by: E.B. Johnson
All relationships come with joys, trials and tribulations, but when we commit to our partners we don’t always consider that our in-laws may play a part in those things too. Whether you’ve tied the knot or just gone all-in for the long-term, our in-laws can be toxic and they can have a limiting and negative impact on our relationships.
Not all in-laws are horrible, but some are. There’s a big difference between a clash in perspectives and corrosive and destructive behavior that undermines our closest bonds. Learn how to spot and understand the toxic behavior your in-laws are exhibiting before it destroys the close emotional connections you and your partner share.
Why is it so difficult to get along with our in-laws?
Even when our husbands, wives and partners are perfect, it can still be hard to get along with their parents. Why? Why is it so stressful to deal with our mother and father-in-laws?
The reasons we clash with the parents of our other-halves vary, but there are a few core issues at the center of every dysfunctional in-law relationship. From old hurts to an inability to let go, it’s important to understand why in-law bonds are so tricky, so you can battle those issues effectively.
A quickness to judge.
When it comes to our in-laws there’s fast-food judgement on both sides of the aisle. Our mother-in-laws (and father-in-laws) can be quick to judge us when it comes to how we deal with and “care for” their children (our other-halves). No matter how old their child gets or how independent they might be, they never stop seeing our partners as their children and — as such — they never stop wanting the absolute best for him or her.
This need can drive our in-laws to judge everything we do, from parenting to cooking, cleaning to laundry. The same can be said for the other side of the equation who, feeling judged, are just as quick to judge the other judgmental party.
A refusal to respect boundaries.
It can be hard to set boundaries with our in-laws, but when the boundaries we do set get violated, it becomes impossible to cultivate a mutually respectful relationship.
Our parents-in-law violate our boundaries in a number of ways — some subtle and some not-so-subtle. They can violate our boundaries by butting into heated arguments, offering unsolicited advice or even showing up unannounced to offer cleaning critiques, parenting advice or just general annoyance.
In-laws step over our lines for a lot of different reasons, but a lot of it centers around control. Being older, they believe they are owed a certain level of respect, but many of them forget that you have to give respect to get it. Creating boundaries is important, but maintaining those boundaries is even more important.
We still live in a time in which many of our parents were raised to believe that it was okay to smoke during pregnancy. Because our in-laws often come from a different time, they can often have old-fashioned or out-dated expectations for our relationships — which can lead to conflict.
When our in-laws are functioning with sepia-tinged glasses on, they can start to compare our relationships with their children (or grandchildren) against the stereotypical gender roles they were raised with. They start to criticize the way you take care of the kids, or the way the two of you have a cooking-rota set up. It doesn’t matter. If it breaks with what they’ve always known, they’ll have something to say about it.
Signs you’ve got a toxic in-law.
Just having a core understanding of your in-law issues isn’t always enough. Sometimes, you have to get savvy at spotting the more subtle signs of a toxic in-law. From inserting themselves into to decisions to causing general mayhem — spotting the signs of a toxic in-law is crucial in protecting our relationships.
They go out of their way to make you feel bad.
It just sometimes happens that our in-laws don’t like us. When that happens, they don’t necessarily act like adults and can result to some pretty petty behavior that undermines your self-confidence and makes you feel bad.
In-laws that go out of their way to make you feel bad are toxic and it’s critical that you limit the impact they have on your life. This often starts first with a conversation — between you and your partner — and ends with some kind of compromise that limits the amount of time you have to spend with / around your mother or father in-law.
They insert themselves into private decisions.
Having an in-law that is too pushy or involved can lead to some serious problems. Sometimes, the behavior comes from a place of care and is endearing. Others times, however, it comes from a need to control or interfere in what you have going on with your spouse or partner.
No matter how you squeeze it, in-laws inserting themselves into personal decisions is toxic and detrimental to the fabric of our romantic relationships. Butting in to put their opinion over yours is a sure-fire sign that they don’t respect you (or your opinions) and they don’t value you or respect you.
They show up unannounced.
