Crucial Skills®

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Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

Dealing with a Narcissist in the Family

Dear Crucial Skills,

Do you have any advice for dealing with a narcissist?

My twenty-four-year-old daughter has a new boyfriend who is a narcissist and she is showing signs of being emotionally abused. He is slowly isolating her—from friends, colleagues, family members. How can I use your skills to show him respect even though he is crushing my daughter? I want to ensure he doesn’t exclude me from her life for when she does need me.

Or can you suggest how I might talk to my daughter so she can see the light? When I tell her I am concerned about her situation, she gets defensive and lies to me, so she’s obviously not feeling safe around me. I have very strong feelings about the situation, so it is crucial I handle this well—I don’t want to lose my daughter. I want to build a better relationship with her and let her know we will always love her and be there for her when she needs us.

Signed,
Looking for a Lifeline

Dear Looking,

I’m sorry. I have daughters too and know how hard it can be to watch them suffer life’s challenges. I’ll share a couple of ideas that I hope are helpful.

The concluding part of your question tells me your heart is in the right place and, in my view, this offers the most promise for progress. You say you want to build a better relationship with your daughter and let her know you will always love her and be there for her. Tell her that if you haven’t already.

You also mentioned wanting to get your daughter to “see the light.” If this motive is evident when expressing your love and concern, that could explain why she gets defensive. Wanting to get your daughter to “see the light” is a bit at odds with wanting to let her know you will always be there for her. She may not trust your motives.

The best way I have found to overcome this problem of mixed motives is to focus on the pool of shared meaning. The pool of shared meaning is a space where the free exchange of meaning occurs, but it only exists when both parties feel free and safe to share perspective. If either party feels unsafe, then the free flow of meaning is hindered. And efforts to persuade, control, or coerce can quickly threaten safety and drain the pool. In the pool of shared meaning, we can’t control how our perspective will be received. We can only control how well we share it.

What does this look like in practice? Respect and vulnerability. Respect for the fact that another’s choices aren’t ours to make, and vulnerability to speak up anyway. Vulnerability is what we feel when we make the shift from fear to courage. When we fear that another won’t respond as we’d like them to, we resort to coercion and manipulation, which shuts down dialogue. When we accept that they aren’t obligated to respond as we’d like them to, we let go and get vulnerable. Sustainable dialogue can only occur when we walk into the ring of crucial moments with arms down, gloves off, palms open.

So, you might let go of trying to get your daughter to “see the light”. Wait for the right moment, ask for permission, and, if it’s granted, share how you feel about the situation, making it clear that you’re sharing your perspective out of love and with understanding that she may choose to remain in the relationship despite your feelings.

The second thing I want to say relates to your question about speaking with your daughter’s boyfriend. I don’t recommend it. In my view, no matter how respectfully you approach the boyfriend, you’re likely to invoke drama, not dialogue.

I don’t say that because you’ve said he is a narcissist. Maybe he is, maybe he isn’t. Regardless of his psychology, to engage your daughter’s boyfriend is to wade into the pool of codependency. Your daughter’s relationship challenges aren’t yours to solve.

That said, if a series of events should bring you into direct disagreement with the boyfriend and he behaves as you suggest he might, your challenge will be to hold your boundaries without creating a battle line.

The older I get, the more I believe this: manipulation requires consent. If you find yourself feeling manipulated, identify how you’ve allowed it to happen and don’t let it happen again.

When I find myself in such situations, I try to come back to the pool of shared meaning. That’s the only place I want to work out my disagreements because it’s the only effective place to do so. If I’m not courageous and vulnerable enough to enter crucial moments with respect for the pool of shared meaning and another’s sense of autonomy and safety, I need to work on myself. If the other party is unable or unwilling to respect the pool of shared meaning, I need to express and hold my boundaries, or distance myself so that I can maintain them.

I hope these ideas help you as you navigate this important time of life with your daughter.

Sincerely,
Ryan

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20 thoughts on “Dealing with a Narcissist in the Family”

  1. Justin Hale

    Great article on a sensitive topic!

    1. Cynthia Todorich

      This one is a keeper! I’ll read it again & again (over time). Thank you.

  2. Nancy Lou Little

    True malignant narcissism is not benign. Those people are sociopaths and dangerous. Maybe Ted Bundy was a murderer and maybe not. I don’t think the shared pool of meaning would have helped. I don’t try to pretend that predators and abusers are safe to deal with until they do more damage any more. There are more predators out there than anyone wants to admit, and because of that, they are doing more and more damage every day and getting away with it. Giving them the respect and benefit of the doubt only emboldens them and allows them to manipulate in ways that you would never see coming. They are not reasonable and do not care. They do not want resolution. Any contact with people like that is damaging to anyone. Don’t lead lambs to the slaughter with advice that is made for people who can muster compassion and empathy. People like that will use any respect or grace that you give them to injure you. I have learned not to give my respect away. To earn my respect, they must be respectable. To earn my trust, they must be trustworthy. I do not want to treat people with contempt, I want to remember who I am. I have to stay away from those individuals to protect myself. It’s heartbreaking but sometimes you have to let people go who do not want to be helped. Self preservation first, if she finally sees through to the abuse, you can be in one piece if she comes back. If he is a malignant narc, and you attempt a relationship, he will turn her against you with lies, will twist everything you say or do and destroy your life. Do not doubt it. Unreasonable people are not swayed by reason. If she is caught up in his mind control games, she will project his bad qualities on to you. Good luck.

