How to Handle a Toxic Mother-in-Law

What to do when you can't stand your mother-in-law?
on June 12, 2024
Read time: 10 mins
by Moraya Seeger DeGeare

Marriage is an incredible chapter in any couple’s journey. 

However, this chapter might feature a few more characters than you were accounting for, with the natural addition of the in-laws… 

For many couples, the thought of the in-laws is accompanied by dramatic music and a shiver down their spine, especially if a toxic mother-in-law will have to take a seat at the table. While many couples want to sustain a healthy relationship with both their parents and their in-laws, battles between mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law are infamous. 

So, do you have a toxic mother-in-law in your life? And if so, how do you distance yourself to preserve your relationship?

Setting boundaries with in-laws can be a very tricky situation, as you try to balance your own well-being with your partner’s needs. However, if your toxic mother-in-law is damaging your relationship or your mental health, it could be grounds to take a step back. 

Key Takeaways
  • Identifying a toxic mother-in-law is key so you can protect yourself from their negative behaviors early on. Classic signs include manipulation, overbearing control, emotional abuse, passive-aggressiveness, and narcissism.
  • Instead of lashing out or cutting them from your life straight away, it’s important to understand where these behaviors might be coming from. Toxic behaviors often stem from feelings of displacement or fear of losing relevance in their child’s life. Some mothers-in-law may act out of an anxious attachment style or compete due to stereotypes and traditional roles.
  • Toxic behaviors can strain the marital relationship, with adult children often caught between loyalty to their spouse and parent. Addressing these behaviors is crucial to maintaining harmony and mental well-being within the family.
  • Although you might be tempted to cut and run, since this is a family member, it’s important to try for the sake of your partner. Opt for open communication, clear boundaries, and preserving a united front with you and your partner.
  • However, if the relationship severely impacts your mental health, it’s important to know when to walk away. Ensure that all reasonable efforts to communicate and set boundaries have been made before moving to cut this person out of your life. You should also discuss the decision with your partner to ensure mutual understanding and support. Instead of a harsh cut-off, you could opt for a gradual restriction, so other people in your life aren’t harshly affected.

What is a toxic mother-in-law?

Toxic people are not as easily identifiable as you might think. 

While we might be able to see them from a distance, if someone is in your circle — it’s much harder to label them as toxic as you naturally want to see the best in them. This 

This is especially true when looking at family members, relatives, or friends, as the notion of a toxic family can be a very overwhelming concept. However, when looking at your mother-in-law’s behavior, it’s important to be able to recognize toxic patterns and understand how to handle them. 

A toxic mother-in-law is characterized by behaviors that are harmful, manipulative, or overly controlling towards her child's spouse, often leading to tension and conflict within the family dynamic. The brunt of these bad behaviors is usually experienced by the daughter-in-law or the son-in-law, as the mother may not approve of their relationship with their child. 

According to a recent study, 44% of both men and women report conflict with their mother-in-law, with mothers reporting the most conflict with their daughters-in-law (above their own daughters). 

However, this is also a difficult situation for the adult children of the parent, who have to witness the toxic behavior toward their loved one. While they want to protect their partner, they also have a loyalty to their own parent and may refrain from calling out their own mother. 

Types of toxic mother-in-laws 

  1. Passive-aggressive mother-in-law: This type of mother-in-law expresses her discontent and criticism in subtle, indirect ways rather than confronting issues head-on. For example, they might resort to sarcastic or backhanded compliments. 

  2. Overbearing mother-in-law: This type of mother-in-law is excessively involved in her child's life and tries to control or influence the couple's decisions and actions. Since she believes that she knows best, she continuously disregards the couple’s autonomy. 

  3. Gaslighting mother-in-law: This kind of mother-in-law might use emotional abuse tactics to interfere in her child’s life. They might use various tactics to make their child or their child-in-law question or doubt their own sanity. 

  4. Narcissistic mother-in-law: A narcissistic mother-in-law seeks attention and admiration, often at the expense of others. She might lack empathy for your mental health and only cares about her own peace of mind. 

Signs of a toxic mother-in-law

  1. Lack of boundaries: One of the most common behaviors from toxic mothers-in-law is a blatant disregard for boundaries. They might believe that they still have the right to control their daughter or son’s life and don’t understand why their interference is a problem. If they continuously interfere in your relationship, it can cause rifts or disagreements — where they might even provoke their child to choose sides.

