The Only Way to Deal with Your Toxic Mother-in-Law

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Toxic mother in law? My condolences. It’s bad enough any time of year but a toxic mother-in-law coupled with holiday stress can mean a seasonal frenzy before the first leaf falls.  So, my gift to you this holiday is the one and only way to deal with, and yes change, a toxic mother-in-law.  

For starters, let’s get a few definitions straight. Your toxic mother-in-law problem is a parents-in-law problem. No he’s great it’s her you say?  Think again. His passivity is code for silent co-conspirator or enabling spouse. Either way, he is not reigning her in an so they should be dealt with as a toxic team. 

Secondly, this is a marital problem for you.  No she doesn’t bother my spouse just me you say? Your troubles are marital troubles because if you’re stressed then the entire family system suffers.  A toxic mother-in-law goes hand-in-hand with toxic family relationships. Therefore, you and your spouse need to work as a team when dealing with toxic in-laws.

Lastly, there is no award for grinning-and-bearing it.  In fact, this do-nothing approach can lead to erosion of all your family ties. It’s okay to admit “I hate my in-laws” but it’s not okay to do nothing about it. I understand that it can be daunting to change your approach, but the risk of doing nothing to your marriage and family are worse. 

So, now that we got that all straight, let’s look at why mother-in-laws can be toxic, how they cause toxic family relationships and why they do it.  This will help you understand how to deal with a toxic mother-in-law or any toxic family relationship.

Boundary Crossers: This type of toxic mother-in-law will see your line in the sand and happily step right over it. Explained nap and meal times?  They’ll disrupt them anyway. They show up on their time, retell stories you asked them not to, persist on sensitive topics despite your protests and generally ignore any limit or boundary you mention.  

This often takes the form of completely engulfing you and yours  into the original family causing you to lose all your roles and relationships under the larger umbrella of “being family” or simply ignoring their offspring’s right to a separate life without being constantly checked on. They will not understand that your marriage comes before any other family, and will want you and/or your spouse to be a part of everything they do.  

This can also take the form of the mother-in-law stepping in to all you do, such as  “fixing” such things as your shopping list, decor, laundry, etc. They will not understand that you have your own tastes and capabilities to control your life. They will ignore your efforts to maintain control or any insistence that you can handle something.  Or, worse, will hear you out but then go about doing it anyway. 

Lastly, boundary crossing toxic mother-in-laws  can verbally cross the line by outright denying or minimizing your version of stories or events in favor of theirs.  They will retell a story you just told in the “correct” version or will minimize your version of events by questioning it. This can happen in a public forum or in private. 

Part of the toxicity of boundary crossers is that they present benevolent versions of their behaviors making it even more difficult to “see” the extremely damaging effects they are having on you and your relationships and thus causing toxic family relationships. Who wouldn’t want an attentive in-law who accepts you whole-heartedly into their family, takes over the chores, laughs off your protests and helps you with recounting events?  These are the excuses they run to when they are confronted which makes it hard to reason with them or hard for someone to see your version of why you hate your in-laws.. 

Why they do this: Boundary crossers toxic mother-in-laws often have conflicts with closeness and distance. Crossing you and your spouse’s boundaries is a symbolic way to not let their offspring go and because it’s an unhealthy way to hold on,  it never achieves true closeness. For these people true closeness is feared (often because they experience it as being engulfed). But the problem is the flip side is also true and distance is feared (they experience this as abandonment). Therefore, they stay in relationship “no man’s land” never achieving healthy closeness or distance from anyone.  While it may feel like boundary crossers can’t get enough of you, by doing it their way they are causing you to be irritated which keeps true closeness from developing. They also won’t let go and let you have it all your way which keeps healthy distancing from developing. They promote these toxic family relationships as a way to deal with their unconscious problems with closeness and distance. 

Engulfers: These are the toxic mother-in-laws who appear to require you and/or your spouse to be the dominant force in their life, and feign complete helplessness without you. It often occurs when there is only one parent around or when one of the parents is incapacitated in some way. They can then set the trap of making you and your spouse their “surrogate spouse” or “surrogate parent.” They won’t understand that you and your spouse’s first duty is in fact to each other and will get extremely upset or bitter if they are reminded, forcing you into an awkward position.

The engulfing toxic mother-in-law often wants praise from their peers about you and your family, time with their beloved son or daughter, or whatever else they prioritize. Your own thoughts, feelings, and choices don’t matter, and if necessary they will do virtually anything to get what they feel they deserve, from tantrums to guilt to bribery, whether of you or of other members of your family (particularly children).

Sometimes this type of toxic mother-in-law  has a serious problem, whether it’s substance abuse, workaholism, diabetes or something else that they refuse to take care of. By doing this they are unconsciously letting you and/or your spouse worry and attempt “cures” while they continue to deny.  It can completely ruin or threaten every instance of family togetherness, and create a kind of tornado at the center of the family dynamic, where you’re always waiting or planning around their problem(s). Their incessant need to engulf, instead of spending quality time with, you and your family can make you  feel you hate your in-laws. 

