14 Signs You Have a Toxic Mother-in-Law and How to Deal With Her
They don't call them monsters-in-law for nothing.
Mothers-in-law are notorious for being controlling, judgmental, critical, and overbearing. And like any toxic person, a toxic mother-in-law is a soul-sucking parasite that feeds on your misery. To protect yourself and your loved ones, you first need to know your enemy, so here are 14 signs you might be dealing with a toxic mother-in-law.
14 Signs You Have a Toxic Mother-in-Law
- She is always right, without exception. Which means that she's never wrong. She'll never admit being wrong, and she will never apologize for anything. That would surely cause the collapse of the Western civilization and contradict the premise that she's always right. In her eyes, you (and possibly your spouse) are the only one to blame.
- She is dismissive. She will ignore you for the most part, conveying that you don't matter to her. She will not listen to a word you say. She'll ask you if you're hungry, hear "no," and still put food on your plate. She'll also disregard any of your accomplishments as insignificant and unworthy of her attention. Only things that have value to her are important.
- She makes it clear she doesn't like you. She will communicate to you, in a thousand subtle ways, that you are not good enough for her son or for her family. She will not say it to your face, no, but you will hear the message loud and clear. Depending on your self-esteem, you will either feel devastated or slightly amused.
- She expects complete subservience. To establish her dominance, she will expect you to please her. That would include adopting her opinions, religion, culture, appearing at every family event, learning her ways of cooking, cleaning and just about everything else under the sun (because her way is clearly better), and, last but not least, giving her grandchildren. If you fail to do any of that, you are indeed a rotten daughter-in-law, and she has a right to complain about you to anyone who'll listen.
- She has control issues. If she can't get you to respect her authority, she'll tighten the reins on her son, her other kids, her grandchildren, and as many friends and family as possible. She'll make simple things complicated just to prove to everyone she's the one calling the shots.
- She doesn't respect your words, choices, or personal space. She will come to your house uninvited and unannounced, expecting you to welcome her with open arms and be grateful for the honor of her visit. She will look with disgust at how filthy your place is and how unmannered your kids are.
- She plays emotional games. Her narrow mentality dictates that she must rule by withholding her affection and approval, so she will use silent treatments, guilt, blame, and direct intimidation to manipulate you and your husband. If he's not siding with her, she will be punishing and destructive towards him, too. At the same time, she will be demonstratively granting her love to his siblings and your sister-in-law.
- She loves an audience, and she's very concerned with appearances. In public, she will enact a charming, cultured woman who is a selfless caretaker of her family. She may even be known as a philanthropist in her community. Most people will fall for that. They will not understand what beef you could possibly have with such a great lady. Don't try to dissuade them. Let them stay in the matrix. Let them enjoy their steak.
- She's completely self-centered and narcissistic. Like any narcissist, she sees her children not as individuals, but as extensions of herself. Everything they do reflects on her, so she will go to great lengths to correct any "deviation" from the path she's chosen. That includes the people they marry; you. She will never give up trying to destroy your marriage or to control her children's lives.
- She engages in smear tactics. If she feels that her seat on the throne is threatened, she will become extremely defensive and passive-aggressive. She will start a smear campaign in her community, trying to turn everyone against you. You'll know she's not pleased when you start hearing all the rumors and lies she's saying about you behind your back. Eventually she'll try to turn her son against you, too.
- She's vindictive, spiteful, grudge-holding, and punishing. If she feels threatened by you, she'll figure out a thousand ways to make you suffer for it. Get ready for guilt trips, silent treatments, finger-pointing, button-pushing, and manipulation. She'll turn all of her affection elsewhere just to spite you. She'll play favorites with everyone else, hoping to make you suffer even more.
- She shows you a negative side she hides from everyone else. At some point you'll realize that your mother-in-law has two faces: the nice respectable one she shows to friends and family, and the negative, critical, toxic side she saves just for you. And if you tell anyone, they'll think you're crazy for complaining about such a sweet lady.
- She acts like she cares (but it's all show). There will be times when she's nice to you (usually, after you've done something she approves of). She might get you a nice gift for your birthday, support your opinion or compliment you (or at least refrain from insults for once). At this point you might be tempted to think that she's starting to accept you as a daughter-in-law, but don't be fooled.
- She's just waiting for you to let your guard down. Don't lose your vigilance even when she's on her best behavior. It may look like things are getting better. Then, out of nowhere, she will turn on you again, and you will be reminded that she will never accept you, and you can never have a relationship with her. That's not necessarily a bad thing, by the way.
10 Tips for Dealing With a Toxic Mother-In-Law
- Consider why she might be treating you this way. Not that understanding will excuse her behavior, but knowing why she's acting this way will give you clarity and help guide your reactions.
