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Coping With In-Laws When You’re a Stepmom

Vivian understands the conflicts that beset blended families and offers a fresh perspective on successfully tackling the in-law component.

The In-Law and Stepmom Dynamic

Ideally, your new in-laws will welcome you with open arms. After being helpless bystanders who watched your husband suffer through his first marriage, they are ecstatic he found you and the happiness that previously eluded him. They are empathetic with your reservations concerning step-parenthood, but they applaud your efforts because you are trying. They respectfully listen to you vent and make every effort to be supportive of your newly blended family. They are wise enough to button their lips when they are tempted to share unsolicited advice or opinions. Understanding your husband is a grown man, they give him the freedom to forge his own path without interfering. They know the two of you will face hurdles typical of any couple, but they have faith the two of you can handle it. They don’t try to exert pressure or control to determine your outcomes. They recognize it’s your guys' lives, and you are free to live them as you see fit.

Are you shaking your head and wishing it were that easy? Many stepmoms experience varying degrees of conflict with the in-laws, stemming from their affection for the ex-wife, their concern for your step kids, or their general malaise towards you.

Loyalty Issues Within Blended Families

Some in-laws retain a cordial relationship with the ex for the sake of their grandchildren, nieces, or nephews. It doesn’t mean they are bosom buddies with her—they simply don’t want to jeopardize their chances for visitation with the kids and risk alienation. When mom and the ex-in-laws aren’t bashing each other, the kids aren’t torn and forced to choose a side. Kids are free to love the in-laws without feeling they are betraying their mom, and mom isn’t pulverized by dad’s family. In this arrangement, everybody wins. It’s the mature approach to preserving positive relationships. However, in-laws sometimes cross the line. How chummy is too chummy?

If your in-laws politely exchange pleasantries with the ex for the sake of propriety when their paths cross, it’s a sign of good manners. After all, they may need to contact her about attending a school event or arranging a visit for a special activity when it’s not your husband’s weekend. Giving her the cold shoulder, spitting in her direction, or dicing her with verbal jabs would only be counterproductive if they hope to maintain a positive connection with her children. If your in-laws, however, go out of their way to call her, invite her to family gatherings, chat and text frequently, and plan girls’ days out together, there’s a problem.

Parental loyalty, under normal circumstances, rests with their children. It doesn’t matter whether or not they agree with their son’s decisions or actions, what matters is that he is their son. Out of respect for their son—your husband—it’s imperative in-laws draw a boundary with the ex. If they were quite fond of her and had enjoyed a mutually rewarding relationship prior to the divorce, it gets sticky. Your in-laws may be reluctant to throw the baby out with the bathwater. They may embrace the attitude, just because you’re not married to her anymore doesn’t mean we have to end our relationship with her too. To continue in a relationship with the ex after your husband’s divorce, however, is tacky and awkward. Persisting in a relationship with her sends a clear signal to your husband: We favor her over you, and we will continue to make her our priority.

It’s often heart-breaking when relationships come to an end. People die. People move. People are offended. People divorce. It’s part of life. Expecting your in-laws to pare down their interaction with the ex might appear harsh and unnecessary to them, but it is perfectly reasonable. It doesn’t mean they have to stop liking her. It doesn’t mean they have to intentionally avoid her. It doesn’t mean they have to join in when you and your husband spout off about things she has done to provoke you. What it does mean is they acknowledge blood is thicker than water. It means they love and respect their son enough to place his needs above their own. It means they recognize he has moved on and has remarried and it’s simply inappropriate to regularly cavort with a woman who represents conflict to their son and his new bride. It means they are sensitive to the feelings of his new family and understand a well-oiled relationship with the ex is only going to cause him additional grief, especially when he is already faced with the challenges of a blended family.