    1. D Henderson

      I agree about how dangerous narcissistic people really are.
      Our family experienced this personally. Only the boyfriend ended up getting our daughter pregnant and the molesting our granddaughter. He’s now in jail.

    2. Margaret McConnell

      Completely agree–I do think Crucial Learning concepts work with most people, but I do not think the tactics would work with someone who is isolating a person from their loved ones. The mother in this situation does not sound like she is being coercive. Once a person with narcissistic tendencies feels like a person has given consent, it can be very difficult for the victim to extract themself from the narcissist. I am concerned for this daughter and understand why the mother is concerned. It’s a very delicate situation.

  3. Dan Frye

    It is heartbreaking to hear that you feel you are losing your daughter. I would transform the conversation to the subject of TRUST. Trust is the foundation for all success and happiness in the world. At all times, we should know our brand, deposit into others’ trust bank account, and lead from behind (want others to win first). This is the only path to true happiness. For more. For more information, read or listen to “And the Trust Shall Set Us Free” (shameless self-plug for my book… sorry)

  4. Gina C.

    As someone who is divorced from one narcissist and somehow found myself married to another narcissist, I can tell you that a parent who would have offered a lifeline – always here for you – would have helped, but even more so would have specifics on what that help means. Go through the range: abuse and healing – care and treatment, financial hole – maybe a place to live and support to get back on her feet, unsure how to breakup with the boyfriend – connect her and pay for a counselor. (example: maybe she is feeling financially like she has no way out or doesn’t even feel safe breaking up with the boyfriend.) Don’t connect the support to the boyfriend, only to your love for HER, that the love knows no limits (and no timelines). It is incredibly difficult to break out of these situations and can take time to realize the nature of the relationship (and person). The worst situation is when the family distances themselves (in addition to what the narcissist is doing). This will isolate your daughter even more. Your love in the original post is evident. Keep that love flowing. It is reaching your daughter and makes a difference. Wishing you luck!

    1. Laura L

      Gina, I love your perspective. Giving suggestions about how you can support sounds amazing. When I’ve gone through hard times and others have asked what they can do to help, I couldn’t see out of the mire I was sludging through enough to know what would help. But when someone offered me choices of things they could do, I was able to receive their help with much gratitude.

      This approach definitely helps her to know she is loved and worth loving. These are great suggestions!

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  5. Belle Cancellare

    Whole heartedly agree with Ryan’s perspective. If your daughter is willing to add to the pool of shared meaning, you will get a deeper understanding of her wants and needs, joys and concerns. Continue to build safety and she will be able to talk with you about anything. There is no choosing to be done, this is not an either / or situation. Your consistent attention and invitation to the pool of shared meaning changes the emphasis from the “narcissist,” to what is truly important – the sharing of trust, respect, and meaning.

  6. Kelly Taft

    While I completely agree with Ryan’s advice on how to talk with your daughter and create a safe space for her to share with you, elements of your post are concerning. It is important to note that isolation is a form of coercion and control and a type of domestic violence. I strongly urge you (separately) to seek out domestic violence resources through the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV) and have their hotline number stored in your phone. That way you are prepared to share resources if the situation worsens and she asks for help.

  7. Robin

    Regarding sharing how you feel about the situation. Unsolicited relationship advice from a parent to a child is much like playing hot potato with a live grenade :\

    A friend of mine years ago, taught me a great lesson about listening. He was an amazing listener. He said when people are troubled and need to talk, they usually hear it from themselves long before they will hear it from someone else because deep down they know when something’s wrong. While they talk, they hear themselves, sometimes for the first time. Giving them that is a greater gift than giving them advice. He was not a silent listener. He would reflect back what he heard, accurately, without adding to or taking away anything.

    Another friend of mine taught me a valuable lesson about relationships. She said relationships teach us about ourselves and others. At one point she said give yourself permission to continue to be in this relationship without any judgement toward either party. Sit back and observe their behavior without trying to change anything. Instead of having a discussion when your boundaries are violated, recognize that this person is okay with violating your boundaries (repeatedly). You are learning who this person is, their values, and how they treat others by observation. It’s up to you if this is the kind of person you want in your life or not, and if so, what level of commitment are you willing to give this person and this relationship. There’s no need to put a timeline on the relationship, make changes to it, or try to protect yourself. Just treat this person the way you want to be treated and observe how they respond. Observe your own reactions without sharing anything. One day you’ll know what you can or cannot live with, and you’ll make the right decision for yourself. You can trust yourself to make decisions that are best for you. The question is, can you trust this person to do the same?

    She was not advising me to be a doormat and stay in a relationship harming me. She was not advising me if I chose to make a long term commitment never to say anything. She was simply trying to get me to stop all the drama on my end: the muddled thoughts, feelings, emotions, words and actions and just accept the other person day by day.