  2. Can’t be pleased: Family events can always be a source of anxiety, especially if you have married into the family — as you feel pressured to get everything right. However, no matter what you do or how much of an effort you make, you just can’t please your mother-in-law. They might constantly nitpick about your actions, or withhold their validation or praise as a means of control. 

  3. Emotionally abusive: When your mother-in-law is around, there is no peace! Since there are no healthy boundaries in play, they abuse their position as the mother-in-law to get their way with their own family. They might play on your insecurities or intentionally belittle you to make you feel small. 

  4. Stubborn on opinions: Their way is the only way. While an input on family events might be one thing, they also freely express their opinion on your relationship. Even though it may not be any of their business, they make it known that they do not agree with your way of doing things.

  5. Manipulation: When you first met your mother-in-law, they may not have appeared toxic at all and tried to be your best friend. However, this could simply be a tactic to get her own way down the road. For example, she might offer a support system but it comes with strings attached. Or, she might be prone to guilt-tripping you into doing things her way — rather than the way you’d like to do it for your partner. 

  6. Passive-aggressive: Instead of openly communicating how she feels, she might resort to continuous passive-aggressive comments. For example, she might slip sarcastic comments into conversation, or weaponize the small things to express her true feelings. 

  7. One-upping you: Some mothers-in-law can get very competitive with their daughters-in-law, as they resent the feeling of being displaced. This can foster a toxic relationship over time, as the stakes get higher and higher. 

  8. Gossiping: Even in healthy relationships, we’re all prone to harmless gossip from time to time. However, toxic mothers-in-law make it their pastime to gossip about YOU to the entire family — trying to create allies to turn against you when it suits her. 

  9. Overbearing: When you’re starting your family, help is always appreciated. However, when that help becomes weaponized, or she is only helping because “she is the only one who can do it right” — you’re in dangerous territory. 

  10. Narcissistic: Some people are inherently narcissistic, and their constant need for admiration and attention can be incredibly taxing on both your own well-being and the health of your relationship. These behaviors should act as a huge red flag and should not be tolerated.  

What is the psychology behind toxic mothers-in-law?

Toxic mother-in-laws come in many different forms, with their overbearing nature having a huge impact on your relationship. While you would love to foster a healthy family dynamic, their toxic behaviors can make this impossible. 

But why do they behave this way? From the way they act, you might see it as a personal attack on your character or that they simply don’t think you’re “good enough” for their child, but it could actually go much deeper than that. 

A common reason why these behaviors are triggered is because they feel displaced when their child marries, viewing the spouse as an unwelcome intruder into their enmeshed dynamic. Their identity might be heavily tied to their role as a caregiver, so they might insert themselves into the relationship in order to remain relevant or “needed”, as they battle with the fear of losing their child’s attention. 

Another reason for these feelings of resentment stems from a wider view of traditional roles, which was analyzed by Dr. Terri Apter in her book “What Do You Want From Me?”

When looking at the infamous battle between mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law, she pins the issue on female stereotypes (rather than just wider social and cultural expectations). Apter feels that since both women are vying for the same position (as the primary woman), they both feel incredibly threatened by one another. 

This leads to the competitive and toxic behaviors that we know so well, with both parties feeding into these negative patterns — fueled by one another. 

This kind of battle can have huge consequences for the family system, especially if these behaviors escalate and prevent healthy relationships from forming. 

Other mothers-in-law might resort to toxic behaviors unknowingly due to their anxious attachment style, leading them to the clingy and controlling behaviors we know so well. 

How can I protect my marriage from a toxic mother-in-law's influence?

If you’re being exposed to these toxic behaviors, it can inflict a huge strain on your romantic relationship — especially since the strain is being caused by your parent. 

Handling a toxic mother-in-law actually begins by talking to your partner, expressing how you feel about their behaviors and how it’s making you feel. This is naturally a difficult conversation, as your partner might naturally deflect blame from their parent or pretend they don’t witness these behaviors. 

Even though this is hurtful, you have to remember that it likely stems from a need to protect their own mom, as there is a natural loyalty here. Men with mommy issues might side with their mothers and refuse to see their side, in which case, an unsustainable dynamic is present. 

However, hopefully, your partner will be supportive of your concerns and be willing to back you as you take protective measures for yourself and your family. After all, dealing with a toxic mother-in-law requires a thoughtful approach to protect your well-being and maintain family harmony.

