Sending To Partner, STAT

A Therapist Shares The Red Flags Your MIL Is Toxic AF

No toxic MILs allowed, only “Toxic” by Britney Spears.

Emma Chao/Scary Mommy; Getty Images

If you’ve got a great relationship with your mother-in-law, you should count your lucky stars — not all of them are winners. Having a toxic mother-in-law can be utterly draining, leaving you stuck navigating sticky family dynamics with no end in sight. Of course, it’s even more complicated once kids enter the mix and it’s tougher to avoid her.

Like any other relationship, toxicity isn’t always clear-cut, especially if yours has mastered the art of subtle, passive-aggressive swipes in your direction that leave you dizzy and disoriented, ruminating hours or days later.

So, how do you know if your MIL is genuinely bad for your emotional well-being, and how can you cope if she is? Settle in, because a therapist is here to help.

Fields Of Red Flags

Generally speaking, there are some giant red flags you can look out for, as Terri Bacow, Ph.D., a cognitive-behavioral psychologist and author of Goodbye, Anxiety: A Guided Journal for Overcoming Worry, explains.

Passive-aggressive behavior is a biggie, per Bacow. “For example, your MIL makes comments to indicate that she feels she is right about something and you are wrong (i.e., ‘Grandma serves healthy meals!’). It is especially toxic if she makes these comments in front of other family members (i.e., your spouse, your children) shaming you, or makes these comments behind your back and you find out about them from another family member.”

Of course, direct criticism is a solid sign, too, whether it is delivered harshly or gently. Bacow’s example: “When I was raising X, we never let him do Y.” Ugh, eye roll.

Overstepping or interfering in your private matters, be they personal or related to the family, is a big pain point with a toxic MIL.

“She might insert herself in a family decision or engage in ‘backseat parenting,’” says Bacow. “An example would be interrupting a parenting decision you are making to ‘take over’ or communicating disapproval about the way you are handling something (‘Are you sure you want to give her a cookie?’). It is always unwelcome, for example, when a mother-in-law interferes by being way more harsh or lenient with your children than you would be yourself, especially in your presence, because she silently judges your parenting approaches.”

We’re all human (so none of us is a perfect specimen!). Still, Bacow says any signs of histrionic or strong emotions clearly indicate that the relationship isn’t the healthiest.

“For example, when your MIL exhibits an emotional reaction that is not proportional to the situation at hand, completely overreacts, or even has an outburst or tantrum. This can lead to a power struggle if she is intentionally or subconsciously hoping to manipulate an outcome to her favor, such as when something does not go her way.”

Other signs you’re in the danger zone: She exhibits manipulative or controlling behaviors, such as showing up unannounced when you haven’t given her the OK to do so; she thinks it’s her way or the highway; or she straight-up ignores you, undermining your self-worth and making you feel inferior.

Subtle Signs Of A Snake

Some MILs are like snakes in the grass, spitting out poison in small doses so that you’re left questioning if it’s “all in your head” or if she really does suck. Bacow brings up those backhanded compliments or seemingly sweet remarks in the form of unsolicited advice — you know, when she’s expressing “concern” but is actually making digs at you and your choices.

Bacow rattles off a few other examples: “subtle boundary violations, such as sending text messages that convey disapproval or judgment in some way; offers to help or take over when it is clear the help is not needed; overstaying one’s welcome, i.e., staying a week in your home instead of a hotel.”

Gossiping about you to others is a big one, whether she’s talking trash at the hair salon or making you the topic of conversation at family gatherings when you’re not around. It’s a subtle (yet slimy) attempt to make you look bad, which she believes would, in turn, make her look better. A classic, insecure, mean-girl move, indeed. Similarly, behaving differently when your spouse or partner isn’t present is another weird power move that shows her true motives.

“In general, it is difficult when a MIL lacks self-awareness, engaging in toxic behavior but appearing completely unaware of the impact of her actions,” she says.

Ripple Effects And Ramifications

“Toxic MIL behavior can absolutely put a strain on a marriage or relationship,” says Bacow. (Hi, been there, it sucked!) “It can lead to tension, conflict, and fighting, especially if your partner/spouse doesn’t see the issue and defends their mother strongly.”

Her bad behavior “can hurt other relationships too,” she adds, “such as the connection between grandparents and grandchildren. It can create immense stress and resentment for the person on the receiving end of the behavior.”

How To Cope

Having lived through this and emerged on the other side with a healthy, stable in-law relationship, you can make it work without cutting her out of your kids’ lives entirely. I promise.

“Simply put, one strategy is to distance yourself from your MIL and reduce engagement (and contact) with her to protect your sanity,” says Bacow. “For example, you may only interact over a meal or shorten your visit, if you are visiting.”

You can also set boundaries verbally, adds Bacow. You might say, “‘I appreciate your offer to babysit, but we are all set,’ or ‘Thank you for trying to help with my child, but I am not comfortable with that.’”

Keeping your feelings about her separate from your marriage isn’t always easy, but you can and should put the onus on your partner to manage the situation. “It is important to communicate with your spouse and try to get on the same page about the issues at hand and how you’d like to handle them,” she says. “It can be helpful to ask your spouse to speak to their mother if you aren’t comfortable talking to her yourself.”

Above all, says Bacow, keep in mind that none of this is about you. “It is not your problem to ‘fix’ your mother-in-law. It is quite likely that your MIL has deep-seated issues that are unrelated to you, likely from her childhood and upbringing, and is projecting.” Of course, reaching out to a therapist can be a great way to offer perspective and give you a place to vent so that you can focus on your own family and care for your own needs.

As an astute internet scholar once said, no toxic MILs allowed, only “Toxic” by Britney Spears.