When you are partnered with another person, you have no choice but to become a part of their family, and that means you have more than just a new relationship with them: You have their entire family to get to know and welcome as well. For some, this is a seamless and pleasant experience. For others, it’s the start of a toxic and unhealthy relationship, like a dark cloud that follows their family for years.
After things get serious and the honeymoon stage wears off, you may even notice you have a mother-in-law who isn’t all that pleasant. You might even find yourself the lucky beneficiary of micro-aggressions that turn into passive aggression until they morph into full-blown aggression. Maybe she tells you the right way to fold the laundry or frequently stops by unannounced. Perhaps she’s insisted she should be allowed in the delivery room when you have your baby or asks you why you don’t plate your partner’s food at dinner. Maybe your mother-in-law shows signs of jealousy over your marriage, or she begins to manipulate situations to cast you in a bad light. Whatever it is, these behaviors tend to pile up over time until they begin affecting your mental and emotional health and well-being. It’s no wonder so many are searching for advice on how to deal with one. In fact, according to the latest search data available, ‘toxic mother-in-law’ is searched for nearly 3,000 times a month. (Just remember, you have the right to eliminate toxic behavior and toxic people from your life, no matter who they may be. Your mental health and well-being are paramount.)
We get it: An overbearing mother-in-law can make family visits feel like you would rather have your eyelashes plucked out of your head with chopsticks than endure another visit from her. So, here are a few tips to help you navigate this tricky relationship, survive family get-togethers, and — most importantly — retain your sanity.
1. Talk it out with your mother-in-law.
Let her know you realize your partner is her child, and the transition isn’t easy for her. Follow it up by being clear with examples of things you won’t compromise on. Maybe you’d like her to call before she comes over. Perhaps you don’t want her telling you how to raise your kids or asking you why you don’t pack a lunch for your partner each day.
Chances are if you tell her in a nice calm way, she will stop. Maybe this is how her MIL treated her, or maybe she has no idea it bothers you because you’ve never mentioned it before. It’s also important to understand that parents can gaslight their own children and in-laws without realizing they are doing it. That kind of behavior is not acceptable, whether it’s on purpose or not. Call it out calmly and succinctly. Approach the conversation with clear examples and why that behavior is toxic and unhealthy.
However, if that fails, try the following:
2. Plan an activity for your spouse and their mother.
Whether you are on her turf or she is on yours, plan something fun for her and your partner to do without you. Maybe it’s lunch at their favorite restaurant or a trip to her favorite store and a movie. Whatever it may be, it’s going to be a win for her because she gets to spend time with her child. And it will be a win for your partner (hopefully) because they will get to spend time with their mother without you threatening to chop her hair off once she falls asleep. And it will be really nice for you.
Having a break in the action may be just the thing to keep you from speeding away in the car as soon as she knocks on your front door (if she does that kind of thing).
3. Have your spouse set the boundaries.
We once saw an episode of a talk show during which the host was counseling a couple who was struggling with this exact issue — the mother-in-law was overbearing and her son was having a hard time telling her to back off a bit when she came to visit. It was putting a huge wedge between him and his wife. The wife was starting to speak up to her MIL, and no one was happy.
The host said it really was the son’s job to take care of any problems his wife was having with his MIL, as it would relieve a lot of the tension between everyone.
That method may be hard for some couples to navigate — they don’t want to hurt their mother’s feelings, nor do they want to hurt their spouse, but it made so much sense. If your MIL is stepping over your boundaries, chances are she might not listen to your cries for her to stop. However, she might listen if her child comes to her.
4. Dish it back to her.
If your MIL tells you the correct way to cook the chicken as she’s eating the chicken dinner you just made for her and your entire family, then you can suggest she treat you all to a nice meal out the next time she visits. If she gives your house the white glove test and drags her fingers across your picture frames to see how much dust she can collect, then offer her the Swiffer Duster. You don’t even need to say a thing, dish a little passive-aggressiveness back to her. Pass the torch to the one who knows how to keep a home in better shape than you do. Problem solved.
5. Just let her do her thing.
If you can stand it, just accept the fact that when she comes over she is going to pick at things or question the way you do things. Realize she is there to see your partner and the grandkids and let them have their time and space so their relationship can blossom.
In other words, suck it up and scream into your pillow every night to relieve the built-up anger and stress (if you can do it without affecting the relationship between you and your spouse). Good luck.
6. Take off.
You do you. Get out of there and away from her. Do your own thing if that’s the only way you can cope with having her around. Leave your partner and MIL in the dust and have some fun by taking a spin around Target, stuffing your face with fast food, or going out with girlfriends.
Sure, you may feel rude momentarily. But if she’s in your home and being overbearing, and you’ve discussed certain things and seen no change, giving yourself some space is no ruder than her making you uncomfortable.
7. Don’t take anything she says or does personally.
If you’re able to realize she is this way with more people than just you, it may soften the blow. If you can not take it personally and go about your business, maybe it will stop. Also, if you are able to accomplish this, you’re a better person than us and deserve a damn trophy.
8. Vent to her other daughters-in-law.
Maybe there is someone else out there who understands her particular brand of criticism, and the two of you can go out a few times a year to bitch about it and share an ice cream sundae the size of your head. If it makes you feel better (and less alone) to vent, then that’s the best medicine.
9. Kill her with kindness.
When she does or says something that feels off-putting to you or makes you uncomfortable in your home or hers, tell her how amazingly wonderful she is. Ask her how she knows so much and if she’s ever made any mistakes.
But seriously, sometimes being the bigger person in a situation like this can go a long way because if your MIL really is evil, she’ll want to get a rise out of you. Remaining sweet and calm will drive her crazier than any clever clap back. And if this is hard for you, cling to the idea of your spouse and how happy it will make them you’re not arguing.
OK, maybe that really just sounds like sarcasm. If we’re being honest, we wouldn’t be able to do the kindness thing either — it’s not in our overbearing-MIL-handling wheelhouse.
10. Try to look at the lighter side of things.
Sometimes you have to laugh to keep from crying, right? So, when your MIL is driving you up the wall, take a breather and read through some funny jokes about mothers-in-law. Seeing other people’s comical perspectives on the same situation will remind you you’re not alone in your frustrations. Here are a few of our favorites:
Do you know the punishment for bigamy?
A pharmacist tells a customer, “In order to buy arsenic, you need a legal prescription. A picture of your mother-in-law just isn’t enough.”
My mother-in-law is banned internationally from playing poker,
Apparently, she’s been keeping all the chips on her shoulder.
Adam and Eve were the happiest and the luckiest couple in the world…
Because neither of them had a mother-in-law.
What is the difference between outlaws and in-laws?
Outlaws are wanted.
I took my mother-in-law to Madame Tussauds chamber of horrors and one of the attendants said,
“Keep her moving sir, we’re stock-taking.”
Fred and Rick were in a pub. Fred says to his buddy, “My mother-in-law is an angel.”
Rick replies, “You’re lucky. Mine is still alive.”
Bottom line: We love our partners, and sometimes that means loving a MIL we may not like all the time.