This is the third – and final – part of Sarah P’s series on Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) and the narcissistic mother-in-law. In this post, Sarah discusses attachment patterns, narcissism and infidelity while tying it all together with her example of Suzy, Steve and Steve’s narcissistic mother.
If you missed the first 2 posts in the series, here they are:
The Different Kinds of Attachment Patterns
There are four different kinds of attachment patterns: secure attachment, ambivalent attachment, avoidant attachment, and disorganized attachment.
Securely attached adults: “Those who are securely attached tend to have trusting, long-term relationships. Other key characteristics of securely attached individuals include have high self-esteem, enjoying intimate relationships, seeking out social support, and an ability to share feelings with other people.”
Ambivalently attached adults: “Those with an ambivalent attachment style often feel reluctant about becoming close to others and worry that their partner does not reciprocate their feelings. This leads to frequent breakups, often because the relationship feels cold and distant. These individuals feel especially distraught after the end of a relationship.”
Avoidant attachment in adults: “As adults, those with an avoidant attachment tend to have difficulty with intimacy and close relationships. These individuals do not invest much emotion in relationships and experience little distress when a relationship ends. They often avoid intimacy by using excuses (such as long work hours), or may fantasize about other people during sex. Research has also shown that adults with an avoidant attachment style are more accepting and likely to engage in casual sex. Other common characteristics include a failure to support partners during stressful times and an inability to share feelings, thoughts, and emotions with partners.”
Disorganized attachment in adults: “A person who grew up with a disorganized attachment style often won’t learn healthy ways to self-soothe. They may have trouble socially or struggle in using others to co-regulate their emotions. It may be difficult for them to open up to others or to seek out help. They often have difficulty trusting people, as they were unable to trust those they relied on for safety growing up. They may struggle in their relationships or friendships or when parenting their own children. Their social lives may further be affected, as people with secure attachments tend to get on better throughout their development.”
Attachment Patterns & Narcissism
When a child has a narcissistic mother or other primary caregiver during the crucial years of birth to three, secure attachment in disrupted. They usually develop either ambivalent or avoidant attachment patterns and these shape the very core of relationships throughout their adult life.
During childhood, “Children of Narcissistic Parents must adhere to the agenda of the Narcissistic Parent for their lives to be stable. Asserting their feelings, their rights, or their thoughts can lead to much bigger problems. These children of Narcissistic Parents learn that their feelings are invalid, unimportant, and inconsequential. They often stifle all feelings to keep the peace in the house. When a Narcissistic Parent is kind, the child learns that this kindness comes with an agenda, with strings attached. Generally, the strings include guilt or a feeling of being beholden to their Narcissistic Parent, “If I do this for you, you OWE me,” is a common behavior of Narcissistic Parents. The child is exposed to conditional – or love that requires criteria – love.” (Source: bandbacktogether.com)
Generally, children of narcissists will develop an insecure attachment style.
It is likely that Steve developed ambivalent attachment patterns. Since his narcissistic mother ran hot and cold all of the time, Steve did not have the opportunity for the stable, loving behavior that is required in order to develop a secure attachment pattern.
Into adulthood, someone like Steve might find it difficult to stand up to his mother because of this ambivalent attachment. He was never validated by his mother and so even as an adult, he seeks her approval and validation. This unconscious tie keeps people like Steve tied to their narcissistic parents in one way or another. These ties are very difficult to break.
This can be a fairly common conundrum for family scapegoats like Steve.
As a result of his attachment, Steve wanted to find a way to keep both his mother and his wife in his life. From my perspective, I would have recommended that Steve go no contact with his mother for good, but breaking these bonds is very difficult for many people and Steve was not ready for this step. This was why it was crucial for Steve to put Suzy first and delineate very strong boundaries in his relationship with his mother.
Steve’s Attachment to Suzy
Do all children of narcissists grow up to marry narcissists?
Yes and no. It truly depends on the individual and so many other external factors.
In fact, in Steve’s case, he chose not to marry a narcissist. At one point during therapy, Steve repeated fairly often that because Suzy was the exact opposite of his mother, he chose Suzy.
Suzy admitted that she felt this to be unfair. She had a difficult time understanding why Steve would make a point to marry someone like her, yet at the same time attempt to have a relationship with his mother.
