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5 Tips for Dealing with a Narcissistic Mother-in-Law

5 Tips for Dealing with a Narcissistic Mother-in-Law

Every family is unique and has its own set of challenges. Part of our Christian journey is learning how to interact with different people. When it comes to families, there is no perfect family.

This article deals with the specific challenge of interacting with a narcissistic mother-in-law. When we marry our spouse, we have the privilege of joining someone else's family. There will be good times and obstacles with every family. Facing the challenges will be a growth opportunity. We can set boundaries and expectations, but ultimately it is God who can change them. Let's look at how we can best interact with a narcissist mother-in-law.

How Do Narcissistic People Act?

The Mayo Clinic describes narcissistic personality disorder as a "condition in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for excessive attention and admiration, troubled relationships, and a lack of empathy for others. But behind this mask of extreme confidence lies a fragile self-esteem that's vulnerable to the slightest criticism. People with narcissistic personality disorder may be generally unhappy and disappointed when they're not given the special favors or admiration they believe they deserve. They may find their relationships unfulfilling, and others may not enjoy being around them."

A narcissist will struggle to have deep relationships in their life, family, work, friends. Psychology Today states a narcissist has "a hunger for appreciation or admiration, a desire to be the center of attention, and an expectation of special treatment reflecting perceived higher status." The severity of the symptoms can vary from person to person but usually involves extreme self-focus, an inflated sense of self, and a strong desire for recognition and praise. A narcissist will have a consistent pattern of these behaviors that impact the relationships of those around them, including you.

Awareness of this condition will help you better understand your mother-in-law. While you can still have a relationship with her, you must acknowledge and come to terms with the limitations of your relationship. You may need to reorient your expectations to set yourself up for success. Part of this might be grieving the relationship you hoped to have and being more prepared for the journey ahead.

1. Communicate with Your Spouse about Your Mother-in-Law

If your mother-in-law is a narcissist, one of the key strategies in managing your relationship with her will be strong, healthy communication with your husband. Your husband will always love his mother, as he should. His actions and words may at times be defensive if you try to call his attention to her grandiose self-importance. When you grow up in an environment, it's hard to spot negative patterns until someone from the outside points them out to you. Be gentle as you navigate these conversations. "A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger." (Proverbs 15:1)

If you and your husband are on the same page, it will make for a less stressful situation when dealing with your mother-in-law. If your husband sees her unhealthy patterns and how they impact her relationships, you can work together to deal with the situation as a couple. You can be a team, a united front. If you are not on the same page about your mother-in-law's narcissism, it will be more challenging but even more critical for you and your husband to communicate on the matter. Discuss how the relationship with her impacts your marriage or family, then consider seeing a Christian counselor together if it's constantly causing conflict between you.

Prayer is extremely impactful. If the two of you can pray together for the relationship, this is a beautiful way to bring you closer and turn the problem over to God. Knowing our limitations is a wonderful thing and draws us closer to God.

2. Set Boundaries with Your Narcissistic Mother-in-Law

"Made in the image of God, we were created to take responsibility for certain tasks. Part of taking responsibility, or ownership, is knowing what is our job, and what isn't. Workers who continually take on duties that aren't theirs will eventually burn out. It takes wisdom to know what we should be doing and what we shouldn't. We can't do everything. Any confusion of responsibilities and ownership in our lives is a problem of boundaries" This exert is taken from the Boundaries book by Dr. Henry Cloud & Dr. John Townsend.

Understanding boundaries and how they work takes time and practice but is well worth the effort. You must learn where you stop and where someone else begins. Lack of healthy boundaries can impact your work life, your home life, friends, and in this case, your extended family. If your mother-in-law is a narcissist, she probably doesn't understand, nor respect, healthy boundaries. This means you need to learn about them and how to set them with her. She will resist and get angry when you first implement them. Expect pushback; that is part of the process.

Learning how to set healthy boundaries with unhealthy people is critical. As discussed above, it's also extremely important for you and your spouse to be on the same page about the boundaries you are setting individually and for your family. You are allowed to set the invisible property lines in your life, especially for unhealthy individuals. If you are struggling in this area, I highly recommend the Boundaries book so you can research this topic further.

3. Set Realistic Expectations for Your Relationship with Your Mother-in-Law

Sometimes we get grandiose ideas of how we are going to change someone. Our intentions are good, and our heart is in the right place; we have just forgotten one key component. It is God who changes hearts and people, not us. We can pray, we have control over our reactions and decisions, but we cannot change someone else. That is up to God.

While this may sound like disappointing news, it's actually very freeing. You are not responsible for changing other people. You can love and support them, but the actual change comes from God and them. If they choose not to change their ways or habits, you can't force them. They must desire change in themselves and make an effort towards that action.

Research shows that narcissists don't change unless they want to. They must seek professional help with counseling or turn to God for help. This condition won't dissolve overnight. Set realistic expectations for you and your spouse; otherwise, you will constantly be frustrated and emotionally exhausted. If you expect your mother-in-law to wake up a different person the next day, this is not setting you up for success. If you expect her to change her selfish ways because you have set a boundary or had a chat with her, you will remain frustrated.

Most narcissists don't see their behavior as a problem. Unless she becomes aware of how her narcissism is affecting others and desires to change, you will not see much change.

4. Know Who You Are Before Dealing with Your Mother-in-Law

When dealing with a narcissist, or any challenging relationship in your life, it helps to be confident in who you are in Christ. Otherwise, you have a great chance of being manipulated or constantly being on an emotional rollercoaster. Knowing who you are in Christ can help you deal with your narcissist mother-in-law. If your confidence and self-esteem rely on her approval, you will constantly feel inadequate.

Matthew 22:37 says, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind." Your first and most important relationship should be with the Lord, praising him, loving him, repenting to Him, and learning about Him. "In all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight." (Proverbs 3:6)

Proper fear in the Lord brings knowledge. (Proverbs 1:7) Fearing the Lord and not your mother-in-law will help you stay focused on Him. The more you focus on Him, the less you will allow the turbulent waves of your mother-in-law to affect you.

We often use a saying in our home, "water off a duck's back." Let the things other people say that may be hurtful or immature roll off our backs. We mainly use it with our kids, but adults can hear this advice as well. Brant Hansen, in his book Unoffendable, discusses this very topic. We are the ones that lose when we allow others' comments to penetrate us deeply. We are better off if we can be unoffendable and let things roll off our backs. The healthier we are, the better equipped we are to deal with the unhealthy relationships in our life.

5. Only God Can Change Your Narcissistic Mother-in-Law

While this situation may feel all-consuming at times, remember everyone has difficult relationships in their life. The key is to face the challenge head-on, be honest about the issues, and learn how best to respond to each situation that comes your way.

We have an amazing redeeming God who can create the most beautiful redemption stories. Don't lose hope but remember the change in your mother-in-law is beyond your doing. Keep focusing on your relationship with God, and He will strengthen you.

2 Corinthians 4:16-18 says, "Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal."

Photo credit: ©Getty Images/fizkes

Katie Kennedy headshotKatie T. Kennedy lives in Richmond, VA. She is married to a wonderful husband Jonathan and they have three girls. She is a writer, blogger, and employee of the family business. After a mid-life spiritual transformation, she discovered her love of writing. She loves to travel, read, be in nature, cook, and dream.  She would love to connect with you online at, Instagram or Facebook.