If you find yourself dealing with a manipulative and aggressive mother-in-law, you may be dealing with a covert narcissist. Here’s how to tell and how to set boundaries.

Narcissistic personality disorder is a disorder associated with a lack of empathy, an excessive sense of entitlement, envy, and exploitation of others.

Two distinct subtypes of narcissistic traits, grandiose and vulnerable narcissism, have been identified. According to researchers, the term covert narcissism is another way to describe “vulnerable narcissism.” Vulnerable narcissism is associated with greater anxiety, lower self-esteem, hypersensitivity, and fearfulness.

Vulnerable narcissism differs from overt, grandiose narcissism. Grandiose narcissism, or overt narcissism, is associated with greater levels of confidence, self-aggrandizement, higher self-esteem, and the pursuit of success.

However, according to a meta-analysis of 437 independent studies, grandiose and vulnerable narcissism are both related to aggression. Vulnerable narcissism has also been linked to narcissistic rage, according to a 2015 study.

Apart from romantic partnerships, people may encounter these traits in their friends, family, and in-laws. If you are dealing with a narcissistic mother-in-law with covert narcissistic traits, you may have noticed aggressive and manipulative behavior that has harmed you and your family.

Identifying a covert narcissist can be difficult if you don’t know the signs. You may find yourself doubting your reality or rationalizing their behaviors, especially if they hide their true motives and intent.

A vulnerable, covert narcissist who appears shyer, introverted, and more pious as they carry out aggressive behaviors can be harder to identify than a grandiose narcissist who is more explicit about their perceived sense of superiority.

If you find yourself dealing with a covert narcissistic mother-in-law, you may notice the following behaviors:

Makes subtle putdowns and criticism

Covert narcissistic mothers-in-law, and covert narcissists in general, may be less forthcoming about their excessive sense of entitlement. Instead, they tend to prefer to plant seeds of self-doubt to escape accountability and gain control over your life decisions.

They may do this by sneaking in backhanded comments that subtly judge or shame you for your decisions — whether it be your parenting style, how to be a “proper” and “obedient” spouse, your fashion choices, your choice of career, your life-work balance, or appearance.

For example, a narcissistic mother-in-law may comment passive-aggressively on your decision to go back to work “so soon” long after you’ve had children. She may disguise this comment as “concern” for the well-being of your children, even if you’ve already made it clear you have arranged appropriate child care.

However, their hypercritical input tends not to be limited to a one-off remark. Instead, narcissistic mothers-in-law often engage in constant hypercriticism and unnecessary nitpicking, even if you’ve made attempts to compromise.

These passive-aggressive remarks are frequent, harmful, and rely on moving the goal posts so your mother-in-law can act dissatisfied with you. Once you’ve solved one apparent problem by agreeing to your narcissistic mother-in-law’s request, she will likely find yet another issue to bring up.

For some narcissistic mothers-in-law, their true motive is to have you frantically run in circles attempting to please them so that you have less time to meet your own needs or focus on your family life.

This also provides them an ego boost, as they are able to appear calm and in control while you appear frazzled and overwhelmed. This gives them the upper hand in “proving” that you are an unsuitable spouse for their son or daughter.

Plays the victim

Rather than being honest and direct about their opinions, narcissistic mothers-in-law will disguise their put-downs as (backhanded) compliments or as a way to “help” you.

Narcissistic mothers-in-law tend to play the victim when you call them out on their inappropriate behavior or remarks. They may even pretend to be mentally or physically overwhelmed by your “accusations.”

They may act shocked, distressed, and appalled when you defend yourself in response to these remarks, eliciting pity not just from you, but the whole family.

As a result, you may find yourself feeling simultaneously degraded, confused, and disoriented.

You may attempt to sympathize with them and meet their needs while forfeiting your own or feel further scapegoated as other family members seem to support them.

Blames you for everything

Much like narcissistic parents pit their children against one another, the narcissistic mother-in-law seeks to have control over the family dynamics attempting to pit you and your spouse against one another.

They may idealize their own son or daughter as the one who can “do no wrong,” while they scapegoat you as the source of all marital problems.

They can even try to weaponize your own children against you or use other family members as “flying monkeys” to find out more information on you to use against you.