    Because I treated others well, I expected the same. When I did not receive that, consistently, over a period of time, I had a decision to make. Your daughter does too. If she chooses to stay in this relationship, the goal of getting her to see him the way you do (you call it seeing the light) is not likely helpful. *She is not you* A different goal to consider is helping her learn what she wants from a partner in her life and if this man is able to give her that – as he is today. Because that is who he really is. Worrying about tomorrow, next week, next year is futile. Focus on today – is this what you want in your life today? It’s your choice. You’re smart, capable, kind, etc. and I trust you to make good decisions for yourself. Let her know you trust her to take care of herself.

    That was probably the best advice I have ever received from anyone. Within a short period of time I had learned all I needed to know about that person, and made a decision to end that relationship.

    I hope that this encourages you to approach your daughter the same way. To listen, genuinely listen and only reflect the feelings being heard without any agenda. My hope is that at some point you will have the opportunity to share with her what my friend shared with me about how to observe and learn who this person is. In particular, I hope you are able to share with her: you can trust herself to make decisions that are best for you. The question is, can you trust this person to do the same?

    Best wishes

  8. David

    I serendipitously happened to see a video called “The SHOCKING Reason why Narcissists Project” just before I read this article.
    See the short clip.
    https://www.youtube.com/shorts/n-42SC8m938

    1. Anonymous

      I just watched that same Shaneen Megji you tube short today myself. She is a wonderful resource on narcissism and navigating toxic relationships. I have been listening to her, Dr. Les Carter, Dr. Ramani, and Dr. Kerry Kerr McAvoy regularly, as I have a narcissistic father and have found myself in a few other narcissistic/toxic relationships, including my son’s pregnant girlfriend who is currently stonewalling us and using the baby as a manipulation tool. Finding experts in narcissism who can help educate us on their tactics, how to set proper boundaries, and care for ourselves as we interact with these toxic people is definitely a crucial skill!

  9. Janet K

    I am sorry this mom is going through this. This is a very scary time for the entire family. Essentially, her daughter is being coercively controlled by her boyfriend who is showing signs of being an intimate partner predator. He is isolating her by telling her things like “they don’t understand”, “I will harm them” or “they are toxic”. The mom needs to remember to speak about the boyfriend’s behaviors and not to use labels, yet. Her daughter needs to hear her say, “you deserve better”, “no one should treat you like that”, or “you are worthy of more”. Predators use the love-bombing stage to suck you in (flattery) and then they intermittently go hot and cold because you can’t think straight in that kind of an environment. Predators are counting on that neurological fact to use it to their advantage. The things that the mom is describing is actually against the law in the UK and Australia. Predators do not think like the general population and so many of our ways of normally communicating put ourselves and our family members in danger. Another way to consider this situation is to realize the daughter is being drawn into a cult – it’s a small one but the boyfriend is god. It is the same therapy on the backside when you finally escape these relationships.

  10. Dr. Dennis O’Grady

    Brief counseling for the parent from a neutral source can really help develop assertive options and reduce natural anxieties.

  11. Ryan Trimble

    Lots of good perspective and information in the comments for our reader. I learned a lot, too! Thank you.

  12. Janice Pearl D'Souza

    Wow! This one hit home for me on an frequently growing and sensitive reality. What was the hardest line for me was ‘identify how you’ve allowed it (manipulation) to happen and don’t let it happen again.’
    Thanks for the reinforcing how the same CRUCIAL CONVERSATIONS tools work brilliantly here.

    1. Nicole

      I would be very careful with that mentality in situations of abuse, though. It can feel very victim blamey, and it needs to be made clear to victims of abuse that it is NEVER their fault and they didn’t do anything to deserve the abuse. Being manipulated isn’t something that someone accepts. That’s the whole point, abuse and manipulation happens TO someone, without their consent. I get the sentiment, but it’s a dangerous mindset for someone who is in, or just got free from, an abusive relationship.

  13. Nicole

    I was your daughter. I was 5+ years deep into a relationship that started out great and healthy. Eventually it got worse and worse, starting with emotional and physical abuse, then financial abuse and reached the point where physical abuse was a common occurrence.
    My mom often told me that my situation was unhealthy. She often told me I had support. I knew all of that. Did I care? Did I leave? No. In fact, it pushed me away further because I didn’t want to keep hearing it.
    I thought I knew better. “He’s sorry.” “He wouldn’t do XYZ.” “He won’t do it again.” “He just needs help.” All lies I told myself. What it truly took for me to finally leave for good (we had broken up and gotten back together multiple times) was hitting my own personal boundary that was too far.
    On average, it takes someone 7 tries to get out of an abusive relationship. Your daughter may react differently than myself since we are, of course, different people. My biggest advice would be to (1) never reach out to the boyfriend to address the issue and (2) confront the issue once with your daughter and gauge her reception to it. If she gets super defensive, stop. Just make sure she knows that you will always support her, and when she does finally hit that breaking point (God willing), never say “About time” or “I told you so”. Deep down, I can all but guarantee she already knows that the situation she is in is unhealthy.
    Good luck, mama. It’s hard.

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