Toxic people often use subtle methods of control and manipulation in relationships. With mothers-in-law, this toxicity may or may not be noticeable to others (particularly their own child). However, their behavior can be very negative and invalidating, sometimes resulting in low self-esteem, anxiety, and even depression. Still, there are effective techniques to deal with toxic mothers-in-law in order to help make your life a bit easier.
What Is a Toxic Mother-in-Law?
In any toxic relationship, the individuals involved struggle to communicate with one another in a positive way. With toxic mother-in-laws, there is typically a repeated pattern of negativity from her towards other family members. This may be exhibited in the form of control, manipulation, or abusive behavior. Her actions are sometimes intentional, but may also stem from behaviors learned from her own family of origin.
12 Signs of a Toxic Mother-in-Law
A toxic mother-in-law differs from a toxic mother because the primary target in the family system is typically their son or daughter-in-law. Regardless, everyone suffers and often all parties end up with hurt feelings. Toxic mothers-in-laws frequently behave in ways that are emotionally exhausting. .
Below are 12 signs of a toxic mother-in-law:
1. She Doesn’t Respect Boundaries
Setting healthy boundaries is a way to ensure that we feel both comfortable and safe in a relationship, as well as communicate our expectations.6 Unfortunately, toxic mothers-in-law often disregard boundaries by encouraging your spouse to keep secrets from you, showing up at your house unannounced, and questioning your parenting style. Poor boundaries with a mother-in-law can cause chaos and disrupt a marital relationship.
2. She Thinks She’s Always Right
A toxic mother-in-law is usually going to have an opinion on how to raise children, take care of the house, and cook. Also, she may believe she is the most knowledgeable about what her child needs from a spouse–and guess what, you’ll more than likely never fit the bill.
One manipulation tactic of a toxic mother-in-law is inserting herself into her child’s relationship to turn them against each other. This type of behavior is called triangulation and causes interpersonal conflict between the couple, sometimes resulting in confusion and jealousy.
3. She’s A Master Manipulator
Your mother-in-law may be savvy and may not have always seemed toxic. In the beginning, she may have pretended to foster a connection with you. However, you eventually started to see a different side of her. She started to use more overt methods to meet her needs, specifically by instilling fear, guilt, or obligation in the family.5 Some common manipulation examples include using the silent treatment, gaslighting, or offering to do favors with strings attached. Emotional manipulators often behave this way because they lack the skills to communicate directly.
4. She’s Emotionally Abusive
Emotionally abusive behavior includes non-physical actions that are meant to exert control over a person by instilling fear or isolation.3 It may be subtle, but can slowly erode a person’s self-esteem. You may think that emotional abuse only occurs within a nuclear family, but any time communication between people is disrespectful or manipulative, emotional abuse is likely at play.
5. She’s Passive Aggressive
Passive-aggressive behavior involves indirectly expressing one’s negative feelings, rather than openly communicating them.3 With a toxic mother-in-law, this behavior may be evident if she agrees to come over for a family meal, but then picks at her food and refuses to eat. Furthermore, other examples may include lateness, avoidance, weaponized kindness, sarcasm, and subliminal insults.3 These are all techniques she can use to express her feelings, without needing to do so directly.
6. She’s a One-Upper
A one-upper is someone who always wants to top your accomplishments or make you feel inferior. With a toxic mother-in-law, she will see her relationship with you as a competition and will say and do anything to “win.” One-uppers hate to feel “less than” and will make every effort to overshadow others. This behavior is often used to mask low self-esteem and ease feelings of jealousy (if only for a short period of time.)
7. She’s a Gossip
Toxic mothers-in-law are known to gossip, but not just with the ladies at the mahjong table. They gossip about YOU with anyone and everyone who will listen, including other family members. This may be her method of trying to spread her version of you as truth, and once again manipulate a situation.
8. She’s Impossible to Please
With a toxic mother-in-law, nothing you do is ever good enough. She may visit your house and offer subtle, unrequested comments about how she keeps her cabinets organized. Or, she may offer to give you her foolproof technique on how to wrap picture perfect holiday gifts. Although these suggestions may at first glance seem thoughtful, coming from a toxic mother-in-law, they are actually invasive and judgmental.
9. She Helps Without Being Asked
“Helping” without being asked to do so may be seen as nice or even thoughtful. That is, until you dig a bit deeper and question the mother-in-law’s motivation behind helping out. Is it to truly be helpful or is there an ulterior motive? A toxic mother-in-law acts this way because she feels that she is the only person capable of doing the job correctly.
10. She’s a Narcissist
There are some pretty clear-cut signs of a narcissistic mother-in-law to keep an eye out for. These may include a constant need for admiration, lack of empathy, and an inflated sense-of-self. Expecting a narcissist to change their behavior is likely a lost cause. Instead, it might be more important to communicate openly with your spouse and seek emotional support.
11. She Causes You to Doubt Yourself
A toxic mother-in-law may slowly and subtly start to question you and your ability to make decisions. Planting seeds of self-doubt is another type of emotional abuse that can be debilitating and traumatic over time. Again, it is a way to exhibit power and control over another person.
12. She Ignores You
A toxic mother-in-law may ignore you frequently and this is a hallmark type of passive-aggressive behavior. She may not talk to you and only speaks with your spouse, pretending like she didn’t hear you. If confronted, she will come up with excuses and attempt to shift the blame onto you.
