Coping with narcissistic houseguest
November 22, 2018 12:51 PM   Subscribe

My mother isn't abusive anymore now that she has little power to wield, but used to be emotionally abusive. She's staying with me for over a week to visit my child. I'm doing well coping with multiple areas of my life and don't want to lose my progress. Tips for compartmentalizing and such appreciated!

My current strategies include grey rock, redirection, and isolation to recharge myself. I anticipate boundary issues, oversharing, childishness, reactive jealous behavior, possible dramatic complaints and martyrdom, and at the very last possible moment she will probably drag up some crap from the past with the expectation that I withdraw any complaints about said incident leaving her above reproach, which does not happen usually unless I decide to lie for diplomacy, so the trip often ends on a sour note due to my non-compliance with her desires.

I don't like being around her but I want her to spend time with her grandchild in an environment where we have some control, and I'm an adult now so I feel like I can have the maturity to set aside the past as long as she behaves in a safe manner and I have the ability to set boundaries if needed.

I'm low contact usually but not no contact, and I'm not ready to pursue no contact so please withhold that suggestion.

Thanks in advance for your suggestions.
posted by crunchy potato to Human Relations (11 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Sounds like she's still abusive. You seem to have a pretty good handle on it, honestly. The biggest thing would be to make sure you have a practical escape route. Her staying with you is like...okay, but it would be ideal if you had a way to get out of the situation without leaving her stranded/with nowhere to go. Or without you having to leave your home. Maybe mentally map out where you can go to get a break?

In terms of no-contact, obviously that's up to you, but a gentle reminder that it is not about maturity or about morality at all --- either having contact or not having contact is a choice that is totally fine, and a choice that you can make. You are choosing to be in contact with her, which is totally okay, but you're not stuck with it. Remembering that might help you feel more in control.

Good luck!
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 1:00 PM on November 22, 2018 [6 favorites]

"I love you Mum, but you're a guest. In my house. I'd like us to enjoy each other's company but if you can't manage that, you're not being forced to stay here. It's your choice. Now, what would you like to do for dinner?" Basically, play nice or GTFO.
posted by Jubey at 2:01 PM on November 22, 2018 [9 favorites]

I don't like being around her but I want her to spend time with her grandchild

As the grandchild of some really shitty people, I am certain your child will be happier without her. If you don't want to be around her, your child shouldn't be either.
posted by kate blank at 2:37 PM on November 22, 2018 [55 favorites]

I have a Mom very like yours, I think. Everything you plan to do (boundary setting, putting aside the past etc.) would work, assuming you were dealing with someone who also wanted to avoid conflict and have a nice visit. Alas, most narcissists thrive on conflict. Your boundaries are just exciting challenges to them. I wish you the best on this visit, but suggest on future visits you put your Mom in a hotel. She does not have to stay with you. If she complains, too bad. Its this way or no visit at all. Be firm and do not engage in argument. That way if she gets out of control you have somewhere she can go, and every night you get a break and some down time.
posted by WalkerWestridge at 2:53 PM on November 22, 2018 [7 favorites]

A couple of clarifying points.

My mother derives a lot of ego from being an educator, and from teaching children. So she's mostly feeding her ego at this point, but it's harmless Pinteresty activities.

She also knows that our relationship is strained, so she does try to be on her best behavior lest I withdraw her ability to interact with her grandkid.

She tends to spare the younger children from criticism etc, because they don't challenge her. I anticipate that the relationship with my child will become more frought as my child gets older, and I won't hesitate to keep him from her if she can't behave.

I'm looking mostly for internal/invisible coping methods, as WalkerWestridge rightly stated that setting boundaries assertively with someone like this leads to fallout, punishment or drama.
posted by crunchy potato at 4:30 PM on November 22, 2018 [2 favorites]

A big part of this seems to be getting time to pass without bad stuff happening, if I'm reading right. Along with these Pinterest activities, there's also watching movies and maybe doing a random project like buying a toddler bed or baking or something (does helping make her feel important?). I know that in my family, there is less interpersonal angst if there's some external angst (like "will we finish baking the cake before the party?") or a project that aligns us.

Knowing your mom's triggers and sources of stress and reducing them would help. Sorry to make such a codependent suggestion. Obviously you can't predict and prevent all sources of stress.

If she brings up the past, I think something like "let's not spoil such a nice visit" or "could we please not get into that now?" said somewhat warmly, followed by a quick redirection, is as close as you could get to it not having happened. I don't know -- you know her, not me, so would that work? You'd kind of be declining to go into the fighty space and trying to stay on the emotional ground that you want. Unless, would she take that as a challenge? Probably far easier said than done either way.

