Do parents of only children tend to be more passive-aggressive and/or narcissistic?

by on November 25, 2014

in Articles

I thought this was an interesting question put to me in the following email:

“Is passive-aggressive and narcissistic behaviour usually common among parents of onlies? Because my parents have been that way all through my marriage, and since I’ve stood up to them they’ve been worse, almost to the point of manipulation. I find myself angry a lot because they just won’t be adults and have the emotional maturity to recognize things could be a lot better. I find myself wondering what I should be thinking and doing- I have trouble thinking for myself, and question if I’m right. It’s tough. Any help or advice would be great.” Tom

I considered that it might be useful to respond to these questions. However I would also like to open it to others to give their experience.I suppose my first reaction is no I don’t think this statement “Do parents of only children tend to be more passive-aggressive and/or narcissistic?” is particularly true. Of course the problems of passive-aggression and narcissism can manifest in parental behaviour whether you are an only-child adult or not. I have certainly worked with people where one parent has been both passive–aggressive and has had narcissistic tendencies. Where I believe it may be different for adult only-children is their ability to cope and manage this behaviour. Having a difficult parent, as we have seen in recent posts, is hard to deal with and when there is only one of you, and with no siblings to compare your experience, it can seem much more overwhelming. In particular you can easily lose a sense of where you are:- Are you right and are they wrong? Or is it the other way round?

Tom says: I find myself wondering what I should be thinking and doing- I have trouble thinking for myself and question if I’m right. It’s tough.”

His difficulty here is based on the level of enmeshment he is still experiencing with his parents’ despite having made huge efforts to distance himself from the worst of his parents manipulative behaviour. It is also a result of the passive-aggressive behaviours he experiences from his parents’.

I believe most parents do think that what they are doing is beneficial to their adult child. In other words their intention is positive but unfortunately the way they go about interacting can be problematic. The main difficulty is that for some parents you will always remain a child and they cannot accept that as an adult you are free to choose your own direction in life. However in reality, if they do not agree with your choices, that is their problem not yours. However some parents will not accept that and have unrealistic expectations that you should follow the pattern they proscribe to live your life and become difficult when you don’t. This is made worse if they have narcissistic tendencies i.e. seeing the world as revolving around themselves and expecting their needs to be met over and above other people’s.

Passive-aggression (read ‘concealed aggressive’ on diagram above) is a form of manipulation, which can be very effective. One reason is that it is very powerful to be passive, it is like the ‘victim’ position in the drama triangle. Passive-aggressive behaviour happens when the person avoids responsibility and attempts to control others through passivity and withdrawal. This dynamic is born of fear of being controlled but also fear of confrontation, and masks hidden anger and an inability to deal with people in a straight way.

People with passive-aggressive behaviour are able to get others to doubt themselves and feel guilty for questioning their demands or confronting them. They tend to blame the other person for creating problems and will focus on the other person’s anger rather than their own ineptitude. When backed into a corner, they may explode and switch to aggressive behaviour, then switch back to passivity. This sort of behaviour is difficult to confront. If you have a parent like that I would say it is almost impossible to deal with them in an effective way, so distance is often the only solution.

An email I received from Tom earlier this year showed that this had been effective, at least in the short term:

“I really stood up to my parents this summer, as I had had enough of the drama. They had upset my wife again, and I could no longer take it. My disapproval of many things led to ‘cry wolf’ false health problems, the passive-aggressive refusal to admit they had done anything wrong since my wife and I have been married- I shouted at them and stormed out of their home. I finally picked my wife over them – after seeing how selfish and unhealthy they had been to my well-being and marriage. I have felt a lot more happier and relaxed since that time. I haven’t spoken to them since August 16 (almost two months). I am sure they are blaming my wife, and think they are in some way teaching me a lesson for hurting them. It’s almost been a relief to break free of the ‘mental’ bonds that held me back. Are these normal reactions from parents?”

