No matter how much you try, it’s just too difficult to please everyone—including your mother-in-law.
But where do you draw the line between a simple misunderstanding and a toxic relationship with her?
We listed 10 professionals who shared common signs of toxic mother-in-law and some ways on how to deal with her.
Licensed Psychologist | Nationally Recognized Expert in Clinical Psychology |
Author, Loving Yourself: The Mastery of Being Your Own Person
A toxic mother-in-law will very likely try and be sickeningly sweet to you in the beginning, but only to get you sucked into her trap so that she can start manipulating you and slowly cutting you down and trying to get you cut out of your partner’s life.
She tends to be very invasive into the marriage
They want to know all of the gossips, and they want to be in the middle of every relationship. Their agenda is you divide and conquer.
She also inserts herself between you and your children
They do all they can to make you look like a bad parent to your own kids.
She does everything she can to make you feel as unwelcome and left out as much as possible
They tend to be passive/aggressive; shooting digs at you that easily fly under the radar leaving you looking like you’re too sensitive to those around you. Your feelings are hurt, and your partner can’t really see it and then you’re in this bind. They talk down to you, as a way to cut you down and make you feel insecure.
Zainy Pirbhai, MA, MFT, ATR, PPS
Founder, Los Angeles Family Therapy
There are a lot of signs that can indicate that you’ve got a toxic mother in law.
She constantly wants to call the shots and make major decisions for your family and she’s controlling
When dealing with a controlling mother in law, it’s important to create strong boundaries and establish that it’s okay for her to have opinions, yet she is not the one who ultimately makes the decisions.
She puts her own son or daughter on a pedestal
The biggest challenge here is the previous history and relationship your partner has with their mother and how willing they are to see the strain she is causing on your relationship.
One way to handle this issue, if you feel your partner doesn’t see what you see, is therapy. Sometimes having a neutral third-party can be helpful in pointing out certain dynamics someone too close to the situation might miss.
She lacks boundaries
That’s another sign that you’ve got a toxic mother in law. If she has a hard time respecting your needs and causing you to feel guilty for creating healthy limits, she’s not respecting your boundaries. The response to poor boundaries is setting strong boundaries for yourself.
This can be challenging because those who need boundaries are often the ones who have the hardest time respecting them. If you are fortunate enough to have the support of your partner, this can be a lot easier.
She is two-faced and acts differently around you than she acts around your partner
It’s another sign of a toxic mother in law. She may also say things that only you would understand as insults. This can feel very isolating when others don’t believe you or see the things you see.
A mother in law who believes she knows more than you and constantly reminds you that she knows better. This can be extremely difficult because it can feel very personal.
It’s important to remember that most likely this is “her” issue, not yours. Reminding yourself to externalize and not personalize can be a helpful tool in dealing with her.
Overall in dealing with toxic in-laws, having support from your partner is most important.
They can help you enforce strong boundaries, validate and empower you when she puts you down, and create some healthy separation when things feel too messy.
If they’re not able to see what you’re seeing, going to therapy can be helpful in establishing whether it’s an issue you can work through on your own or bring your partner in for couples therapy. Therapy can give more tools that are specific to each situation and circumstance.
Behavioral Relationship Expert | Podcast Host, Deal With It!
She needs to feel superior, needed
A toxic mother in law tends to speak to you about what is wrong with her kids or other family members. Not from a perspective that is healthy. You may at first think you are different than the rest, but no…you are the same.
She has no boundaries with your mate
She is in your business and shows no sign of getting out. Pay attention to your gut, notice how you make excuses for her bad behavior, so you don’t upset your mate. Your gut is telling you the truth and you may fear to upset the apple cart, and yet be upset for your mate not having those boundaries. It is a vicious circle.
What to do?
You have to set boundaries with yourself.
You want to be treated kindly, then you must be kind to yourself, which means abstaining from unkind behavior (when she talks about other people do not join in, instead politely and compassionately abstain). Remember whatever you do is not going to make a difference in changing her, but you will feel better (even if at first you feel funky).
With being kind to yourself, you also will have to do that if she is over-bearing with your mate and your mate does nothing. You will be kind to yourself in accepting that this is the way it is, refusing to engage in a never-ending battle because you cannot change it through nagging, complaining or anything else. It is to see it as it is. And when you see it as it is, you can focus on your own well being and your partnership.