What happens when your sister-in-law or mother-in-law don’t like you and side with the ex? What if they are even petty enough to make you the topic of conversation when they get together? You’ve married into a family you hope to embrace, only to find you are being shunned, criticized, and unaccepted. How do you handle that? First, extend grace. They are not obligated to like you! Consider, however, a verse from Romans 12:18, "If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone." It hurts when people don’t like us. It’s hard not to take their animosity personally, especially when they are family. It’s difficult not to retaliate when we have been wronged. You don’t have to be your sister-in-law’s BFF, but to keep peace within the family, rise to the occasion and be the better person. Don’t be roped into the vicious circle of spite. As far as it depends on you… don’t have to be fake or pretend you haven’t noticed their niggling. You may even choose to confront them about it in a peaceful manner to clear the air. They may respond positively and find you are a nice person and not the ogre they’ve painted you to be. However, brace yourself—is it possible their angst against you is justified? If they are offended by you, have you given them reasonable grounds? For example, if your husband had a cheating heart, and you were the object of his affection, it’s easy to see how you could be judged and labeled for breaking up a marriage. You may have justified your actions in the matter, but it doesn’t change the reality—you were instrumental in axing a viable marriage. Of course your in-laws are going to sympathize with the ex!

Regardless, how do you get over the hump and move on with the in-laws? As much as it depends on you….realize if you throw in the towel off the bat and dismiss the in-laws, you are only going to support their position. See, we were right about her, they will muse to themselves. Offer the olive branch. Seek a fresh start. Prove to them you are the best thing that’s ever happened to their son or brother. If your husband is happy, it will speak volumes to them. Be honest with your in-laws. Sometimes honesty and forthrightness are shocking to those who’d rather hide behind a mask of insincerity. Point out all the times they have been unkind to you, ask what you’ve done to make them feel this way, and see if there is any way all of you can build a new bridge—one that will lead to trust, respect, and peace within your family. If you, in good faith, try to make things right, and the in-laws still won’t get on board, you have fulfilled the as much as it depends on you admonition. You can’t control the will of others, and if they continue to support the ex and show you disdain, you are not obligated to invest further energy into the relationship.

Husbands Should Take the Lead in Your Blended Family

You shouldn’t be juggling family conflict alone. Don’t let your husband off the hook—if his family hasn’t greeted you with the welcome wagon, let him deal with it. An honorable man will see you are being mistreated and will charge behind the scenes to nix the abuse. He will communicate to his family that you are his wife and demand they demonstrate common courtesy and respect towards you. He will make it clear if they continue to verbally jab you or undermine his family, it will not be tolerated and will result in a lack of relationship with him. Genesis 2:24 states, "Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh." It doesn’t matter whether or not you were the best choice for a spouse, he still picked you. As a result, you have become one unit, and you take precedence.

What if chivalry is dead? Maybe you have a passive spouse who either pretends not to notice the injustices you are suffering at the hand of his family. Or, maybe he has acknowledged it, when you’ve persisted in pointing it out, but he makes no attempt to correct the problem. What are you supposed to do? First, try to help your husband man up. A teacher posted a sign in her classroom that read, "My teacher thought I was smarter than I was, so I was." Sometimes, men respond when you raise the bar. When you treat your man like a hero, he just might be one. When women are hurt, angry, or frustrated, their words often sound like Chinese water torture to a man’s ears. He just wants to escape, not charge the enemy on his white steed to defend her honor. Encourage him to be valiant, look to him as your leader and the head of your house, and he just might rise to the occasion.

One thing you must always strive to avoid is broken relationships. It’s easy to give people the axe when they’ve hurt or deceived you. But, if you cut off everyone who ever offends you, you could end up very alone. If your husband will not confront his family, unleashing your pent-up fury will only inflict permanent damage to your family. A better solution is to be classy. A classy woman can interact with his family without involving her heart. She’s smart enough to realize his family can’t be trusted, so she engages affably with them at holidays, parties, visits, or dinner, but she’s wise enough not to divulge any details of her life that could be used against her later. She doesn’t call or text his family for banal chit-chat, but if they contact her, she responds with poise and benevolence. Though it may appear superficial, this approach will keep your husband happy because you aren’t pressuring him to alienate his family. Be honest with him—tell him the position you are taking with his family so he can’t accuse you later of being phony. But with your admission, let him also know you won’t be responsible for any further turmoil they cause. You’ll be showing him that despite the problem, you’re doing your part to offer a solution to avoid outright estrangement.

