11 Signs You're Dealing With a Narcissistic Mother-in-Law

Plus how to deal with a narcissistic mother-in-law so you can protect your peace.
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Wendy Rose Gould
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Wendy Rose Gould
The Knot Contributor
  • Wendy Rose Gould is a freelance reporter based in Phoenix, Arizona.
  • Along with The Knot, she contributes to Martha Stewart Living, Real Simple, Insider, Verywell Mind and others.
  • Wendy has a degree in editorial journalism and a second degree in philosophy.
Updated Mar 07, 2024

Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is a mental health condition characterized by an unrelenting pattern of admiration-seeking behavior, a sense of entitlement and grandiosity, and a general lack of empathy toward others. Those dealing with a narcissistic mother-in-law often see these behaviors up close and personal and are directly impacted by the narcissist's behaviors.

Over time, interactions with a narcissist mother-in-law can put a serious strain on your in-law relationship as well as the relationship you have with your spouse. If you're wondering "Is my mother-in-law a narcissist?" we're here to help. Ahead, we're providing a clear definition of this personality disorder and 11 key signs to look for. We're also sharing some actionable ways you can navigate this tricky relationship.

In this article:

What Is Narcissism?

NPD is a personality disorder characterized by distinct clinical features, says Dr. Elisabeth Crain, PsyD, a therapist specializing in narcissistic abuse recovery and other relationship challenges. She says that the key clinical signs of narcissistic personality disorder often include the following:

  • Lack of empathy for others
  • Display of a grandiose, inflated sense of self and high self-importance
  • Difficulty or inability to handle criticism
  • Sense of entitlement, expecting people or things to be owed to them
  • Strong desire for unwarranted admiration
  • Belief that they are extraordinary or have superiority over others
  • Egotistical or conceited viewpoints

"Narcissism is found on a spectrum, and the degrees to which someone suffers from NPD varies from person to person," Dr. Crain says. "At the most extreme, we see a textbook narcissist who checks all the boxes, and at the less extreme we see 'healthy narcissism,' which is the idea that filling your own needs in a positive, non-exploitative way may be beneficial to the person if it allows them to reach their goals."

The difference between the two is that someone with an unhealthy narcissism negatively impacts those around with consistency and frequency. In this case, the narcissist exploits others, belittles them, puts their needs above all others and exhibits very little (if any) empathy.

11 Signs of a Narcissistic Mother-in-Law

The very nature of NPD means that "most individuals with the disorder are unlikely to seek help or receive a formal diagnosis," Dr. Crain says. In fact, if they find themselves in therapy or lamenting to others, they may be seeking affirmation/justification for their own behaviors and carry a belief that others in their circle are the problem—not them! That means that many extreme narcissists you meet won't have a formal diagnosis.

So, how can you tell if you have a narcissistic mother-in-law? You likely won't ever get a definitive answer, but you can look for some key signs. The more frequent and consistent these behaviors, the more likely you have a narcissist mother-in-law.

She's the Star of the Show

Overall, a narcissistic mother-in-law will always want to remain the star of the show. This means she needs others to cater to her and bend to her preferences without compromise. This can look like dominating conversations, creating drama between family members, undermining others, celebrating her own milestones excessively while minimizing others' celebrations, and gatekeeping information to control the narrative.

She Engages in Triangulation

A key trait of narcissists is that they engage in a behavior called triangulation. "This is involving others in conflicts or discussions to maintain control or create division amongst a group," Dr. Crain says. For example, she may employ triangulation by discussing others' private issues, sharing a distorted version of events, pitting two people against each other and generally creating confusion and tension within the family.

She's Volatile When Confronted or Critiqued

It's not exactly fun to receive critical feedback or have a boundary drawn by another. However, many people can handle these situations with a sense of level headedness, grace and understanding. A narcissistic mother-in-law may have an angry eruption when confronted because her fragile ego becomes endangered. It's very difficult for narcissists to admit they're wrong or healthily process feedback.

She Lacks Genuine Interest In Others' Feelings

Since narcissists are very ego-centered, they tend to lack empathy. Dr. Crain says that a narcissistic mother-in-law may "lack a genuine interest in others' feelings or experiences, often dismissing them."

