Got a Narcissistic Mother-in-Law? Here's How to Maintain Your Boundaries

Protect your family dynamics and your mental sanity

<p>Guille Faingold / Stocksy</p>

Guille Faingold / Stocksy

Medically reviewed by Yolanda Renteria, LPC

In-law family dynamics are understandably complicated because you’re merging two very distinct approaches to life. However, having to deal with a narcissistic mother-in-law introduces a new dimension of complications that can quickly become exhausting for everyone involved.


While narcissistic personality disorder is a formal diagnosis, the nature of the disorder often means that it goes undiagnosed. This is because many narcissists do not fully grasp the problem with their behaviors or character.

That said, a diagnosis is not always necessary in order to identify whether someone is a narcissist, notes therapist Natalie Jambazian, LMFT, who specializes in narcissist abuse recovery. She adds that since narcissism falls under a wide spectrum, it’s also possible for someone not to have a full diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder even if they exhibit some narcissistic traits. The person on the receiving end of this behavior, then, can look for defining traits of a narcissist.

“They may also project their insecurities onto others, victimize themselves, and blame others. They often are selfish and exhibit controlling behaviors," Jambazian says.

Related: How to Spot a Narcissistic Sociopath

Traits of a Narcissistic Mother-in-Law

Generally speaking, narcissists are very inwardly focused, which is often at the expense of others. Therapist Leanna Stockard, LMFT, says this can present as avoiding blame, neglecting personal responsibility, acting selfishly, utilizing manipulative tactics to get their way, and being unable to see another’s perspective.


The official diagnosis of Narcissistic Personality Disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5-TR) includes exaggerated feelings of self-importance, an excessive need for admiration, a delusional sense of self, diminished ability or unwillingness to empathize with others’ feelings, interpersonally exploitative behavior.

Specifically, some traits or behaviors you might see in a narcissistic mother-in-law may include:

  • Initially charming and charismatic to gain approval

  • Exhibits jealous behavior, especially regarding their child’s relationship with their life partner

  • Won’t take responsibility for behaviors or harm they’ve caused in the past or recently

  • Becomes aggressive or hostile if things don’t go her way or may rely on “guilt-tripping” to get her way

  • Oversteps clearly defined (or generally accepted) personal boundaries

  • Inserts herself into her children’s lives and their relationships

  • Uses triangulation, where they create conflicts and competition between family members

  • Doesn’t inquire (or seem to care) about her child’s feelings or experiences and may even dismiss them outright

  • Won’t commit to events and/or tries to control big plans

  • Seeks revenge or holds deep grudges

  • Demands appreciation, praise, and attention to the point of exhaustion

Related: 5 Types of Narcissism and How to Spot Them

The Impact of a Narcissistic Mother-in-Law on Family Dynamics

“Dealing with a narcissistic mother-in-law can cause immense stress and recurring arguments in a romantic relationship. They are often insecure and jealous, and for this reason, will create conflict between you and your partner by criticizing you, spreading false narratives, and undermining the relationship,” Stockard explains.

She adds that narcissistic mother-in-laws also have no sense of boundaries, and therefore violate boundaries on your personal space, decisions, and parenting styles. They are also skilled manipulators and may use guilt, fear, or emotional blackmail to maintain control in a situation or dynamic.

“This can be emotionally and psychologically exhausting, especially if your partner is in denial of their mother’s toxic traits,” Stockard says. “Having to constantly prove yourself, feeling anxious, or not knowing what to expect from your mother-in-law can be damaging to your mental health.”

What complicates things further, sometimes, is that narcissistic mother-in-laws are somewhat unpredictable and can be very good at disguising some of their toxic traits when around others. They may show a completely different image of themselves outside versus inside of their family dynamics, which can feel very confusing and frustrating.

Related: How to Recognize a Covert Narcissist

Setting Boundaries & Managing Your Relationship

This cycle only continues unless firm boundaries are set, and it’s important for both you and your partner to get on the same page so you can become a united front. This strengthens your relationship and creates a strong signal.

“Some practical strategies to set boundaries include learning to say no and not feeling like you need to give into requests, demands, or unrealistic expectations your mother-in-law may set on you,” Stockard says. “I recommend staying calm but assertive and communicating your boundaries.”

Examples of Boundaries To Draw

  • Not allowing certain language around you and your family (e.g. demeaning or disparaging remarks, gossip)

  • Not allowing yelling

  • Not allowing physical behaviors, like slamming doors, throwing things, etc.

  • Calling out and not tolerating triangulation tactics

  • Meeting in public spaces (versus at your home) so you can leave when you need to

  • Having clear timeframes for how long you’ll spend together

  • Only seeing each other at certain times and with a clear plan (like a birthday or special occasion)

All that said, Jambazian adds that “establishing and enforcing boundaries with your mother-in-law can be a gradual process and may take some time to see its effects.” People’s actions have natural consequences, and it’s essential to set your boundaries and uphold those consequences.

Related: How to Deal With a Narcissistic Parent

What to Avoid

Reasoning can be difficult with a narcissist living in their own world, especially if they’ve lived in that world for some time and see nothing wrong with their behaviors. As tempting (and difficult) as it might be, try to avoid the following:

  • Try not to react: Narcissists sometimes have a way of throwing everything at you all at once to see what sticks and to get a rise out of you. They’ve learned in the past this is a way for them to get attention. A strong reaction from you is exactly what they want, and it will likely lead to escalation versus resolution. It also gives her a way to turn things back around on you as the “unreasonable” person in the dynamic.

  • Don’t become defensive: Becoming defensive is the least effective way to engage with a narcissistic mother-in-law,” says Jambazian. “This presents you to her as appearing guilty, and she may weaponize this perception in your relationship with your partner.”

  • Avoid power struggles: Engaging in power struggles and trying to one-up your mother-in-law can worsen dynamics within your relationship with your partner, her, and the family at large.

  • Don’t attack and accuse: There’s a lot you probably want to say—the way you’ve been hurt, the trouble she’s caused you and your family, the frustration you deal with on a routine basis precisely because of her behaviors. Unfortunately, confronting a narcissistic is rarely effective and typically backfires.

What This Means For You

The best thing you can do in a narcissistic relationship dynamic is to recognize that this behavior is atypical, that you aren’t “crazy” for feeling the way you do, and that it’s imperative to draw firm boundaries and prioritize yourself and your family first and foremost.


If you or a loved one are a victim of narcissistic abuse, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database

Read Next: 6 De-Escalation Techniques to Diffuse Conflict

Read the original article on Verywell Mind.