7 Abusive Tools in Your Toxic Mother-in-Law's Belt
A toxic mother-in-law is a master of covert warfare. Her methods are tried and true, and she's had years of practice. She's so good that half the time you're not even aware you're being manipulated. But you're smart. You're catching on.
Here are 7 abusive tools toxic mothers-in-law use to get their way.
1. Silent Treatment
She is a queen of silent treatments. It's her favorite instrument of control.
Assert yourself, get out of line, challenge her sainthood - and you're dead to her. That's why they call it a "mental murder" - a toxic MIL "kills" you in her mind, communicating that nothing you say or do matters, and that you simply don't exist to her anymore.
By ignoring you (or your spouse, or both) she puts herself in the position of power, silences and dismisses you, but most importantly, punishes you. Punishment is what's at the heart of silent treatment.
Make no mistake about it - it's a form of emotional abuse. In fact, it's so cruel and destructive that it activates the same part of the brain (anterior cingulate cortex) that detects physical pain. But she believes it's fair. And the more you grovel and apologize, the more she's convinced that you deserved it.
Gaslighting is a manipulative tactic aimed at undermining your perception, thus making you second-guess yourself and even question your sanity.
A toxic mother-in-law uses this technique to warp the reality in her favor.
For example, she'd said something that wasn't true, and you've corrected her. She will respond with: "I didn't say that." Even though she just said it and there's no way to misinterpret it, she will deny it without batting an eye. You might feel confused and bewildered by this turn of events, but to her it's like second nature. She will flat-out lie to avoid any responsibility for her words or actions.
In a different scenario, you confront her about her passive-aggressive behavior, verbal attacks and sabotaging your marriage. She looks shocked, then says: "I have no idea what you're talking about. I've done no such thing to you. I think you're just being too sensitive. We all feel like we have to walk on eggshells around you."
Gaslighting is also a form of emotional abuse. It erodes the very foundation of your being: your ability to trust yourself.
3. Guilt Trip
Guilt trips are the bread and butter of a toxic mother-in-law.
"You never call or come over. I'm not gonna be around forever, you know."
"I've been sick all week. Do you even care?"
"This is the treatment I get after all I've done for you."
This method works best with her biological children, but daughters- and sons-in-law can also be targets for guilt tripping. She knows that if she can make you feel guilty, you will feel obligated to make up for the supposed transgression. Of course, the only reason you can be manipulated this way is because, unlike her, you are a decent human being with a sound conscience.
By invoking guilt and shame - two very toxic emotions, she achieves absolute compliance with her wishes, all the while playing the victim.
4. The Blame Game
While it's a normal human tendency to shift blame onto someone else, a toxic mother-in-law takes it to an extreme. It's always someone else's fault.
She feels that to admit error is to be weak, and showing weakness would undermine her superior status. Status is everything to her.
The blame game allows her to be instantly absolved of any wrongdoing on her part while remaining in control. It can range from casual finger-pointing to severe emotional outbursts such as rage, silent treatment, name calling and even physical violence. Yet again, this is a form of abuse.
Your attempts to make her "see" your point of view will be met with hostility and monumental denial. It's not clear whether she's unwilling or unable, but one thing's for sure: she won't take responsibility for anything.
Triangulation means involving a third party in a a two-person conflict, where a third person plays the role of a proxy, a messenger, a negotiator etc.
A typical example of triangulation in a dysfunctional family is when a narcissistic mother intentionally pits her children against one another (divide and conquer technique) to make them compete for her affection.
Or when a toxic mother-in-law uses her son (third party) to manipulate her daughter-in-law.
She'll put doubts in his mind about the way you handle parenting, housekeeping, finances etc. and try to influence him under the guise of "concern." After her talks he may start questioning your methods and suggesting his mother's alternatives, all the while innocently believing that they're his ideas.
Another way a toxic mother-in-law uses triangulation is by trashing you to other people, thus creating "alliances." Again, this is a way for her to avoid direct communication with you, yet still express her disapproval.
Just like a projector casts an image onto a screen, a toxic mother-in-law projects her own flaws, fears and wrongdoings onto others. It's a defense mechanism that allows her to maintain a sense of superiority while condemning others for the very traits she possesses.
Examples of projection are a legion.
Does your toxic mother-in-law accuse you of being dishonest, even though she is a pathological liar? Does she complain that you're rude and disrespectful, even though she'd never shown you an ounce of respect? Does she call you a drama queen even though every conflict essentially stems from her? Does she criticize your parenting even though she's been less than a perfect mother, to say the least?
Well, toxic people are not known for their self-awareness, and they're not interested in self-improvement either. They're already perfect! So the chances that your mother-in-law will take responsibility for her behavior are about zero.
7. Smear Campaign
The jig is up: you see her for who she is.
In this scenario her best course of action is to discredit you.That's why the smear campaign.
With the smear campaign a toxic mother-in-law aims to destroy your reputation while simultaneously elevating herself to the status of a saint or a victim.
Since she can easily transform from an abusive narcissist to poor old mom, she is able to manipulate other people (a.k.a. the flying monkeys) to question your character and to put pressure on you or your spouse to comply with her wishes. You may even find yourself ostracized or bullied by the family.
That is her ultimate goal - to humiliate and isolate you. There's no plan beyond that. Vicious gossip can tear families apart, but she doesn't care, as long as she comes up on top.
What Can You Do to Counteract These Tactics?
When it comes to toxic mothers-in-laws, not much can be done to change them or even make them aware of their harmful behavior. Ideally, you would want to go no contact. But blocking your MIL from your life is a bit more complicated than dumping a bad boyfriend. It's not always an option.
Still, there is something you can do, and that is: educating yourself.
Knowledge is power.
Your mother-in-law thrives amid ignorance. The sooner you learn to recognize her tactics, the better you'll be at counteracting them, and the less power she will have over you.
But this isn't purely a mother-in-law issue. It can apply to anybody who has a toxic (which often means: narcissistic) personality.
Read the literature about abusive, toxic, narcissistic people. Look for the signs. Know the facts. Learn the vocabulary. It's much harder to gaslight someone who knows what gaslighting is!
In conducting your research you may realize that toxic people are more dangerous than you could have imagined. They're capable of inflicting real psychological harm. They can be the source of torment, anxiety, depression, marital discord and many other untold destructive consequences for the people around them. Yet they are so skilled at masking their pathology, they're usually supported by family members and their social circle. So the victims are left to fend for themselves.
Of course, it takes time to understand who you're dealing with, what they're capable of, and why the relationship with this person seems impossible or painfully demoralizing. Right now you may still be hurt, confused, ashamed, blaming yourself and desperately looking for validation from your toxic cesspool.
Or you already started connecting the dots and realized that you've been subjected to malicious emotional abuse at the hands of someone close to you. If that's the case, you've won half the battle.
Once you're able to identify the manipulative behaviors, they can't pull the wool over your eyes anymore.
It's not a solution (the only effective solution is no contact), but it's a start. The start of you taking your power back.
Questions & Answers
My boyfriend of twenty years has terminal cancer. I’ve become his primary care giver. He’s never moved out of his mom’s. I’m quite sure she’s a narcissist. I’m a devastated wreck. (He is still at his mom’s, so that’s where most of my time is spent, though I have my own place. What should I do?Helpful 2
© 2018 Lana Adler