Handling Preferential Treatment in Step Families

If there’s one thing that ignites a stepmom's fuse, it’s when the in-laws display obvious favoritism to your step-children. Some in-laws cover every square inch of their homes with pictures of their first set of grandkids, while your kids’ photos are squirreled away in photo boxes. Other in-laws shower gifts and money on their original grandkids to compensate for some imagined wrong, yet your kids are overlooked. In-laws love to reminisce and share stories of their first grandkids through the years, but any fond memories of your children remain unspoken. Some in-laws obsess when the next opportunity will arrive for them to spend time with their first grandkids, but make no plans to visit with your kids. Managing a blended family is ripe with challenges and stress, but in-laws only worry how this turmoil will affect their first set of grandkids, with no regard to the impact it’s having on your own children.

Should you address these issues with the in-laws? Probably not. Your in-laws want to pamper and spoil their first set of grandkids. Let them. They are free to spend their time and money how they please. If you reprove them, they will only become indignant and offended. Gently draw your husband’s attention to the favoritism so he’ll be on board with you when you want to do something special for just your own kids when his are with their mother. Shield your kids from rejection as much as you can. Some kids are so distracted with other activities, they won’t even notice they’ve been slighted. If your parents love your kids and are involved in their lives, they won’t miss the attention from his family.

Setting Boundaries with In-Laws

If you have the type of in-laws who just can’t let it go, stronger measures will need to be taken. Like Austin Powers after he was cryogenically frozen, perhaps your mother-in-law has no inner monologue. She feels compelled to tell you how you should be treating her grandchildren, how you should conduct yourself with the ex, how you should be handling her son, and how your home should be managed. Find a nice way to say, Butt out, granny! You and your husband are adults. While you might not know it all, you don’t need a know-it-all barking commands over your life. Delete her long-winded e-mails without responding. Unfriend her on Facebook. Give her clear boundaries and let her suffer the consequences for not respecting them. What are the consequences of ignoring your boundaries? Your wrath might be one. A suspended relationship with your family might be another, until she learns to keep her lips zipped and her opinions to herself. You aren’t being mean. You are drawing boundaries, and if she chooses to cross the line, she is responsible for the consequences, not you. If your mother-in-law is the controlling type, she may even do her best to create a wedge between you and your husband. She isn’t beneath rallying him to her side and turning him against you. It’s imperative you communicate regularly with your husband to stay in agreement and united to prevent your relationship from being battered by the waves of her toxic manipulation. When she sees her ruses aren’t working, don’t be surprised if she plays the death or dementia card. This final, emotional plea is the last trick she has up her sleeve before she throws in the towel. Yes, some mothers-in-law actually do this!

Pursuing Peace for a Strong Blended Family

Marrying a man with children has given you an already full plate, sometimes even more than you care to handle. Coping with in-laws on top of it all can be quite daunting. Your goal is to preserve relationships and experience peace in your home. Toxicity has to go for peace to be achieved, but peace doesn’t typically fall on us—we have to seek it and run after it. It takes work to obtain peace! Finding balance with your in-laws requires you to set boundaries, be honest, demonstrate compassion for their position with your step kids, forgive them when they mess up, overlook the inconsequential, remain united with your husband, and stand firm against overbearing advances or emotional manipulation………as far as it depends on you.

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.


Vivian Coblentz (author) on September 24, 2019:


Thank you for sharing your story. I'm sure it's one many people can relate to. Maybe since the MIL is a "step," she feels like an outsider and feels like she has more in common with the ex--who is now also an outsider. Regardless, no matter how much the ex is liked by your husband's parents, it should go without saying that when your husband moved on, they should have too.

I understand them wanting to stay on good terms to have access to the grand kids, but staying overnight with her is absolutely over the top.

I'm glad your husband is being so supportive!