For anyone who is securely attached, like Suzy was to her parents, this type of dynamic is difficult to understand. Yet, attachment runs deep. In fact, in the original attachment studies done with infant primates, scientists found that the infant monkey favored seeking out nurturing from a caregiver over the very food that was crucial to his survival.
So, even though Steve was not getting anything positive out of his relationship with his mother, there remained the subconscious longing for a loving bond with his mother.
There also remained a subconscious hope that one day his mother would change. I believe that all of these feelings find their root in the biological drive to securely attach to primary caregivers.
But when an individual cannot securely attached, wires get crossed and relationships become very confusing.
How does this relate to infidelity?
I believe that the attachment patterns that people develop in the first few years of life can indirectly effect a predisposition to having an affair.
If we look at Steve, the son of a female narcissist, we can see that there is a very dysfunctional undercurrent in the way that Steve’s mom relates to her son. During talks with Steve, it became apparent that Steve’s mother forced an emotionally incestuous dynamic upon him.
So, when Steve married Suzy, there was a type of symbolic threesome that had been established. Now, none of this was done on a conscious level and Steve did not drive this dynamic.
Still, Steve’s mother set up a dynamic where she was Steve’s symbolic wife and Suzy was Steve’s symbolic mistress.
In Steve’s case he was not aware of this and he was not a willing participant since he had been the only one in the family to stand up to his mother throughout his life. But, Steve may not be prone to having an affair since he has rebelled against his mother’s control.
But, let’s consider another type of son of a narcissistic mother—for example, the golden child. When the golden child gets married, the dysfunctional triad still exists and the son’s mother still falls into the symbolic role of wife.
But, the difference with the golden child is that he is likely to allow it, even if he is not consciously aware of the dynamic.
So, the wife of a golden child might be in a different situation than the wife of a scapegoat. The wife would still play the role of symbolic mistress; but, the golden child would only be loyal to the symbolic wife (his mother). This would all be an unconscious process on the golden child’s part.
But, since his wife falls into the role of mistress, there would be a subconscious awareness that one does not need to remain loyal to a mistress, but only to a wife. This may ultimately manifest in the golden child having a series of affairs.
But the over-arching issue remains the attachment pattern that was formed by the son of a narcissist. Since it is likely to be an insecure attachment, this might take the form of life-long dysfunction within his relationships. Much of that dysfunction might take the form of extramarital affairs.
I will admit that much of my thinking on this is influenced by my own research on these topics as well as the interviews I have conducted with couples like Suzy and Steve. Some scholars might agree with me, while others might not. So, it is not my intention to imply that these ideas are set in stone and not up for thoughtful debate.
Are You Married to the Son of a Narcissist?
Some readers might be wondering if they are married to the adult son of a narcissistic mother. That very well could be, but, it is always advised to talk with a skilled professional who has great knowledge of personality disorders.
If you are interested in reading more about what the wives of son’s of narcissists’ experience, there are so many different blogs online. All you need to do is put those key words and so many different blogs and perspectives will appear.
However, the common thread that I have found when reading blogs on this topic is that there is no behavior that is too irrational or outlandish when it comes to a narcissist. I have encountered many stories that are even more irrational and explosive than Suzy and Steve’s story.
Only recently have psychologists turned their full attention toward writing about the adult children of the personality disordered. The damage that has been wrecked by narcissists on their children is absolutely astounding. Adults who have been forced to develop coping mechanisms in order to survive a narcissistic mother are a type of walking wounded.
What they have found is that these adult children of narcissists need even more support than previously thought since they suffer from PTSD, anxiety disorders, depression, addiction, and difficulties in forming stable intimate relationships.
Yet, to the outside world, the children of narcissists appear to have had a childhood that was idyllic. Furthermore, the narcissistic parent will never take accountability.
The fact that narcissism is something that is unseen to the outside world coupled with the fact that the parent will never take accountability makes the path to healing all the more difficult.
Fortunately, there are excellent resources available and there are a few books I would recommend if you know someone in this situation.
If you are interested in reading more about this topic, I would recommend the following books:
Toxic In-Laws, Susan Forward PhD
Emotional Blackmail, Susan Forward PhD
When He’s Married to His Mom, Kenneth Adams PhD
If You Had Controlling Parents, Dan Neuharth PhD
Children of the Self-Absorbed, Nina Brown
Readers do you suspect that you are married to the son of narcissist?
Share your experiences!