When she interrupts your loves for no “real” reason and it impacts you, then you speak up but only for yourself.
Do not step in and defend your partner or try to team up, because again it creates more of an issue. It is to stand your ground for you by speaking how it impacts you at the moment (without blame or asking for change), you say what action you will take.
“I want you to know that I had planned to go with your son/daughter to the farmer’s market this morning, so if it is not an emergency I am going to the farmers market. Your son/daughter can choose what they will do.”
And so you put the responsibility back on him/her to stand up or sit down to their mommy. It also allows you to not feel victimized as much. Remember whatever their dynamic is, it was this way before you arrived.
It is not a reflection of you, though it may be triggered to be more out of control by the threat you place to taking away her precious son/daughter.
Relationship and Dating Expert | Co-owner, Platinum Poire
She can make you feel that you are not worthy of their son or daughter
Sometimes it can be tough for people to maintain a good relationship with their mother-in-law as you feel that you have to prove that you are worthy to be with their prince, their son. You are becoming the new woman in his life.
Depending on how close the mother and son relationship is, and what kind of life she has outside of that relationship – it may be a tough transition for her.
Below are a few tips for getting along and winning over your mother-in-law:
Make her feel welcome and appreciated
Try to include her when things are happening and invite her over to spend time. This shows that you are trying to make the relationship work and make her feel welcome. It shows that you appreciate her and want her in your life. After all, this is the woman who gave birth to the love of your, life and you want to give her the utmost respect.
Show her that her son is happy
Show her that you provide a beautiful home and that you are supportive of her son and your relationship. It’s important to parents that their children are happy and it can be attributed to them doing a great job as a parent.
Create a relationship to where you become a confidant to each other
Engage her and make her your friend. Forging your own relationship outside of just being the “Daughter in law” is important. Especially if she is an “empty nester”. She is building a new life and new family dynamics. Let her know that you want to be a part of that.
Let your partner get involved
It depends on the boundary that you are creating and your relationship with your MIL. If you know that your partner has the tact to express to her the point that you need to get across, (better than you can)… and if you feel uncomfortable expressing it yourself… It may be the best option.
This type of relationship may be subject to bumps in the road! Depending on the relationship they have with their son, they have had an influence on who they have become and still have an influence on their life. It can be a fine line and a slippery slope to navigate the involvement and dynamic.
Always practice good communication
You want to communicate and tell her in a nice and gentle manner. Express your appreciation for her before you do anything. You always want to maintain respect as this is an important relationship with someone that will be in your life for the rest of their life.
Addiction Therapist | Relationship Expert
With wisdom and energy education you can easily spot a toxic person. Sometimes they are called “energy vampires” and they actually take away your balance and good mood. If you feel fine but then have exposure to a negative person, you will immediately feel bad about yourself, become self-doubting and depressed.
Negative energy is invisible and you can track it by the immediacy of how you felt good one moment and bad the next. You might also feel drained and exhausted and worn out.
The best advice is to stay away from toxic people but sometimes they are our bosses or our relatives or our mothers-in-law.
- Know the game and that you can’t win. Don’t even try.
- Don’t engage in any drama. Remain neutral to whatever they throw at you.
- Create a shield of protection. Imagine an invisible golden sphere around you about 2 ft all around you. This spiritual invisible shield will be like a plastic tube keeping negativity away from you
- Understand that they have their own problems so you don’t take it personally. Find the strength and self-confidence to know the truth of your own self-worth.
Certified Mental Health Consultant, Enlightened Reality | Relationship Expert, Maple Holistics
She oversteps boundaries
If your mother-in-law comes over unannounced, makes decisions about your children without your consultation, or oversteps her limits in any way, it’s a sign that you have a toxic mother-in-law.
Although it’s true that family comes first, even if it’s family through marriage, respecting boundaries is human decency that everyone should be aware of.
In an attempt to deal with this issue, make it clear to your partner and your mother-in-law that you expect certain limits to your relationship. This isn’t because you don’t respect your mother-in-law (and her unasked-for opinions) but because of the very fact that you do respect her that you feel these boundaries should be in place.
