Boundaries Q&A with Dr. Townsend: 4 Tips for Dealing with a Narcissist

Question: Dr. Townsend, can you give advice for someone who thinks they are married to a narcissist? Everything seems to revolve around my spouse’s wishes and demands. Dr. Townsend: I’m sorry to hear about your situation. First off, the label of “narcissism” is not very helpful unless you are talking with a licensed therapist who has actually done an interview and diagnosed the person. People throw around the term, “narcissism,” a lot and it gets confusing. It’s much more helpful to talk about specific attitudes and behaviors that are problematic. For example, your second sentence, about everything seeming to revolve around your spouse’s wishes and demands, is clear and specific. So let’s deal with that aspect and get you some relief. Here are four tips: 1. Be clear about the problem, and be vulnerable about its impact on you. Many times a spouse who is self-involved will not be able to pick up hints, nuances, and indirect remarks about their attitudes. You need to be direct, though vulnerable, with them about the problem. For example, you could say, “I love you and care about our marriage. But this past week, when I tried to talk to you about our financial... Continue Reading »

Boundaries Q&A with Dr. Townsend: How to Love Without Enabling an Adult Child

Question: Dr. Townsend, I have a 35-year-old son in jail for possession of a controlled substance and thievery. How do I love him without enabling him, yet letting him know that I care? First, let me say that I am sorry for you and your son’s situation. I’m also very glad you want to help him. Jail is a lonely and difficult place to be, even if the individual has committed acts that justify him being there. To answer to your question, in a way, you really don’t have to worry a great deal about enabling him. To “enable” is to remove someone from the consequences of his behavior, and jail actually is those consequences. So, he is already in a non-enabling environment. I have worked with inmates, and the responses have been very growth-producing for them. Here are three things you can do to help your son while maintaining healthy boundaries: 1. Stay connected to him. Often, loved ones will visit an inmate in prison or jail at first, then they will come less frequently, because either they don’t like the negative environment, or they simply disconnect and move on. Don’t do that. If there is any time a person... Continue Reading »

Boundaries Q&A with Dr. John Townsend: Handling Guilt Comments from a Parent

Question: Dr. Townsend, my mother makes snide comments that she will threaten to harm herself if I don’t come home for every major holiday and her birthday throughout the year. How am I supposed to respond to her comments? I’m sorry to hear about your situation. It’s not funny, and is actually troubling, for a mom to make these sort of comments, even if she says she is joking. A part of us will always wonder how serious this is. The great majority of the time, these “guiltifying” statements are actually indirect expressions of disappointment, sadness or frustration that the person does not feel safe admitting. The best approach is to wait until a pleasant time (not in the heat of battle or an argument) and say: “Mom, I know it’s sometimes hard that I can’t be home for some of our special family events. I miss you too, but my priorities are that I have to do other things. However, when we talk about it, you make jokes about hurting yourself. I know you mean well, but they come across confusing to me when you say them and they aren’t funny to me. I’d like to ask you if... Continue Reading »

Q&A with Dr. John Townsend: Setting Boundaries with Your Ex-Spouse

Question: Dr. Townsend: I am divorced and having difficulty setting boundaries with my ex-husband. Our conversations are awkward around our children. He lavishes them with toys while I feel like the disciplinarian. What do good boundaries look like in this situation? First, let me say that I’m sorry to hear about your situation. I’m sure it can feel uncomfortable to be at odds with your ex-spouse in front of your children. This issue is always a tough one. First, appeal to your ex-spouse about the need for your kids to have an integrated set of parents, even though you aren’t married to each other.  Tell him, “Our children need as close to the same environment of warmth and structure in both homes.” Add to that, “I want us to have the kind of relationship that I am open to your feedback on my parenting, and that you do the same.” Then say, “I appreciate how generous you are with our kids with the great gifts. But, I would appreciate your being a bit less lavish, and adding more reasonable discipline and structure.” Most ex-spouses will respond well to these types of comments.  However, if he does not and refuses to change... Continue Reading »

Boundaries Q&A with Dr. John Townsend: Adult Child Who Refuses to Pay Back a Loan

Question: Dr. Townsend: What kinds of consequences are appropriate for a 39-year-old daughter who refuses to take responsibility for paying a college loan that her father and I co-signed in good faith? First, let me say that I’m sorry to hear about your situation. I know that it can feel uncomfortable to be at odds with your adult child. In this situation, your first decision is to approach your daughter in a vulnerable way and describe how her behavior is impacting you. You could say something like, “We love you, but we are struggling and feel a bit helpless because you aren’t paying us back. And, this problem is impacting our own financial well-being. We need for you to commit to a payment plan.” If your vulnerability is not met by love and ownership from your daughter, then the second stage may be that you have set some limits, such as saying, “We are not going to be able to spend time with you as we used to. That’s because your behavior leads us to not trust you, until you begin paying back on the loan.” If your daughter is unresponsive, the third stage is to either let the issue go... Continue Reading »

Boundaries Q&A with Dr. John Townsend: How to Handle Conflict with In-Laws

Question: Dr. Townsend, I am experiencing conflict with my in-laws about the way I raise my children. They tend to nit-pick every decision that I make. Do you have any tips for setting boundaries with in-laws? I know it’s no fun to feel conflict with your in-laws. Here are some ways to address the sensitive issue. Begin with a positive and vulnerable conversation. Simply wait until there is a quiet moment, where there’s not a lot going on. Then say, “I’m glad you are involved and engaged with us and our kids. And, I always want to be open to feedback when I might not be the best parent for them. I appreciate you wanting to give me feedback, but sometimes it’s a bit too much for me. Would you mind asking me if it’s a good time to give me feedback before you bring up something about the kids? That will feel more connected and helpful to me.” If they are safe people, they will probably respond positively and adapt to your request. On the other hand, if they react defensively, then you may need to consider setting boundaries around your time together. In that case, I recommend reading these... Continue Reading »