Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Coping With Narcissistic In-Laws

Tips for handling another family's narcissist.

Key points

  • When you know the characteristics of narcissistic behavior, it can be easier to establish boundaries.
  • Narcissistic behavior includes having an inflated sense of self-importance and a lack of empathy for others.
  • Narcissistic in-laws may try to pit you and your spouse against each other through triangulation.
Source: Andreas Rønningen/Unsplash
Narcissistic in-laws can make life very difficult.
Source: Andreas Rønningen/Unsplash

Coping with narcissistic in-laws can be highly stressful, affecting your well-being and your relationship with your spouse. Narcissistic behavior is characterized by an inflated sense of self-importance, a constant need for admiration, and a lack of empathy for others. When dealing with narcissistic in-laws, it's crucial to prioritize your mental health while also finding strategies to manage the dynamics within your relationship with your spouse. While this post primarily focuses on marrying into a family where there is a narcissist, the tips also apply if your child, sibling, or parent has married into a family with a narcissist. Here are some practical tips to help you navigate this complex situation:

Understand Narcissistic Behavior

Educate yourself about narcissism so you can identify manipulative behaviors. Many narcissists will tell you that you are being “too sensitive” or that you “can’t take a joke” when you call them out on their behavior. Their response may leave you wondering whether you had a reason to be upset. Recognize that deep-seated insecurities and fragile self-esteem often drive a narcissist’s actions. Their behavior is not a personal attack on you, even if it feels deeply personal. Narcissists have usually had issues with their manipulative behavior long before you met them. When you know the characteristics of narcissistic behavior, it can be easier to establish boundaries regarding your in-law’s behavior.

Set Clear Boundaries as a Couple

Establish clear boundaries to protect yourself from emotional manipulation or abuse. Communicate your boundaries calmly and assertively. Consistency is key. To present a united front, both spouses must agree on the boundaries and what will be done to enforce them. Remember, boundaries are not meant to “make” someone do something; they remind you when you need to take action to protect your well-being. Enforce your boundaries consistently as a couple to show that they are non-negotiable. It cannot be emphasized enough how important it is that your spouse is on the same page as you. Setting healthy boundaries as a couple also includes agreeing on how much contact your minor children will have with your in-laws. Sometimes, narcissistic in-laws will try to pit children against their parents. Consider limiting your children from being alone with your in-laws, and establish rules on cellphone contact.

Practice Self-Care

Prioritize self-care to maintain your emotional resilience. Take time to engage in activities that keep you occupied and help you feel competent and supported. Walk away from an unhealthy interaction with your in-laws. Taking time away from a family gathering is not “selfish”—it is usually expected that you would not want to be around someone behaving in a toxic or abusive manner. Taking care of yourself, including walking away from a situation, strengthens your ability to leave unwanted situations in the future. Another way to practice self-care with a narcissistic in-law is to put a time limit on your interactions, go low-contact, or even go no contact.

Consider Limiting Contact

If your in-laws cause chaos and drama when they attend a family event, consider having smaller family events where they are not invited. A narcissist will not change their behavior if you point out that their behavior has hurt you. Instead, a narcissist may ramp up their behavior to “put you in your place.” Not including a family member in activities may sound like an extreme step. Still, it is sometimes what you and your family must do to maintain some sense of normalcy and peace—especially around the holidays. If the narcissist discovers that they were not invited to a family gathering, you may be raged at or given silent treatment. They may also make passive-aggressive digs at you over social media. It is best not to reply to angry emails, texts, or social media posts. End a phone call when someone is being verbally or emotionally abusive.

Maintain Healthy Boundaries With Your Partner

Engage in open and honest communication with your spouse about the challenges posed by their narcissistic family members. Work together to establish boundaries that protect your relationship and prioritize your well-being as an individual and a couple. Your spouse may be well aware that their family member is toxic and may agree with your boundaries and will enforce them as needed. However, sometimes spouses have a pattern of enabling their family members. When your spouse is enabling a family member, they make excuses for their inappropriate behavior and even may listen to their family member speaking badly about you or your children. Let them know this is unacceptable to you, that you view a discussion about your in-laws as the two of you coming up with a solution that works for both of you, and that you want to present a “united front.”

Consider Couples Counseling

Narcissistic in-laws may try to pit you and your spouse against each other through triangulation. Your mother-in-law may tell your spouse that you said something terrible about them, and they “have a right to know” what you supposedly said. This manipulation usually results in a conflict between you and your spouse about something you know you never said. If clear boundaries are not agreed upon with your spouse, it can be an uphill battle. A licensed mental health professional can offer guidance, options, and validation. Talking to a neutral third party who understands your situation and how narcissistic in-laws can damage a relationship can provide much-needed perspective and emotional support.

Set Realistic Expectations

Adjust your expectations when dealing with your narcissistic in-laws. Understand that narcissists usually do not change their behavior or acknowledge their impact on others. Focus on realistic goals, such as minimizing conflict, protecting your family, and prioritizing your well-being. Although presenting a united front with your spouse is essential, they may still have conflicting feelings about setting limits with their family. Your spouse has a history with this family member, and they may have traumatized your spouse. Consider encouraging your spouse to attend individual therapy. It is not recommended that the narcissist is invited to a therapy session, as they may portray themselves as the victim and afterward may “weaponize” the therapy session against you or your spouse.

Dealing with narcissistic in-laws requires patience, resilience, and a proactive approach to self-care and boundary-setting. You and your spouse must present a united front; anarcissistic in-law may exploit anything less. Unfortunately, sometimes spouses don’t agree on the severity of an in-law’s behavior or how to respond to it, even after couples therapy. In those cases, sometimes, due to the severity of the in-law’s behavior and lack of support from their spouse, people have had to make the tough decision to end their relationship or marriage. This decision is made after much thought and examining whether the marriage (and lack of support) contributes to a decreased quality of life. It is recommended that you speak to a mental health professional if you are faced with making this difficult decision. Sometimes, the hardest decisions are the best for your and your children’s well-being.

To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

More from Stephanie A. Sarkis Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today