She's an Excellent Manipulator

Narcissistic people frequently use manipulation to achieve their goals or get their way. This can look like serious guilt-tripping, emotional blackmail or playing on others' sympathies.

She Craves Admiration and Attention

"A narcissistic mother-in-law often seeks constant admiration or attention from others and expects others to prioritize her needs and desires above their own," Dr. Crain says. She may seek praise, compliments and validation, and may become disproportionately upset if not consistently affirmed or praised.

She's Desperate For Control

A narcissistic mother-in-law may come across as domineering and controlling. She could seek control through decision-making dominance, micromanaging lives or even isolating family members. Emotional blackmail and gaslighting are also common tools used by a narcissist to maintain authority.

She Belittles Others' Milestones

One way that a narcissist attempts to remain the center of attention (or make themselves be viewed as more admirable) is to belittle others' milestones. She may make them about herself, "one up" the other person or write them off as unimportant.

She Has a Pattern of Exploitation

A narcissistic mother-in-law may exploit friends and family—including her own children—for her benefit. For example, she might emotionally exploit people by guilt-tripping family members into complying with her wishes. Financially, she could consistently borrow money without repayment or wield her own money to get her way. These behaviors contribute to a power dynamic where she consistently gains at the expense of others.

Her Relationships Are Strained

Those with NPD often struggle to maintain healthy relationships. This is because, eventually, these ugly traits come through and people naturally distance themselves. If other family members or her friends express and demonstrate a strained relationship, then this is a clear sign.

She's a Great Actor

A covert narcissist mother-in-law is characterized by a subtler manifestation of narcissistic traits compared to those with more overt behaviors. In this case, she may maintain a facade of humility while simultaneously seeking admiration, control and validation. Covert narcissists may appear self-effacing, yet they manipulate through guilt, passive-aggressiveness and playing the victim.

How to Deal with a Narcissistic Mother-in-Law

If the above signs of a narcissistic mother-in-law feel way too familiar, then it's probably time to set some healthy boundaries. Doing so can help you achieve peace, strengthen your relationship with your partner and, in some cases, may even improve your relationship with your in-law.

Try to Understand Them

We know, we know. The last thing you want to do when seething is see the other person's side. Doing so can help a ton, though.

"The best approach when dealing with a narcissist is to understand them," says Dr. Crain. "Get savvy about the inner workings of a narcissist's mindset and who they are. Once you understand how they operate, you can navigate the relationship easier."

It can also allow for a more empathetic approach and help you not take certain behaviors as personally.

Manage Your Expectations

That dream of having a perfect mother-in-law is a hard one to part with, but Dr. Crain says that managing expectations from a narcissist is also key to dealing with them.

"Acknowledge that they may not be the person you can turn to for comfort when you're upset or for support in your achievements, as they will often find a way to make things about themselves," she explains. "The idea of changing the narcissist is a futile attempt, rather it comes down to navigating the relationship, which may be challenging."

Set Clear Boundaries

It's crucial to set clear boundaries when dealing with a narcissistic mother-in-law, and even more important to enforce them. Clearly state your limits on intrusive behavior, emotional manipulation, triangulation and disrespectful comments. It's also helpful to outline what you want by saying something like, "Let's focus on positive communication to build a healthier relationship."

Boundaries around time spent together are also important. Maybe that looks like only visiting in public places, setting time limits for how long you do spend together, or staying at a hotel versus their home or your home.

Check In With Yourself

When emotional manipulation or exploitative behaviors run amok, it's hard to stay true to your needs and yourself. This is imperative when dealing with a narcissistic mother-in-law, though.

"Always ask yourself if you are doing something out of obligation or because you 'need' to do it in order to not disappoint others," Dr. Crain says. "When you consistently compromise and put your needs last, it can lead to resentment later down the line."

Create Distance When Necessary

Sometimes, cutting off a narcissistic mother-in-law is the best path forward, though it shouldn't be your first step, Dr. Crain says. "It's better to get savvy and understand who they are, set boundaries and manage expectations when dealing with them," she explains.

That said, removing them from your life makes sense in situations when they relentlessly overstep boundaries or are creating a damaging, toxic environment for your partnership or family.

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