To interfere in your relationship with their son or daughter, they might blame you for any problems in your marriage, difficulties in childrearing, or displace the full responsibility of domestic labor, childrearing, and the stability of your marriage onto you.

Displays envious behaviors

Research from 2022 indicates there is a strong link between covert narcissism and malicious envy. Some narcissistic mothers-in-law may see you as “competition” for their attention from their son or daughter.

This sense of narcissistic envy and rivalry can cause them to lash out at you, however passive-aggressively, in an attempt to sabotage your relationship so that their son or daughter’s attention is centered fully on them.

If you wish to maintain any kind of relationship with a parent-in-law who exhibits narcissistic behaviors, it is important to enforce healthy boundaries.

Limit the information you give them

Since a narcissist mother-in-law is unlikely to listen to direct feedback or advice without lashing out in narcissistic rage or more covert attempts at sabotage, it is important to be more discreet in dealing with them.

This means there are times you might give them the illusion of control without actually handing over any control. Considering limiting communication with your mother-in-law before making decisions regarding your marriage or parenting ahead of time. This will give them less time to argue, sabotage, shame, or guilt-trip you into choosing otherwise.

Direct confrontation or an attempt to hold them accountable may simply cause them to enact pity ploys that cause others to sympathize with them and have others view you as the “problem” or “troublemaker” for speaking up.

While you can remain assertive, choose your battles carefully and act accordingly to what serves you and your family best without attempting to justify it to your mother-in-law or compromise with them.

Regardless of what they communicate to you, make important decisions based only on what you and your spouse feel is ultimately best, regardless of any fear, obligation, or stress that may result from your mother-in-law’s guilt-tripping.

Remember: you are married to your spouse, not your mother-in-law. While you may still want your mother-in-law to be a part of your life in some capacity, you do not owe her a say in every decision.

Be united with your spouse

Think of your marriage as a “closed circle” and treat it as such. Communicate with your partner that, while you appreciate your mother-in-law’s input and presence, some level of privacy is needed, and so is a strong united front on decisions regarding parenting, career, finances, and other matters of interest.

Rather than allowing you to stand-alone and defend yourself, communicate to your partner that you need them to step up and defend joint decisions when necessary.

Focus on self-care and on your family life.

Instead of attempting to please your narcissistic mother-in-law or giving into her attention-seeking tendencies, refocus your energy on yourself, your self-care, and your family life. This will allow you to defend yourself against any attempts to sabotage your marriage or relationships with your children.

Limit your time with your narcissistic in-laws and restrict the time you spend at holiday events and family functions. Reduce “phone time” and house visits according to your comfort. Maximize date nights with your spouse, family nights if you have children, and family vacations with your spouse and children instead.

This will allow you and your family more time and energy to connect and build your relationships on your own terms, without your mother-in-law’s constant interference.

Address passive-aggressive comments

While you can still choose your battles carefully, it can be important to sometimes shine a light on what the narcissistic mother-in-law is really saying rather than allowing them to disguise these comments as helpful.

If, for example, they make a passive-aggressive comment hinting that your kids are suffering when they spend too much time in day care or how your date nights with your husband are taking away too much time from your children, you might address the passive-aggression.

You could say something like, “What I am hearing is that you’d prefer we spend more time with you.”

Sometimes, such a “translation” can interrupt the passive-aggressiveness and force the narcissistic mother-in-law to share her real thoughts and feelings without disguising them under “selfless” reasons or cause her to backtrack on her criticism of you, especially if it takes place in front of other family members.

However, it’s important to be discerning when to highlight passive-aggressiveness and when to refocus your energy on self-care and your relationships with your spouse and children.

At other times, it may be best to keep these translations of their behavior to yourself and recognize when the narcissistic mother-in-law is acting out of envy, jealousy, and a need for control, so you don’t internalize their hypercriticism or malignant projections.

A covert narcissistic mother-in-law can harm and sabotage your self-esteem and your relationships with your spouse, children, and other family members.

Due to their passive-aggressiveness, need to be in the center of attention, tendency to compete, and envious nature, they may try to pit you and other family members against one another while scapegoating you.

Rather than internalizing their criticism, it’s important to enforce healthy boundaries, limit your time and energy with your narcissistic mother-in-law, and make decisions based only on what you and your spouse believe to be best.

Present a united front with your spouse, and refocus on spending quality time with your family while restricting time with your mother-in-law.