The Skunk at Your Door: The Sadistic Narcissist with the Very Large Suitcase

Dear Belladonna Rogers,

Millions of people believe they have strong contenders for the dubious distinction, but I believe that I have the most intolerant, cruel, condescending, nasty, insulting mother-in-law (MIL) in history.

Luckily for me and my three sisters-in-law, our MIL and late father-in-law had four sons and she visits a different one each Thanksgiving.

The ordeal we each experience occurs, like presidential elections, once every four years.

This is my year. Two days from today, she’ll pull up to our modest, clean, well-organized, happy home in the limousine she hires to bring her from the airport (she refuses to have us meet her, preferring to arrive in a chauffeured sedan) and start right in.

Although my husband and I will have spent Wednesday night cleaning our toilets and bathroom sinks with all the strength we can muster, she’ll complain about some invisible-to-other-human eyes bit of something that only she can see.  This will continue throughout our house. Wherever she sets foot, she’ll find fault.  Or dust.

Four years ago, I organized our books by color and thought they looked gorgeous.  She walked in, took one look, and announced, “Only an illiterate would organize books by color.”  I later learned that President Dwight D. Eisenhower, one of her idols, organized his library exactly that way.

She’s the pundit of the put-down.  I'm always blindsided by her verbal assaults.  They seem to come out of nowhere.  My husband tries to stay away from her as much as possible, and I don’t blame him.  He’s had to put up with her for 54 years.  Our children are polite to her but harbor no affection for her.

I know I’ll survive this four-day siege; I've done it before. Now that I’m in my 50s, though, I find myself less intimidated than mystified.  Any advice or insight you can provide would be helpful not only to me, but also my three younger sisters-in-law.

Bewildered in Baton Rouge

Dear Bewildered,

What you’re dealing with is an unappetizing combo platter of narcissism and sadism, with a side of condescension.  She and others like her are beyond disagreeable.  They're unconscionable. Here are a dozen ground rules that may help:

1)    Prepare to be blindsided.  She'll blindside you this year because she always has and always will.  If you remind yourself that these brutal comments will come at you when you least expect them (such as when you were so understandably delighted with your color-coordinated library that you never imagined she’d go after you for that), you can at least tell yourself afterward, “I could see that one coming.”

Such people have a bat-like radar that can detect when the other person is expecting empathy or appreciation: that's when they strike.  To you it comes out of the blue, but to the narcissist it's the perfect moment to pounce and inflict maximum distress.

2)    Although it may be comforting to imagine scenarios in which you tell her something so persuasive, so wise, and so overwhelmingly right that she'll change her ways, there will never be a conversation with her that will produce an outcome satisfying to you. 

People such as your MIL are inflexible, and don’t mellow with age.  That's because they’re not wines, they’re poisons -- and therefore forever toxic.

3)     Here's the key to her behavior:  It isn't that she's trying to be congenial and failing.  That's not her goal.  It would be yours, but it isn't hers.  She wants others to feel inferior to her.  That's her aim. That's why she comes to visit.

4)   Despite enjoying inflicting humiliation on others, people as hurtful as your MIL feel mortification within themselves. Although they certainly don’t show it,  they’re filled with shame. They project it outward and try to make others feel belittled, weak, and better still, too stunned to reply.  They lack the basic emotional and psychological components necessary for kindness and empathy.

5)    “If only she realized how cruel she is, wouldn’t she want to change?” one could ask.  Answer: No. She enjoys it too much -- that's her ingrained sadism.

6)   How to cope?  Expect nothing kind, warm, humane, generous-spirited, appreciative, empathetic, or sympathetic.