Tips on how to deal with a toxic mother-in-law

  1. Open communication: Depending on your specific situation, it could be beneficial to confront your mother-in-law in a healthy way. Approach her calmly and discuss specific behaviors that concern you, giving her time to express her side. Instead of letting things fester, try and create a routine that works for both you and your family — maintaining harmony. 

  2. Set achievable expectations: Try to outline what you expect from her regarding involvement in your family's life. Even though it might lead to some tough scenarios, make sure both you and your partner maintain these expectations as a united front. 

  3. Opt for self-care: Dealing with any toxic person is a very draining experience, so it’s important to prioritize your own mental health and well-being. Remember that you don’t have to go through this journey alone, with therapists available to help you develop healthy coping strategies. 

  4. Don’t let her play the victim: During these conversations, your mother-in-law might play the victim card and pretend she isn’t aware of how these behaviors are impacting you. Politely but firmly challenges her victim narrative by pointing out facts and providing different perspectives. Try to focus on specifics rather than attacking her — she is your partner’s mother after all! 

  5. Don’t take it personally: Even though it’s difficult to emotionally separate yourself from the situation. However, remind yourself that it has nothing to do with you or your personality, it’s about their own insecurities or issues. 

  6. Set boundaries: Once you open the topic for the first time, it’s important to set collaborative and constructive boundaries. For example, instead of her just showing up, put a phone call rule in place. While it might lead to tense conversations, try and hold your ground to ensure these boundaries are respected.  

Is it OK to not talk to your mother-in-law?

Even though it’s a huge step, if the relationship with your mother-in-law is toxic to your mental health, or your family’s well-being — it is okay to cut off or limit contact. 

However, this isn’t just your partner’s friend or their ex, it’s their parent… So it’s a decision that should not be taken lightly. Also, while you might want your partner to back you every step of the way, you have to understand that they may still want to maintain a relationship with their mother. 

Instead of making a big deal of cutting them off, limiting contact with a toxic mother-in-law can be an easier route to preserve family dynamics. For example, you might not facilitate a daily relationship with your partner but limit your relationship to necessary interactions.

How do you cut ties with your toxic mother-in-law?

Cutting off contact with your mother-in-law should not be a snap decision made in anger or in reaction to her overstepping a boundary (especially if she isn’t aware of your feelings). 

Before taking this step, ensure that you have made reasonable efforts to communicate your concerns and set boundaries. Sometimes, opting for communication can resolve issues without the need for drastic measures. 

If this doesn’t work, you have the right to distance yourself from your mother-in-law, but you should let your partner know so you’re both on the same page. Even though it’s tough, it’s important to approach this decision as a united front to avoid creating additional conflict within your marriage.

While some people prefer to slowly back away or limit contact, or you might say "I need to take a step back for my own well-being.” Clearly define what level of contact you are comfortable with, whether it's no contact, limited contact, or only through your spouse. 

Even though you are taking this step for your own mental health, it can still be an incredibly hurtful experience — as you may have hoped for a happier ending. Remember that you have chosen to prioritize your own well-being and there is nothing to feel guilty about. 

Not every family dynamic has to be “perfect”, it’s about creating a safe space where you can all be allowed to thrive without toxicity or stress. 

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What does MIL mean?

    A MIL is an abbreviation for a Mother-in-Law, with FIL standing for father-in-law. This shortened term is a common way to refer to your mother-in-law, especially if texting.
  • How can I improve communication with my toxic mother-in-law?

    Improving communication with a toxic mother-in-law can be challenging, but it is possible with the right attitude and approach. When she’s around, try to make space for her perspective and understand why she might be acting this way. With your understanding, you can hopefully reach compromises that will facilitate an easier relationship.
  • Is it possible to set boundaries with a toxic mother-in-law?

    Even though you might have to have some tougher conversations, it’s possible to set boundaries with a toxic mother-in-law — as long as you have your partner’s support. If you have a united front, it’s much easier to set and maintain boundaries with your in-laws that preserve the health of your relationship.
  • How to handle a toxic sister-in-law?

    Toxic sisters-in-law can be just as common as mothers-in-law, both requiring a strategic and composed approach to protect your well-being and maintain family harmony. Try not to let their comments or behaviors get to you or interfere in your relationship, choose to limit your interactions where possible, or take a step back from your relationship.
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