhaps that's what we do when we're surrounded -- we play dead. We suppress. We disappear. We go numb. Say you are playing dead while a wolf stands over you. As the wolf stands over you, you begin surreptitiously building a wall, brick by brick, making slow, deliberate movements the wolf can barely detect.

How do you build this wall? Out of available materials. Whatever you have handy. The materials of this wall are the solid things that you know and can line up in a circle around you -- your understanding that your mother-in-law is sick but not evil, your knowledge that eventually this will pass, your faith that out of it will come something better and more human, your clear compassion for your husband and all his family, your confidence in your own strength to endure, your clarity of mind, your gratitude for the things that are good in your life, your knowing that when the wolf looks away, you can dial your therapist and report, perhaps with dark and muted humor, the strange, confused look in the wolf's eye as you carry out this secret plan of defense.

Building such a wall may cause you to recall how you dealt with "egregiously inappropriate role models" when you were a child. Perhaps building walls and playing dead are two of the ways you dealt with it then. Perhaps there are other ways as well.


The wall is of course a metaphor. Let me put it another way. What I mean to suggest is that you think your way into protection, by gathering truth and strength and holding them dear; visualize an inviolable boundary between you and your narcissistic mother-in-law; make a psychological safe space for yourself. This I believe you can do. Not everyone can do this. But you show, in the detailed completeness of your letter, that you have a very clear picture in your mind of your situation. What I am suggesting is that you add to this, consciously, a barrier of your own making.

Once you feel secure, having built your wall, and having brought your husband and toddler into its safe confines, you can all regard his mother with a blend of compassion and sad humor. It will also give you the strength to insist, at times, that she simply shut her mouth or get out of the house.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

What? You want more?

  • Read more Cary Tennis in the Since You Asked directory.
  • See what others are saying in the Table Talk forum.
  • Ask for advice.
  • Make a comment to the editor.

  • Cary Tennis

    MORE FROM Cary TennisFOLLOW @carytennisLIKE Cary Tennis

    Related Topics ------------------------------------------

    Since You Asked