She is overly judgmental, making it clear that she doesn’t support your life choices or your relationship
Your partner has clearly accepted you for who you are, faults and all, but don’t you wish you could say the same of your mother-in-law? One of the best, yet hardest, ways to deal with judgment is to just let it roll off your back.
If the choices, or mistakes, you have made have led you proudly to where you are today, align with your core values, and most importantly your partner is able to see past any perceived flaws, this is a good lesson in not letting other people’s opinions get the best of you.
Make it clear that you’re not ashamed of those very things she believes to be shameful, and that you’re looking forward to putting into practice everything you’ve learned from your life experiences.
Licensed Professional Counselor | Writer, CarInsurance101
I always dreamed of having a good relationship with my mother-in-law. My paternal grandmother and my mother had a great relationship, even after my parents divorced.
When I met my husband, I was excited to meet his family. After the initial meeting with his mother, I knew that reality was probably not going to live up to dream. After we got engaged, the nightmare began. Once we got married, it got worse. I really do try to give my mother-in-law the benefit of the doubt, but she constantly reinforces my “monster-in-law” view.
While I am sure she has great qualities in there somewhere, I have a toxic mother-in-law.
Here are some signs that I have personally experienced that would indicate that maybe you do too.
- She constantly disrespects your marriage and goes out of her way to express her displeasure at your life choices.
- She asks inappropriate and invasive questions (e.g. asking your husband what kind of birth control you are using).
- She belittles and undermines her own child just to try to stick it to you.
- She refuses to come to visit her son in his home because she doesn’t like that he “moved away”.
- She takes absolutely no responsibility for her harmful comments/actions and is quick to lay blame on others.
- She makes selfish, unnecessary and at times unreasonable demands.
- She befriends a woman who is still obsessed with your husband and invites her places where you and your husband will be (after you’ve driven three hours to spend time with his family).
- She believes that her family is the only family that has “important” holiday traditions.
- She is jealous of time spent with your side of the family and constantly compares the two.
- She finds ways to make your pregnancy about her.
In general, there is a complete lack of respect and passive-aggressive hostility that is always present.
I have protected my marriage and handled the toxic mother-in-law situation by having open and honest communication with my husband.
I try really hard not to overly complain or belittle his mother to him, however, I am very honest about how her actions have negatively impacted the in-law relationship as well as diminishing my desire to spend time with her.
My husband and I have also worked to establish boundaries with our respective parents.
While they can have opinions, we are not going to base our decisions and relationship on those opinions and expectations. I would love to have an open and honest conversation with his mother, but I do not see that happening. If you can respectfully have a conversation with your in-laws about any problems, definitely do that!
I am not going to lie, this toxic mother-in-law situation is a real struggle for me, especially in relation to my children and juggling the holidays. I dread spending time with her.
However, I remind myself that she is my husband’s mother and she did raise a good man. She has every right to want to spend time with him and his children.
I keep my space, maintain my boundaries, and grin and bear the holidays. Having her in my life is hard, but my husband is worth it…my husband is worth it. Repeat the mantra.
Writer, CompareAutoInsurance | Clinical Mental Health Counselor
I was blessed in the mother-in-law department with a loving, beautiful and strong lady who is an amazing role model and grandmother to my children. But that isn’t always the case for everyone.
Sometimes mothers-in-law can be meddling, abrasive, and opinionated, causing drama in the family
Dealing with the drama can take a toll on a marriage.
One of the most difficult parts of being a mother isn’t staying up all night with sick babies, it’s having to let go and cut the apron strings when they become adults and leave home.
Some moms just can’t come to terms with that transition and continue to try and parent without conforming to their new parental role. This can wreak havoc on a marriage relationship. Your spouse may be torn between you and mom which is a very tough spot to be in. So how do you handle it?
Setting firm boundaries with parents is often needed at the start of a marriage.
At the same time, keep in mind that it is a bittersweet time for them so tread lightly. Your mom will always be your mom and she is the only one you get.
Encourage her to be a part of your family and your children’s lives.
However, don’t give her a key to your house with an open invitation. Be careful not to give her mixed signals.