Showing up without notice is not only a sign of disrespect, it’s a sign that your in-law is trying to exert control over the relationship. According to Lisa Concepcion, a professional dating and relationship transformation expert, unannounced pop-in’s from your MIL or FIL are a sure sign of troubled waters.
“Perhaps [your mother-in-law] helped with the down payment, paid for some renovations, or perhaps she just feels entitled to drop by simply because she’s the mother,” Lisa told Romper.com. “Either way, unannounced visits are an example of a lack of boundaries and respect.”
While it can seem endearing at first, an in-law that can’t respect the boundaries of your home and personal space is an in-law that is looking to come between you and your significant other. Whether their behavior is conscious or unconscious — it’s toxic. Putting your foot down (gently) is the only way to put an end to it.
They love to stir-up drama.
Over-the-top emotions are one way our in-laws attempt to control us and our relationships. Stirring up the drama with reactions that are way out of line with the situation allows our mother and father-in-laws to control situations and garner sympathy, casting them in the light of the victim and ourselves in the role as villain every single time.
Another way our in-laws stir up drama is by gossiping about us when we aren’t there, or butting in where they don’t belong. Hearing through the grapevine that an in-law is bad-mouthing you to family, friends and neighbors is a definitive sign that something’s gone wrong and a definitive sign that you need to hit pause and reassess where you are and where you want to go with your relationship.
They freeze you out.
While an over-dramatic in-law is something we can all picture easily, it’s just as toxic when your in-law freezes you out completely.
Freeze-out happens when in-laws talk about you as if you aren’t there or ignore you at family get-togethers and dinners. They treat you as if you are non-existent and when you confront the problem, they get passive aggressive.
Behaving as though you don’t exist is a malicious way in which our in-laws express how little they value us and our views and perspectives. If your in-law is freezing you out, it means not only that they don’t like you — it also means they don’t respect you either.
They turn you and your partner against each other.
The most telling sign of a dangerous in-law is one that turns your interactions into a deadly game of “he-said, she-said”. These are the in-laws that exude negativity and make it their mission from the start to cause trouble.
Not only do they sow confusion, they sow discontent. After a weekend with this MIL or FIL, you might find that you and your partner can’t stop fighting. You might look at them with doubt or the two of you might get short with one another. However it manifests the root cause is the same: an in-law getting involved where they had no business being.
The best ways to deal with an interfering in-law.
Every situation is unique. There is no one concrete way to deal with an in-law without limits, but there are some solid techniques you can use to limit their impact on your relationship.
Become a united front.
The first thing you must do — in dealing with a toxic or interfering in-law — is to become a united front with your partner. Sit down and have an honest conversation with your partner about what’s going on and how it’s making you feel. Let your partner know that you can’t deal with this problem solo. When one of you has a problem, both of you have a problem.
Speak calmly and openly, coming from an intention of understanding and peace. Avoid accusatory language like “you did” or “they did” and stick to phrases like “made me feel” or “made me think”. Whether or not your partner agrees on all points, let them know that you need to approach this problem as a united front and remember that any meaningful change starts with effective conversation about sensitive issues.
Resolve the conversation.
Don’t end your conversation without coming up with some kind of peaceful resolution or compromise. If you feel like you’re under attack, let your partner know what’s going on and make sure the two of you come up with some first-attempt plan that you can both stick to comfortably-enough.
If you want to get on top of your issues, you have to address them fully and not walk away before you have a plan of attack. Focus on your feelings and own up to how you feel while avoiding any critical statements about your MIL or FIL and the way they approach you.
Consider the situation from *every* perspective.
Though it might kill you a little bit inside, it’s critical that you consider you situation and the issues that you have from every perspective. Every family function with a certain degree of dysfunction, so you have to take a birds-eye-view approach when coming to solutions.
Try to think about how your partner might see the situation and then consider it from your in-law’s perspective too. Keep the conversation focused on how you’re feeling and stay away from statements that point at what’s “wrong” with your partner’s family.