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How to Deal With Toxic Mothers-in-Law
If any of the signs above sound familiar, you or someone you know may be dealing with a toxic mother-in-law. The bad news is that you likely can’t change your mother-in-law’s behavior. But, you can become better able to cope with it. However, there are no one-size-fits-all tactics for doing so, and some may work well in one family but not others.
Below are some tips for dealing with a toxic mother-in-law:
Communicate Openly With Your Partner
Open and honest communication with your partner is necessary in a relationship, but particularly when it comes to hot-button issues related to the family. Learning tips for healthy communication in relationships will help you become a more active listener and speaker. This will be especially beneficial if you learn that your partner doesn’t think that their mother’s behavior is wrong. Ideally, you and your partner will be able to establish boundaries around which behaviors are and are not acceptable from your mother-in-law. Still, this is difficult work and will require patience.
Set Realistic Expectations
It’s probably time to start getting real about the actual mother-in-law you have and let go of your hopes of her becoming a different person. Rather than trying to change her, try altering your thoughts about her. Practice having compassion for her and remain curious about the reasons behind her actions.
Toxic mothers-in-law can be stressful to deal with. Her emotionally abusive and manipulative actions are taxing on a person’s well-being and can lead to feelings of stress, anxiety, and depression. Practicing self-care techniques such as journaling, meditation, and mindfulness are all ways to alleviate these negative feelings. Not to mention, the fact that they’re fun and feel good too.
Don’t Fall for the “Victim Card”
It can be easy to get hooked into a person’s victim mentality and experience guilt after interacting with them. It’s important to set boundaries and continue to communicate thoughtfully and honestly, without getting sucked into their game. This isn’t easy and may take practice and support.
Try Not to Take it Personally
This one goes hand-in-hand with adjusting your expectations. Recognize that your mother-in-law is who she is. It’s likely that you are just a trigger and her bad behavior is a result of unfortunate experiences from her past.
Remind yourself that you aren’t the only one in the world with a monster for a mother-in-law. There are other people out there dealing with very similar experiences. Treat yourself the same as you would a friend rather than judge yourself or the experience. Be open to your feelings that happen as a result of your circumstance.4
Set Boundaries With Her
In the best case scenario, you and your spouse will develop a plan about what boundaries need to be enforced with your mother-in-law. If your partner is willing, it may be most appropriate for them to verbalize and enforce these rules. In some instances, the spouse may feel uncomfortable doing so or they have trouble carrying through with boundaries. If that is the case, you will need to step in and gently take on this role.
Some potential examples of boundaries with your mother-in-law include:
- Not accepting monetary gifts if strings are attached
- Communicating openly that it is not okay to have secrets
- Calling out passive-aggressive communication as it occurs
Effects of Having a Toxic Mother-in-Law
Not only does a toxic mother-in-law cause tension in a family, her behaviors can lead to substantial impacts on her individual target. This relationship can result in heightened stress, lead to symptoms of burnout, anxiety, or depression. It’s important to address these issues before they develop into long-lasting problems.
Effects of toxic mothers-in-law may include:
- Family stress: The tension that comes with this type of conflicted relationship can cause family stress and possibly toxic stress.
- Marital tension: The extreme manipulation and triangulation of a toxic mother-in-law can have a serious impact on the marital unit.
- Anxiety: As discussed earlier, emotional abuse and self-doubt can contribute to symptoms of anxiety.
- Depression: Being emotionally abused and manipulated may lead to increased depression.
- Addiction: In an attempt to cope with a toxic mother-in-law, one may begin over-eating, over-drinking, or engage in other addictive behaviors.
- Rigidity or attempts to dominate other relationships: Behaving in this way may offer an alternate method of managing the feelings of being out of control in a relationship with a toxic mother-in-law.
When to Seek Professional Help
Dealing with a toxic mother-in-law can bring with it a host of challenges, both individually and within a family. Your spouse may not be the best person to vent to when feeling frustrated, which may cause additional strain on your marital relationship. It may be valuable to seek out professional support in order to learn how to navigate these stressors.
Therapy may be individual, between the couple, or with the nuclear family. There is a possibility of inviting the mother-in-law into a session as needed at a later date (if recommended by the therapist). If you are beginning to experience negative symptoms of a mental health condition, it may be valuable to address them with a licensed professional. To find the right therapist, you can speak with trusted friends, get a family referral, speak with a doctor, or search an online therapist directory.
Therapy options for coping with a toxic mother-in-law can include:
- Family therapy: Family therapy can help a couple gain a clear picture of the roles they play in the family unit and how these could be encouraging the mother-in-law to continue her behavior.
- Family systems therapy: Family systems therapy is a form of family therapy that looks at the entire family system as a whole from a generational perspective to explore any repeated patterns.
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): CBT is a form of individual therapy that focuses on a person’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. The goal is to change how a client thinks and feels about the mother-in-law’s behavior.
- Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT): ACT is a form of therapy where clients learn to accept their deep feelings and recognize that they are important, with the caveat that changes may also need to be made to move forward in life.1
Dealing with a toxic mother-in-law is a challenge, as they are often adept at manipulating relationships. In order to best navigate this relationship, continue to communicate openly with your partner, establish clear boundaries with your mother-in-law, and take care of your own needs. Your toxic mother-in-law’s behavior may never change, but you can adjust your mindset and change how you approach her.