- Avoid escalating conflict. Don't let her bait you into an emotional reaction. Instead of adding fuel to her fire, practice de-escalation techniques and conflict management.
- Remember that strong emotions make bad situations worse, so learn to detach. Instead of getting your feelings hurt, remember that her attitude has little to do with you. If the conflict is impossible to avoid, go ahead and respond honestly. Don't be rude, but be clear and neutral about your feelings.
- Recognize and avoid triggers. You are the bigger person, the one who understands the larger picture, so use that perspective in your favor. If she aways acts out when you're at her house, then don't go over there so often. If she gets weird and controlling around holidays, have an escape plan in place.
- Verbalize and enforce your boundaries. Can she drop by unannounced? Can she assert her own religious beliefs over yours? Can she dictate how your parent your children? Decide where you draw the line and don't back down from it.
- Don’t pick fights, but stand up for yourself. Let her do all the fight-picking, mud-slinging, and finger-pointing—instead of reacting emotionally or defensively, simply stand your ground. Say, "You clearly have strong feelings about [insert subject here], but I feel differently," or "I'm glad that worked for you, but I prefer to do it this way."
- Enlist your partner's help. He must play an active role on your team, helping his mother adapt to her new position in the family hierarchy.
- Insist on some physical distance. You don't need to move out-of-state, but you also don't need to attend every little event. Let your husband continue his relationship with his mother, but you don't have to be involved all the time.
- Remember that she's probably not going to change. Don't endlessly try to make things better, solve the problems, mend all the fences, and improve yourself. At some point you have to admit that this is the way things are and move on.
- Don't let her toxicity poison you. Dwelling on all the negative things your mother-in-law says and does is no way to live your life. At some point, her motives, actions and feelings should fade into the background so you can focus on yourself and your relationship, instead.
On a personal note, I don't expect to be friends with my MIL any time soon, or ever. I think we're too different for that, and at the same time, too similar in that we're both strong women who don't back down. I understand her frustrations with me, but I also understand that those frustrations have nothing to do with me. It's just self-aggrandizing rejection of "the lesser."
Lastly, I find great comfort in the fact that my own mother is a kind, caring, generous woman who's a wonderful mother-in-law to my husband. So that makes my monster-in-law somewhat bearable, and at times even amusing.
Recommended For You
- 7 Sneaky Tactics Emotionally Abusive People Use to Get Their Way
The silent treatment and other weapons in toxic people's arsenal.
- 8 Steps to Taking Your Power Back From a Toxic Mother-in-Law
Does your mother-in-law suck the joy out of your life and make you feel powerless? Then it's time to take your power back.
- Toxic Mother-In-Law: 5 Years Later
This sequel to "14 Signs You Have a Toxic Mother-In-Law" reveals if the relationship with a toxic mother-in-law can change for the better.
What About You?
How difficult is your mother-in-law?
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Questions & Answers
How do I get my spouse to side with me against his mom when he knows I am right?
I’m not sure you can. In situations like this a husband is often caught between a rock and a hard place. It’s a delicate balance where you want to be neutral yet still supportive of your wife. But your husband made a different choice, and it’s a wrong choice for his marriage. I think he needs to explore why he needs his mother’s approval so much, he’s willing to sacrifice his relationship for it.Helpful 249
I've put up with a toxic MIL for 35 years. The entire family knows her game. She has become so emotionally abusive to her son (my husband), that he is experiencing major health problems because of it. (Heart issues/stress related attacks). She is the complete picture of a Narcissistic personality. When we try and completely avoid her/cut her out, she gets 100 times worst. This woman won't go away. What do I do?
Don't try and avoid her. Go no contact, period. Move away, block her number, stop feeding into her blame games. People with a narcissistic personality can be extremely vicious, abusive and selfish. Do what is best for your family.Helpful 195
I have been having an issue with my MIL lately. She never says bad things to my face but always to my husband behind closed doors, and then he will come to me and tell me about what she had to say. We stay on the property and my husband does not want to move because he wants to stay close to his family. It has gone that far as to him saying that he wants a divorce because he can't deal with the tension between his mom and me. Is this normal?
It's normal for a husband to love, honor and support his wife. Your husband seems to blame you for the tension. If that's how he feels, perhaps he doesn't appreciate you the way you deserve. Do you want to be with him?Helpful 135
How do I handle my mother-in-law when she lives with us permanently?
If there is no other way but to live with your MIL, you have to develop zen-like patience, but also be clear and firm with her about your boundaries. It's your house. Many issues can be avoided or minimized when there's clear communication from the start.Helpful 116
I had a discussion with my mother-in-law last year about boundaries, and I feel like they were ignored. What should I do?
That’s to be expected. Your MIL will test your boundaries many times. You just have to remain firm and remind her of your conversation every time she steps over the line.Helpful 93
© 2015 Lana Adler