Give your partner some examples of what the norm is in your family and why that “norm” makes you so uncomfortable with their parent’s behavior. When you give sound rationale for your emotions (rather than just coming from a place of pure feeling) you’ll be better able to identify the healthier or better ways to approach the next steps.
Allow your partner the time they need to consider your point of view, but make sure they know you won’t allow time to equate to dismissal. Keep the conversation prompt and focused and make sure your points are fully addressed before moving on to the next step — change.
Make a plan of change.
Once you’ve gotten all your feelings out on the table and you’ve given your partner the space to reveal theirs, work together to get specific and clear about what things you want resolved and start to make a plan of change that the two of you can stick to.
Don’t assume that you’re on the same page when it comes to strategy. Even if your spouse doesn’t agree that there’s a problem, let them know that something has to change in order for you find your happiness again. Negotiate how your in-laws will become a part of your life and set-up clear boundaries that you both can agree to.
A plan won’t come together in one conversation. That’s okay. Just get your first steps down and make sure that you both commit to a plan of change that protects the bond you share.
Agree on the terms and the boundaries.
Healthy boundaries are the core of our self-respect and their also one of the foundations of any healthy relationship. Let your partner know what terms and boundaries you have and give them the space they need to make their own in return.
Brainstorm solutions and make sure that healthy boundaries are always at the core of your conversation on how-best to deal with your in-laws. Explain explicitly how you’d like matters handled and let your partner give you an example of how they’d do things. It’s crucial to let your partner know what you’ll expect and accept, but it’s also important to accommodate their boundaries as well.
Let your partner take the lead.
No matter what strategy you and your spouse or partner choose to engage in, it’s important that your partner take the lead in any confrontations or charges that might be perceived as an affront.
If you don’t get along with your in-laws, any charge led by you will be perceived as an attack. When we feel attacked, our emotions take over and we lose our ability to think and respond rationally. If you’ve got a problem with your in-law’s behavior, let your partner take the lead in setting down the new lines. After all, these are their parents and discussing these hard issues should come down to their family unit.
Whether or not your partner agrees with your feelings doesn’t matter. As a committed couple, you have a duty to protect one another. This means speaking up and speaking out, even when it’s hard or even when we don’t necessarily agree. It also means confronting the people we love when they say something hurtful or engage in damaging passive-aggressive behaviors.
Adjust your own behavior.
Once you’ve set down new boundaries with your MIL or FIL, you and your partner have to adjust your own behaviors in order to communicate that your changes are reality — not a threat.
These adjustments might include you and your partner changing the systems of interaction you once engaged in, or it might involved actively educating their parents on what will and will not be tolerated (and why).
However it’s done, your adjustments should communicate to your in-laws — in action — that “slip-ups” won’t be tolerated and that there are consequences for their actions. People only change when they want to, and they only want to change when what they’re doing isn’t working anymore.
Let your mother-in-law or father-in-law know what will and won’t be tolerated by letting your actions bely the truth of your words. Toxic people are not to be tolerated; no matter who they are.
Enforce, enforce, enforce.
While you can kick off your change with gentle reminders it’s important to remember that change is unlikely to occur overnight. While you can sometimes fix a broken in-law relationship compassionately, sometimes you have to put your foot down. However you have to make your point, it’s important to enforce your boundaries and enforce the idea that you are to be respected as equally as your partner.
Approach your needs with a strict and consistent pattern of enforcement and remind them where the lines of your boundaries are drawn. If you’re dealing with a particularly nasty encounter, try to remain friendly, tactful and straightforward and refuse to sink to their level.
If your in-laws, however, continue to disrespect your needs approach them from a stronger angle and cut off contact entirely. You don’t have to lower yourself to be disrespected — no matter who you’re dealing with. Communicate this politely and have enough respect for yourself to walk away when things are causing more harm than good in your life and relationship.
Putting it all together…
However your in-laws are interfering, it’s important that you learn to spot the signs and learn how to understand the behavior and how it undermines your relationship with your partner. The signs aren’t always easy to spot, but they always manifest in damaging ways. Only when you spot the signs of a toxic in law effectively can you put a stop to it once and for all.