MJ Meisinger on September 24, 2019:

My husband and I have been together for 10 years, married for 6 years. He and his ex divorced 2 years before we met and have 3 kids together. During these past 10 yrs I’ve experienced the most unbelievable boundary issues with my in-laws. My husband’s stepmother is VERY close to his ex-wife including going on scrapbooking weekends together twice a year. The premise was these books are for the kids and therefore acceptable. The ex goes so far as calling her “mom”. Whenever my in-laws are in town they stay at the ex’s house and used the excuse “being able to see more of the kids” as a reason. My MIL would greet me warmly however it seemed like an act. I knew to keep my guard up. Fast forward to now and the kids are all adults - 3 in college to be exact. The MIL still insists on staying with the ex at her house (about 5 mins from us) and even went on a girls’ weekend with the ex. That was the last straw. I discussed my distrust of this woman with my husband and told him that I no longer would be a part of this warped family dynamic and could no longer abide by having this woman over to our house, attend dinners together while they are in town, etc. He agreed and spoke to his father - who by the way stays with us at our house whenever his wife goes on these jaunts with the ex. My FIL was furious and ready to tell me off.

I feel comfortable with my decision and have my husband’s full support. It is amazing how much more at peace I am with the situation and expect the only time I will need to interact with this woman is at one of my stepchildren’s weddings or college graduations.

BTW, my husband’s mother and I get along famously. No boundary issues at all.

Vivian Coblentz (author) on July 17, 2019:


Hmmm....that's a shame.

Since you met your husband 4 years after his divorce, it sounds like they blame you for taking away their dream that your husband and his ex would reconcile. I realize I'm only hearing your side of things, but this could be why they see you as the "problem." They want him back with the children's mother, and you're standing in the way. Of course, it's not their place to decide this for your husband. Regardless of their thoughts on the matter, your husband chose YOU, and they should be supportive of his decision and put their personal feelings aside. If they really care about the kids, they should be smart enough to realize that building a bridge to you would be more productive than burning one.

Divorce is financially devastating. Are they worried he's going to will his assets to you and forget his kids? If that's the problem, then you two should sit down and decide how you want to handle this and meet with an attorney to draw up a will.

Why doesn't his son want to see him as much any more? Do you think the family has poisoned his mind so they can turn around and blame you for the "choice" they pushed on him?

Who could blame you for not wanting to associate with people who stab you in the back constantly? Still, you don't want to be the one they blame for a broken connection to your husband. If you cut them off, they get to "be right" about you. What I would do (and maybe you already have) is talk to your husband about how this needs to be settled, once and for all. Instead of just venting about how you feel, communicate your expectation to him to do something proactive about fixing the situation. He's married to you, not them, and he needs to confront them about your mistreatment. He could tell them he doesn't expect them to like you, but he expects them to respect his choice in marrying you, and by extension, show you the respect you deserve as a human being and addition to the family. He should outline to them his expectations on how they should treat you and tell them what the consequences are going to be if they continue down the same path. For example, if he takes you to a celebration and they are anything short of kind and welcoming, the two of you are leaving. If they want his participation, they will have to be warmer to you. That way, if they "misbehave," it's on them, not you because you are willing to interact and engage as long as you are treated properly.

Bear in mind, it goes against a man's nature to deal with this kind of drama. They'd rather forget about it and hope it just goes away. Every time you're mistreated and vent, you look like the one (to him) upsetting the apple cart. He doesn't really want to give his family an ultimatum. He would feel much more comfortable NOT addressing them about this, but you will continue to bury your hurt, and it will fester until it dissolves your love and respect for him. He's going to have to "be a man" and lay it out for his family once and for all. They will probably be shocked because it sounds like they are pretty good and pushing him around and making him a door mat.

Let me know how it goes!

ED on July 17, 2019:

