Dear Therapist: My Boyfriend’s Mother Is Narcissistic and Mean

He has adapted to her behavior over the years, but I don’t know how to coexist with her.

An illustration of a man and a woman sitting at a table and looking at the man's mother, who is wearing a dramatic mask
Bianca Bagnarelli
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Dear Therapist,

I am in a wonderful, loving, and dynamic relationship with my boyfriend of three years. He’s an only child of a single mother, and though I know this structure is often rife with challenges, I recognized some uniquely difficult aspects of his mother’s personality early on. I’m a therapist, and though I try to avoid armchair diagnoses, I couldn’t help but notice her traits of narcissism and histrionic personality disorder.

As you can imagine, we haven’t gotten along well. She can read the judgment on my face when I can’t handle her self-aggrandizing monologues. All my usual go-to tools when in conflict (reflective listening, nonviolent communication, emphasizing my own shortcomings and vulnerabilities) have fallen on deaf ears. When I’ve expressed some semblance of displeasure, I’ve been met with temper tantrums—tears, blame, self-pity, name-calling—that I recognize as narcissistic rage.

My boyfriend decided long ago to accept his mother for who she is, choosing gratitude and graciousness, despite her more disturbing behaviors (overly sexualized comments, decades of financial recklessness, dramatic self-pity). I admire him for this. He appreciates her struggles and how hard she worked to be able to provide for him, and has concluded that the best route is one of empathic placation. Research on narcissistic personality disorder would somewhat support this strategy.

I find myself, however, drowning in internal protestations of “I deserve to be treated better.” A central challenge is that my boyfriend bristles at my pathologizing of his mom, understandably. He gets defensive of her and reminds me of how upset I might be were he to talk about my family this way. I have always been quite sensitive, so the grievances that his mother and I express tend to sound eerily similar. I want my boyfriend to be able to enjoy the time that he has left with his mother, and I wonder whether a less sensitive woman might be able to just shrug off at least some of what I get all riled up about.

If we stay together, our future will involve living in a house on property he bought, which currently has a granny unit that she’s living in. I’m in my mid-30s and want to have children, so it’s on my mind that if my relationship with my boyfriend is unsustainable, it would be best ended sooner rather than later.

How can I do a better job of being around her? Or should I leave?

San Francisco

Dear Anonymous,

Understandably, your boyfriend’s mother isn’t the future mother-in-law you’d choose if you could order up your ideal candidate, but I think the line between your professional and personal life has become blurred here, and that has made the situation blurry for you as well. It’s so much easier to see a situation clearly from the outside—therapy training or not—so let me offer an outside perspective.

As I’m sure you know, we bring our backgrounds to our current conflicts, or as we say in therapy, our fights with people tend to start long before we’ve met them. The same might be true of the fight you’re in with your boyfriend’s mother.

I’m not saying that your boyfriend’s mother isn’t difficult. I’m asking instead if some of her more irritating behaviors—her self-aggrandizement, martyrdom, and inappropriate comments—may be landing on you more heavily because of the sensitivity you mention that you’re bringing to the relationship. Of course, we all have inborn personality traits, but personalities tend to be shaped by a person’s environment as well. If his mother is pushing your buttons to this degree, it could be that there’s a historical fight going on here too—one that didn’t originate with her.

For instance, instead of adopting your boyfriend’s tack of not taking his mother’s behavior personally and letting it go, you “judge” her for her boastful monologues that aren’t personal attacks on you at all. Meanwhile, you confront her with your “displeasure,” even though intellectually you know that she’s probably not capable of taking in another’s feelings of injury without feeling injured herself. Despite understanding her limitations, you still try to get her to see you and understand you. And you want your boyfriend to see his mother’s behavior the way you do. Could it be that this is a familiar scenario, something you’ve experienced with people in your past?

You won’t be able to change his mother, but changing how you respond to her might give you more clarity on whether this relationship is feasible. First, recognize that you’re joining your boyfriend’s family and he’s joining yours. You both have preexisting relationships with your respective parents that are three decades in the making, so it’s unlikely that you’ll see his mother as he does, and that he’ll see your parents as you do. Instead of trying to get your boyfriend to see his mother through your eyes, you may want to consider why that’s so important to you.

I say this because the way things are now, you’re putting your boyfriend in the middle of two people he happens to love and who are both very important to him. It’s not your role to diagnose his mother, or to dictate how he should feel about her. Consider, too, that he may not like every family member of yours. What if he didn’t like, say, a problematic sister of yours, but you loved her deeply, despite her flaws? What would his complaining about her accomplish, when you’d have no control over her behavior in the same way that he has no control over his mother’s?

One way to be less reactive around his mother is to focus less on her shortcomings and more on her positive qualities. She has to have some redeeming qualities if the man you’re in love with was raised by her; figure out what those are. In therapy, we don’t just look at what’s not working with our patients—we’re also scanning for strengths. Look for his mother’s strengths, even the smallest ones, and lean into those. If she has anything in common with her son—interests, attributes—you’ll probably find some common ground. At the very least, you and she have one significant thing in common: You both love the same person. If you can be less reactive to her, she’ll be less reactive to you. As you manage your sensitivity better (one book I highly recommend for people who skew on the sensitive side is The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You, by Elaine Aron), teasing out the past from the present and focusing on areas of connection, you may find that his mother grows on you over the years, even if you’ll never be friends.

The bigger issue, meanwhile, is for you and your boyfriend to manage the differences between how close he wants to be to his mom and how close you want to be to him. Although you’ve been dating for three years, it seems like you two haven’t been able to discuss the question of living on the same property as his mother. He may have evaded the topic to avoid hearing what feel like hurtful criticisms of his mother whenever she comes up in conversation, and you may have avoided the topic because you tend to feel that he doesn’t have your back when it comes to his mother, so why bother?

Now’s the time to have this conversation frankly, not only because it will help you both learn how to hear each other better on this delicate topic, but also because this is one of many issues, some unrelated to his mother, that you two will need to work out in the course of your relationship if you decide to stay together.

There’s no “right” solution here, but there are plenty of options: renting out the property so you have your own space, moving into the property but finding other arrangements for his mother, selling the property altogether, creating workable boundaries with the granny unit on the property. Whatever you decide, you’ll learn more through these conversations about the strength of your relationship than you will by continuing to try to get his mother to change.

Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. By submitting a letter, you are agreeing to let The Atlantic use it—in part or in full—and we may edit it for length and/or clarity.