Remember that, as a married couple, you are a unified front.
Stand up to your mother on behalf of your spouse. At the same time, make sure your spouse isn’t instigating the bad blood. Set firm boundaries on that end about how you expect your spouse to treat your parents. Love and respect go both ways.
Writer, Core Wellness
Most toxic mothers-in-law have a narcissistic background and it’s one of the main reasons why they are cruel to the spouses of their children. It may be because they were the center of attention back on their childhood days or maybe because everything they want was given to them when they were young that they developed an unrealistic sense of self-importance and self-love.
And because they are narcissistic, they see their children as part of herself and not as individuals. That’s the reason why most of the toxic in-laws take part in important decisions of their children such as marriage. Here are some signs for a toxic/narcissistic mothers-in-law:
They will play favorites
They will tell the spouses of their children that they don’t like them and that they have someone that they really like for their children. They will make you feel excluded especially in family gatherings and important events.
They don’t respect your privacy
They will have you followed, or at times would come to your house unannounced only to criticize the size of your house, how messy it is, etc.
They only like people like them
They see people that are like them also an extension of who they are and it is the reason why they are so picky and exclusive. If they don’t see that you’re one of them they will shatter your self-esteem and will make you feel excluded, that you don’t belong with them.
They like to be in control
Narcissists always like the credit to be on them that’s why they will try to control your relationship with their children and will try to be involved with your decisions.
Having toxic narcissistic in-laws can ruin your relationship with your spouse so here are some advice on how to deal with them:
Talk to your partner about your in-law
Most of the time, children with narcissistic parents are oblivious to it and they have to be made aware of it. It may be because they were in denial, but it can be really great help if your partner knows about their parents’ behavior. That way, both of you can talk about it and plan a way on how to deal with them.
Understand or know the reason why she’s treating you that way
Knowing the reason behind her behaviors can give you clarity and a better understanding of why she’s doing what she’s doing.
Be the bigger person
Don’t pick fights with your in-law. Avoid triggers and set up boundaries. Don’t dwell on all the negative things she’s doing for you. Remember that narcissists always like to shatter people’s self-esteem to prove that they are much more important than anyone. Don’t let their toxicity be absorbed by your system.
Brandon L. Griffin
Digital Director, EverydayDatenight
The road to a successful marriage is not easy. It’s two people bringing two worlds together. Their worlds can include a variety of things from morning routines to methods used to resolve conflict.
There are a lot of areas of life where couples have to discuss, compromise, and even make sacrifices to experience a happy and healthy relationship. One of the biggest areas is, family – especially how to manage relationships with each other’s parents. Yes, your in-laws!
Sometimes relationships with in-laws can be easy, positive, and loving. Other times individuals can dread having to interact with their in-laws, even for 5 minutes.
She makes you dread her presence
If you dread having to interact with your in-law, if after spending time with your in-law you or your partner feel stressed, or the need to vent – rinsing yourself of negative energy or feelings, there may be a toxic relationship.
When there is a toxic relationship, the first thing to do is to give yourself time to productively reflect.
Don’t just keep repeating what she said, or what he said, and what you said over and over. By yourself, take time to reflect on your feelings, intentions, and slowly replay the interaction.
Here are a few questions to ask yourself as you replay the interaction:
- What was said?
- Who said it?
- How did it make you feel?
- Why did it make you feel that way?
- What would you have liked for them to do or say differently?
- What could you have done or said differently?
Then, take time to consider the other person.
- Why do you think they said or did what they did?
- How do you think they are feeling?
- What are some of their weak areas that may have contributed to them saying or doing what they did?
Asking yourself these questions will help you come up with an approach to respond or navigate the situation that will allow you to honor yourself, and be considerate of the other person.
When it comes to relationships (with anyone), you are responsible for setting the boundaries. You are responsible for communicating how you feel, and what you are looking for from the other person. Most tensions in toxic relationships stem from individuals making assumptions of the other person, a person trying to exert control, or individuals not feeling heard, valued or respected.
Focusing on what you can control (you and your actions) and making sure the actions you choose to carry out are loving to yourself, considerate of others, and being open to surrendering to a higher power can help you successfully navigate toxic relationships – even if it’s with your in-law.