As for not letting the one-off comments and general atmosphere get to you... I don't have many ideas, but here's a quick brainstorm. Take lots of breaks. Appreciate the good stuff, like how much attention she's giving your little one and the way that that lets you have a bit of a break. I do this thing where i imagine that I'm inside a bubble, which helps me emotionally disengage from annoying situations. And if she's already trying to be on her best behavior, then maybe in some ways, you've "won" and remembering that could be some solace.
posted by salvia at 5:39 PM on November 22, 2018 [3 favorites]

If she brings up the past, I think something like "let's not spoil such a nice visit"

I would word for word use "I thought we were having a nice time" and then redirect. Also one of the better techniques is leaving the room, either to get a glass of water "Oh hey can I get you anything...?" or going to the bathroom, or getting a phone call you can't pass up or just sort of working on errands and stuff while you visit. And the grey rock stuff does work pretty well in situations like you describe where she is demanding something and you can just politely stone wall. "mmmm hmm...."

so the trip often ends on a sour note due to my non-compliance with her desires.

I'd plan on something palate cleansing (either just for you or for you and your child) that you can do afterwards which will help you get whatever bad taste the visit leaves in your mouth out. I would often spend time with my partner doing a 15 minute vent and then we'd go out for ice cream or something.
posted by jessamyn at 6:58 PM on November 22, 2018 [5 favorites]

Something else useful is getting clearer on what most drives you crazy. Example, if she particularly picks on you or makes attention-seeking comments related to food, then maybe you could just prep trays of deli meat and veggies that both of you could make sandwiches from at your leisure without having to sit down across from each other at a table. Or you could have a bunch of takeout menus and let her choose. Whatever. But keeping an eye on what most drives you crazy and figuring out solutions can have a cumulative positive effect, keeping your stress from building up any higher than it needs to.
posted by salvia at 7:08 PM on November 22, 2018 [2 favorites]

Also, be advised that you can kick her out if she becomes intolerable. She’s an adult. Let her figure out how to deal with her situation if her behavior forces you to end the visit early.

Even just knowing that that is an option can be helpful in keeping your head on straight. You have all the power here, and it’s your house.
posted by Autumnheart at 10:02 PM on November 22, 2018 [3 favorites]

Over a week’s time, there will be a moment when you will get triggered and fall into the trap. It’s absolutely inevitable.

What is your plan for after you blow up at her?

Keep in mind that your child is going to witness and learn the dynamics that exists between the two of you. As a child that witnessed this sort of thing, I hated the way my mom acted before her parents would visit, and I stopped talking to them somewhere between 12 and 14 yrs old. I stopped talking to my mom when I was 25.

My point is that you will not be successful avoiding all conflict, and even if you are the unhealthy dynamic between you will still be entirely perceived by your child, even if your child is super young.

Another example I have for you is that the extended family member I super liked the most when I was 2 yrs old moved overseas when I was still a toddler... and I’m pretty sure that person molested me when I was a toddler because I have vague memories. I’m pretty sure they moved to Europe at that time to escape significant troubles, maybe some concerning me, maybe not. I don’t know. My point is that as a child I was charmed by a very toxic individual and it absolutely effected me when I got older. My 20’s and 30’s were not great relationship-wise, in part because I think unhealthy dynamics were modeled for me as acceptable, and even desirable.

My overall point is that you can’t control any of this, especially the conscious and subconscious messages your child will takeaway from this experience.

- Do you have a friend that can spend the majority of your mom’s visit with you? Or maybe a group of friends that can rotate and act as a buffer? Presumably your mom will be on better behavior in front of outsiders. If the visit is inevitable and you don’t have enough body guards, reconsider asking her to stay at a hotel. Make up an excuse about why she will be more comfortable and get her a room.

- Schedule childcare and a few meaningful self-care activities for yourself on the days after she leaves.
posted by jbenben at 7:20 AM on November 23, 2018 [3 favorites]

Thanks everyone! The visit has been fairly anticlimactic as far as these issues go. She's got failing health and is generally too drained to engage in the problem behaviors. She does continue to become intrusive and competitive when my spouse in specific situations but we aren't in those situations very much.

I appreciate all the feedback and suggestions!
posted by crunchy potato at 5:00 AM on November 27, 2018 [2 favorites]

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