I found your post because I'm really struggling with my in-laws right now. My husband's ex wife is high conflict (likely borderline personality disorder) and his mother and brother regularly talk to her about conflicts he has with my husband. I met my husband four years after his divorce and his ex wife was remarried already at that point, but she and my husband's mother both decided that I am "the problem" between my husband and his ex wife. His mother also thinks that I am out to keep my stepkids from "getting what is rightfully theirs" (I'm not sure what that is, since when I met my husband he had nothing but remaining debt from his divorce). Recently, my husband had a prolonged mediation with his ex wife who wanted to reduce time with one of his children. We found out several weeks ago, that my husband's brother spoke with the ex wife several times during that process, even sitting down with the child in question to "gather information" about why he didn't want to see my husband anymore. The brother also talked to the ex wife about how I am the problem, because according to the ex wife, I am always telling my stepchildren how much I hate their mother (I rarely say anything about her when they are with us and when I do, it is a vague positive affirmation). This brother's wife has also only spoken to me once in four years and when she spoke to me, it was about how she thought my husband never should have gotten a divorce in the first place and listing all the things she didn't like about him. She now openly ignores us at family gatherings. I'm so heartbroken over this. It's so difficult to be around family who have rejected me based on their own anger or beliefs over my husband's divorce. I don't want to be around them and I'm really struggling because my husband continues to believe that they mean well, even though, he knows that they treat me poorly. He's always told me that his family were stand-offish because they are "protective of my children", but I've never given them any reason to worry about the children around me. I help the kids with their homework, we do activities together, we've made a home where they both have their own rooms, they are safe with us, they are cared for with us, etc. It's honestly creating a wedge in my marriage because it's so painful.

Suzie from Carson City on July 04, 2019:

Vivian.....It was a very GOOD thing I raised my boys so well because now.....THEY ARE RAISING ME!!! :) No joke. I have no idea what I'd do without them! They even put me in "time-out" when I have tantrums!!

Vivian Coblentz (author) on July 04, 2019:


You have so much sensibility--good, old-fashioned common sense. Surprising how many people lack it these days! You are so wise! Good job raising four boys right!

Suzie from Carson City on July 04, 2019:

Viv......I loved this and want you to know that you give excellent advice for these possible scenarios. I'm a widow and of course have no in-laws..(If I did they'd have to be at least 110 yrs. old and quite harmless!! LOL) However, in my younger years, I have to say honestly, I had no in-law issues. Guess I was lucky.

I AM a mother-in-law of 4 lovely women and to my knowledge we have no problems. I mind my own business where it concerns both their marriages and their children (all my bio step grandkids)......and I stay OUT of their business mainly because my sons wouldn't stand for any interference from me in the first place and I know it! The fact is, I raised 4 amazing men who need no more "advice or lessons" from Mom. I trust all of these young adults to do the right things, I damned sure don't want to raise their kids..I just want to love & spoil them.

BUT Vivian, my friend....I want you to know that IF your great article applied to me & my situation...I'd be most grateful for such fine advice!! LOL Peace, Paula

Vivian Coblentz (author) on July 04, 2019:


Yes, it can be quite a slippery slope to navigate. I'm glad your husband stands with you instead of against you. At least his dad and stepmom "get it" and support you. It's too bad his mom is doing more to alienate the family than to make peace. Keeping her opinions to herself would go a long way!

Guest on July 03, 2019:

My husband's mother and his stepfather have come out swinging at me for being stepmom, but husband's dad and stepmother have been the ideal. I think it's because they understand and have withstood the wrath of my MIL towards my stepmother-in-law. Husband has cut out mom and stepdad because they didn't back down when he told them they were being disrespectful to his wife. MIL has made best friends with the ex in order to keep seeing my stepson and circumvent her son's wishes. And any communication between my husband and his ex is told to my MIL. MIL makes sure to tell ex that because I'm not biomom that I have no right to ask about anything regarding my stepson, even if I'm acting on behalf of my husband... the whole situation is a mess. Thank goodness for my husband's dad and stepmom. They're the best ever!

Momofmany6 on September 06, 2018:

Wow I thought I was alone. Men should take the leadership role and stick up for his woman especially in a blended family! The overbearing, need to take over everything and be in control needy step mother in law is so exhausting to be around!!! Dadhere is right there should be a support group for us all or maybe even better- our spouses could support us when we have these issues instead of NOT standing up for us and our family!! It's OUR LIFE not theirs!

Guest on July 22, 2018:

Wow. This is the first I’ve found that completely related to my experience with the favoritism. Letting it go can be so hard.

Dadhere on July 05, 2018:

Not a wife but a dad here. I am sooooooooo annoyed at the favoritism towards their blood grandchild and excluding my kids. A step parent group for men and women like this would be so nice.....