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So Your In-Laws Are Narcissists: Here's How To Deal, From Psychologists

Abby Moore
Assistant Managing Editor By Abby Moore
Assistant Managing Editor
Abby Moore is an assistant managing editor at mindbodygreen. She earned a B.A. in Journalism from The University of Texas at Austin and has previously written for Tribeza magazine.
Mother and Adult Daughter Setting the Dinner Table

Ever heard the saying when you marry someone, you also marry their family? Well, it may be truer than ever when the person you're marrying has narcissistic parents, whose opinions—and emotional abuse—can be hard to escape.

Acknowledging the issue with your partner can be difficult, and the effects can affect a marriage. But with the right approach, it's possible to deal with narcissistic in-laws. We talked to licensed therapists to find out how. 

Signs your in-laws might be narcissists. 

Along with the standard traits of narcissism, licensed psychotherapist Babita Spinelli, L.P., says these are a few signs your in-laws may be narcissistic:

  1. They make sure you don't feel included or welcome.
  2. They make efforts to isolate your spouse to exert influence and control. 
  3. They try to pit you and your spouse against each other. 
  4. They demonstrate favoritism within family members. 
  5. They need to feel adored and continue to find ways to feed the narcissistic supply of admiration and appreciation.
  6. They gaslight your experiences so you feel you have done something wrong or are "crazy." 
  7. They attempt to turn other family members against you.
  8. They make you feel like they know your spouse or partner better than you do.

More generally, narcissistic in-laws will be intrusive, opinionated, controlling, and, most of all, entitled, says Wendy Behary, LCSW, therapist and author of Disarming the Narcissist

Along with bringing stress upon you as an individual, these toxic behaviors can lead to conflict between you and your partner. In fact, "the impact of narcissistic in-laws can be detrimental to a relationship," Spinelli says. 


How having narcissistic in-laws can affect a marriage. 

In an effort to remain the most important person in their child's life, a narcissistic in-law can try to build a rift between members of a couple. If your spouse was raised by narcissistic parents, they can easily become enmeshed in these behaviors and view them as normal. This can make it challenging for them to set boundaries or even to understand where you're coming from. 

"For example, a partner could express that their parent's behavior is one the other should 'get used to' or justify it as how he or she grew up," Spinelli explains. "This denial of unhealthy behaviors will ultimately elicit feeling unsupported, unseen, and unheard." 

If you and your spouse aren't on the same page about the situation, it may lead to a breakdown in communication. "One partner may begin to shut down, and the other continues to criticize the first partner for not being more tolerant," she explains.

Even if the couple agrees about the unhealthy dynamics of the in-laws, she adds, "there is still an impact as the couple may find themselves depleted from the constant interjection of the narcissistic in-laws in their lives." 

How to deal with narcissistic in-laws. 

Because of the direct impact narcissistic in-laws can have on your relationship, it's important to learn how to deal with them and know how to effectively set boundaries and communicate with your spouse. 

Here are a few approaches Spinelli recommends for dealing with narcissistic in-laws, as a couple: 

1. Communicate nonconfrontationally. 

If you and your partner seem to be on a different page about the situation, "lean into your feelings and share this with your partner instead of accusing," Spinelli says. Asking them if they see the toxic behaviors is a great place to start. "If they get defensive, find a time when you can communicate about concerns, generally," she adds. 

If you and your spouse struggle with communication, consider seeking out a therapist who can help navigate those difficult conversations. Someone specifically trained in narcissistic abuse and marriage counseling might be best.  


2. Create a joint set of nonnegotiables. 

Creating agreed-upon boundaries will ensure each of you is supported when enforcing them. Figure out what you're OK with and what you're not OK with as a couple when it comes to interactions with your in-laws. "Presenting a united front is essential," Spinelli says. "Communicate what that looks like for the relationship, and continue to check in with each other."  

This can be especially important if you have children since narcissistic in-laws may be critical of your parenting style and values regarding education, discipline, and religion. (Here: how to set healthy boundaries with in-laws after your child's birth.) 

3. Disengage and disconnect. 

If the behavior is continually toxic and interfering with your and your partner's well-being, "lighten your emotional engagement and maintain disconnection," she says. "This can be challenging, but emotional detachment can be necessary to maintain a safe space between the relationship and the in-laws." 

While navigating narcissistic in-laws will be difficult, it doesn't have to be detrimental to a relationship. With open communication, firm and agreed-upon boundaries, and the help of a therapist when necessary, it's possible to stand up to narcissistic in-laws and maintain a healthy marriage.

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