I believe that what Tom is up against here, are two parents who have real difficulties in letting go of their only child and are unwilling to accept that he is both an adult, a married man with a wife and children. Whilst, as a parent myself, I want to have close ties with my adult children, I do understand, as most parents do, that they are independent individuals with their own lives and I cannot expect them to put my needs above their own family as a matter of course. I would expect them to have my welfare in mind indirectly but unless there is a crisis, it is unrealistic to expect one’s adult child to act as a parent to their parents’ on a daily basis!

Obviously this is my opinion and I respect that in some cultures a much closer extended family might mean more contact between generations, but when there is too direct an expectation that a parents’ needs should be placed before that of one’s partner I think the balance is wrong and will put an unacceptable strain on the relationship, as it has with Tom and his wife.

Does anyone else have similar difficulties with their parent/s? Why not join the discussion? – see below for the box to put in your comments. (The one past the adverts)

  • Andrew

    Just like this, issues with my parents is complicated. They never accept blame for anything, and make me feel as though everything’s my fault. It’s tough, and sometimes I feel caught in the middle between their needs and my wife’s. But I have to support my wife for the sake of my own happiness. I still contemplate: is this an issue of me being an only or are they just difficult people? Is it now just their reactions to me finally standing up to them and letting them go for the first time in my 9-year marriage? Or is it my wife? So much, so confusing. Do I blow things out of proportion? Is it me? It’s frustrating when you think ALL our lives could be so much better if they were reasonable.

  • Settled

    I am a partner of an only child, whose mother has been widowed and alone for over 40 years. I became aware of her narcissism when we made room for her in our house. I was somehow not in touch with how she really is. She wears a solid mask to cover her covert intentions. She had me fooled and was playing me for decades. I always knew my partner got in moods towards me after spending time with his mother. I now know it was because she spent most of their time together complaining about everything I wasn’t doing to make her happy. So he would come home mad at me because his mom was unhappy towards us. He never said anything to me but after getting to know her better I get it now. She was jealous, trying to get him to see the error he was making by choosing me over her for his life partner. They are enmeshed and have this kind of craziness between them. She has been emotionally manipulating him his entire life. As a result he is a moody man, underdeveloped emotionally and in taking responsibility for himself, with deep seated anger issues towards his mom that he isn’t even aware of. I think because to him his life never seemed like his own, he took a ‘why bother’ standpoint. As soon as the arrangements were made to have her move in she turned on me and made it seem to everyone who would listen that I was out to get her. I did everything in my power to make her comfortable but she had already decided it was going to be a war between us. The arrangement lasted only a few months and she was asked to leave by her son. I have not spoken to her in almost 3 years now. By creating this boundary for my partner, he has been able to really flourish for the first time in his life. She can believe in her mind it’s all my fault that she isn’t welcome in our home or life, but the decisions I made for me were the right ones for my partner too. Now he has a home and a life that she can’t touch. It was always assumed she would live with him and play a big role even in his adult life. Now she can’t push any more, the option has been closed. He gets to have the relationship he wants with his mom now and it’s a lot more distant than she would have chosen. Of course through her narcissism she makes it all about her, she’s the victim I’m the witch – but really I chose love for my partner, I chose emotional separation for my partner, I chose a drama free zone for me and my partner, I am role modelling what making good choices for ourselves looks and feels like. We are doing ok, no more arguments about her and he speaks to her every day. I hear through his side of these conversations that she is still trying to make him feel guilty and ashamed for choosing his happiness over hers – but he has a safe space with me to ride out those feelings. He still can’t talk about her with me, too sensitive, too wounded by it all, it’s easier for him to just be fake nice with her than to delve in to the pathology, but he is a better man having had the line drawn in the sand for him by someone who loves him. He may never understand what happened to him. He’s been steeping in her psychologically self centred soup his whole life. I hold out hope that when she dies he may improve even more, to really claim his right to happiness.

    • Chrissteen Mckereth

      WOW. Your story is bang on. I am you! I have to show my boyfriend this! He has the exact same relationship with his mother except he calls her on all her bullshit all the time and it saves his sanity- He used to come home in tears after an altercation with her :( One caveat: NO WAY IN HELL would we let her move in lol. Thanks for sharing your story.

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