Why they do this: At the heart of this type of mother-in-law  is often a sadness they think they can not face. Many people have determined that one, or more of their emotions are “wrong” or “bad” in some way and sadness is a common one.  These mother-in-laws fear that if they allow themselves to feel sad it will never end and cause them to be incapacitated. Therefore they fight it which, of course, keeps it from dissipating.  One way to fight an emotion is to deny the very thing that is causing it. An adult child starting their own family is a symbolic ending of their childhood and thus normally causes grief in the parent  Parents who fear their sadness will bury this grief instead of experiencing it. Acting as if you are all one big happy family instead of two by putting you into a parent or spousal role for them, and by denying that adult children need their space and to take care of their own families, are all ways to bury and deny their sadness.  To them, the toxic family relationships they develop are better than feeling the sadness over the loss of their child. 

Abandoners: These are the toxic mother-in-laws who  make you scream “I hate my in-laws” because they appear to want to tear your relationship and family apart.  They do whatever they can to put wedges between you, your spouse and your children. They believe that by marrying their offspring, you have removed their spotlight and so will attempt to symbolically remove you by informing you and everyone else that you aren’t good enough. They often use criticism as their main method to this end.  Anything might be up for criticism including: the way you dress, your career, your choice of servings on Christmas Day, your parenting, your religion, you name it. When you naturally get upset at these attacks the toxic mother-in-law will remain poised and unflappable and will attempt to conspire with your spouse, her offspring, on how to “help” you  thus driving you “out” while they “save the day” for everyone else.  

This attempt to wrestle their spotlight from you can also take the form of making family-affecting choices without your input such as moving to a state far from any family member, changing their will, or declaring their own “holidays” or “traditions.”  This naturally puts you, your spouse and other family members into a tizzy about how to cope with this unexpected change which keeps the toxic mother-in-law in the center of everyone’s attention.

Why they do it: Like the engulfer toxic mother-in-laws who are hoping to bury sadness, the abandoner toxic mother-in-laws are conflicted by their anger and thus try to avoid it. Abandoners tend to have unrealistic fears that their anger will lead to hurting someone so they attempt to bury it.  And anger is just as much a part of grief as sadness, so instead of effectively dealing with their grief at “losing” their child and the anger that comes with it, these toxic mother-in-laws try bury it by continuing to make themselves the center of their offspring’s world and/or wedging you out of the picture.  

Now that we understand these toxic mother-in-laws better, there is only one solution for dealing with them.  Together you and your spouse must set and maintain appropriate boundaries. Many well-meaning adult children make the mistake of indulging, or worse, encouraging the toxic mother-in-law behavior hoping it will go away or someone or something else will take care of it for them.  This is a form of enabling and therefore will not make the situation better and runs a real risk making all your relationships toxic or worse, end.  

Good boundary setting starts with changing your behavior and discontinuing telling the in-laws how you want them to behave if they didn’t change the first time you asked. So, instead of continuing to insist that they request a visit (the toxic pattern), don’t open the door the next time they arrive unannounced.  How many more times do you think they are going to show up unannounced if you you won’t them in? I’m thinking zero. Or instead of continuing to tell your toxic mother-in-law her criticisms are hurtful only speak with her with your spouse on the line and interrupt her when she starts with. “Sorry, this is hurtful so we’re going to sign off, talk to you next week” and hang up. How many times will she continue her criticisms if they are always paired with “losing” you and her offspring? Again, probably zero. 

For those of you who are thinking this is “too mean”, I implore you and your spouse to think of boundaries with which you are both comfortable.  Maybe instead, you both open the door when the in-laws show up unannounced but keep them on the doorstep and repeat, “sorry not a good time.” The point is that you work the strategy out together as a team which strengthens your relationship.  Also, consider this. It is much less “mean” to be honest with your toxic in laws about how you feel and to not give mixed messages by saying something’s not okay but then going along with it. 

Setting boundaries also does not equate to ignoring the toxic in-laws’ feelings, it simply means you stop catering to those feelings at the expense of you and your marriage. Boundaries can, and should, be set with kindness and empathy.  Here are some phrases to get you started. “Thank you for the offer Mom, but we have other plans I’m afraid.” “I’m sorry you don’t understand Mom, I’ve got to go now,” “I’m sorry your upset about this, it was not our intent to hurt you, I’ll call and check on you next week.”  

By setting and sticking to boundaries you effectively send the message about what you will and will not tolerate.  This can actually be on some level more comforting to the in-laws than your mixed messages. While you can’t change people, setting boundaries they will lead your toxic in-laws to change course and that’s most often in the direction of healthier.

If you have any questions or problems with this, give us a call or send us a text at (757)340-8800.

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