7 Abusive Tools in Your Toxic Mother-in-Law's Belt

Updated on February 13, 2018
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Lana is a spiritual writer, blogger, and editor who advocates for women to regain their divine power, starting with a family structure.

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 that toxic mothers-in-law use to get their way.

1. Silent Treatment

She is a queen of silent treatments. It's her favorite tool 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.

Silent treatment is an act of contempt. It's meant to silence any dissent and remind you who's in charge.
Silent treatment is an act of contempt. It's meant to silence any dissent and remind you who's in charge. | Source

2. Gaslighting

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 in an effort 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'd said it loud and clear a minute ago and there's no way to misinterpret it, she will insist that she never said that. 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.

Gaslighting is aimed at destroying your sense of reality, making you vulnerable to self-doubt.
Gaslighting is aimed at destroying your sense of reality, making you vulnerable to self-doubt. | Source

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 excellent targets for guilt tripping. She knows that if she can make you (or your spouse) 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 decent human beings 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 would be seen as a weakness, 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.

The objective of the blame game is to put you in a defensive position, so the focus is on you, not on her.
The objective of the blame game is to put you in a defensive position, so the focus is on you, not on her.

5. Triangulation

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.

6. Projection

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 is exhibiting.

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 great self-awareness, and they're not interested in self-improvement either. They're already perfect! So the chances that your mother-in-law will some day take responsibility for her behavior are about zero. By projecting she stays in control and keeps the focus on you.

7. Smear Campaign

The jig is up: you see her for who she really is. So the only way she can deal with that is by discrediting you.That's why the smear campaign.

With smear campaign, a toxic mother-in-law aims to destroy your character and 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 put pressure on you or your spouse to comply with her demands. 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.

The smear campaign is essentially a bullying tactic designed to demonize and isolate you.
The smear campaign is essentially a bullying tactic designed to demonize and isolate you. | Source

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 draining. 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.

© 2018 Lana Adler


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      Smg 3 weeks ago

      What do you do if the toxic parents in law manage to influence their son against you? It happened to me and it lead to divorce .

      Unfortunately my mother made it worse being toxic herself and today she was will sideline my importance over my brother’s. My own mother is worse because she calls to speak ill of her daughter in law for hours and then asks what she should do or say. Then stupidly I tell her not to do anything because she screamt so much at my ex towards the end of my marriage. That’s separate it was never great to begin with, it was an arrangement of a marriage. I was always studying and it’s taboo to find and date your own guy , even if I did I would be far more worse off . I am now a single mom with custody battles because of toxic shit holes on both sides of the coin. All this crap happened four years ago around my pregnancy.

    • kalinin1158 profile image

      Lana Adler 3 weeks ago from California


      Thank you for the comment. That is some solid advice! I'm so glad and encouraged because this is exactly what I've been thinking since her last silent treatment. I decided I'm gonna stop paying attention to what she says or does. I'm decided that it's not important to me anymore. I've decided that I'm not gonna be bothered. I'm also not gonna discuss her with my husband or anyone else ad nauseum.

      Grandma doesn't think the baby is dressed properly? Fine with me, have nothing to say about that. She says the baby is too skinny and needs more calories? No comment. She has thoughts on when we should pierce my daughter's ears. What? I didn't hear anything.

      I think she's noticing and now trying to get my attention. But I'm just a gray rock. No eye contact, no sharing, no reaction. Sadly, this is the only way to have a semblance of a relationship with her.

      Thanks so much for sharing!

    • profile image

      Elyse 4 weeks ago

      Thank you for sharing - knowledge and awareness is the first step and self preservation is the next. MIL’s really are a piece of work and as DIL’s we need to learn how to work that piece with sophistication. It’s like having a hideous picture hung on the wall that your partner likes that you cannot take down. Stonewalling works well and focusing on how amazing your life is sans MIL may work to keep you occupied and happily focused on your life. Your MIL will notice and may try to compete to feel more influential but you take NO notice and she is right back where she started even if it doesn’t seem like it to you at the time. Feeling small and inconsequential is her driving force in trying to make you feel the same. Misery loves company and if she can make you feel bad - she won. If you don’t care what she says - you won. Keep going and keep living your life for you and your kids and forget about the small people because YOU and YOUR life are amazing!

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      Elise S 4 weeks ago

      Thank you for your articles, they have helped me understand what I got myself into and I got help for that reason.

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      MD 5 weeks ago

      Very well done article. It was practically verbatim of my experience with my mother in law.

      Like my husband, many consider their parents behavior normal until they marry. Looking at your parents from others people perspective can be eye opening.

      I was unwilling to participate in the dysfunction that feels normal to my husband. His mother who has always controlled him via an onslaught of guilt, manipulations and also expects to control me, and when this fails to happen, it often results in smear campaigns, silent treatment, gaslighting, and petty complaints designed to force me into abidance or get rid of me entirely via brainwashing my husband to divorce me.

      She appear to have a total lack of the ability to look inward at why her family are being driven away at such an alarming rate. Her only brother can't stand her and when we got married her bother told me to take my husband and run a far away from her. She always cast the blame outward. She rotate out her close friends, family and boyfriends every few years, when they become inconvenient, and make herself out to be the victim of everyone else's malicious intent. All the while, avoiding taking any responsibility for her own choices and actions. Of course, she keep a steady supply of superficial "friends" and socialites on hand to entertain her and make her feel “liked” and "loved". It is the ultimate form of self-deception

    • kalinin1158 profile image

      Lana Adler 6 weeks ago from California

      Thank you Larry. Ah yes, it is an art, isn't it?

    • Larry Rankin profile image

      Larry Rankin 7 weeks ago from Oklahoma

      Nothing more psychologically devastating than spending time with someone adept at the art of passive aggression.

      That much I can identify with.

      Always enjoyable.