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How to Navigate a Toxic Mother in Law (& Come Out on Top)

Does the relationship with your mother-in-law feel painful and difficult?

If she is a toxic person, you’ll need to handle this situation with a specific set of strategies.

This guide can help you identify signs of toxicity and show you effective techniques for managing the worst problems between you.

The How and Why of Toxic Personalities

You may be in disbelief about your mother-in-law’s cruelty. Why would she single you out? Why is she so intentionally awful to you? It helps to understand what makes someone like this tick.

A toxic person behaves and thinks the way they do to protect themselves.

People who experience trauma and deep emotional pain learn many ways to do this. Some people grow up learning that weakness is punished and power is respected.

Others may grow up with supportive families but experience traumatic events later in life. A person with toxic behaviors covers up the reality of their own pain by inflicting it on others.

The whole plan relies on twisted logic and avoidance of responsibility. All they know is their set of extreme relationship survival skills from the past. They don’t understand healthy behaviors or coping skills.

Accepting responsibility or feeling remorse would open the door to a great depth of pain they aren’t prepared to face. So getting a toxic person to “change their ways” out of the blue is a nearly impossible task.

Tell-tale Signs of a Toxic Mother-in-Law

If you’ve struggled with your mother-in-law from day one, you may recognize some behaviors from the list below.

1. She is Overly Enmeshed With Family Relationships

Toxic Mother in Law Eavesdropping

You might think your relationship with your spouse or children is private, but you’d be wrong. She will meddle and put herself in the middle of any personal family situation.

If you try to push back and keep some privacy, she’ll react in an overblown way. She’ll claim she is just trying to help or that she has the right to involve herself.

Her relationship drama is exhausting and creates problems where they didn’t exist. But you won’t be able to stop her from butting in.

2. She’ll Hold a Grudge Forever

If you thought your mother-in-law would forget the lame gift you got her for Christmas 10 years ago, think again. The list of grudges is long and there’s no expiration date on them.

She’s been keeping score since long before you knew there was a scorecard. Any time she needs to boost herself up, she can bring up that time you ruined her birthday for a fun “gotcha” moment.

3. She’s Never, Ever Wrong

The first rule of being in your mother-in-law’s family is that she is right and you are wrong. End of story.

Even if you agree with her, some part of what you’re doing is still wrong. Allowing you to be right would mean she gave up some of her power over you, and she’ll never do that.

If you disagree in public, she may try to smooth things over and save face. But in private, you’ll be swiftly reminded that she won’t tolerate that kind of disrespect. She is powerful and your opinion is meaningless.

4. She Expects Her Child (Your Spouse) to Stay Loyal to Her, Not You

Toxic Mother in Law Manipulating Relationship

This goes a step beyond family meddling. Your mother-in-law believes she should be the most important person in her adult child’s life. She will actively interfere with the marital relationships of her children.

This can be very dangerous for your marriage, especially if your spouse makes excuses or diminishes her actions. She can quickly drive a wedge between you and your spouse if you aren’t a united front. Nothing would please her more than to get you out of the way.

5. You’ll Never Satisfy Her Impossible Standards

You can’t possibly feed your children well enough, have a nice enough home, or have the right job. Even when you achieve something great, she’ll keep the bar impossibly high.

She can’t be happy for you when you accomplish something, even if it’s exactly what she said you should do. Deep down, she doesn’t know how to give another person credit without feeling bad about herself. She feels better when she holds the measuring stick.

6. Nothing is Ever Her Fault

It doesn’t matter if your mother-in-law is directly responsible for something going wrong. It isn’t her fault. Ever.

One of the hallmarks of a toxic person is their use of manipulation. Your mother-in-law will find a way to dance around responsibility like Fred Astaire. She is very skilled at deflecting blame from herself.

She’ll come up with any and all excuses to establish her innocence. If that doesn’t work, she’ll downplay the problem to make it seem unimportant. No matter what, she’ll find a way to skate out of any responsibility.

7. She’s Emotionally Manipulative

Has your mother-in-law made you feel like you were on an emotional rollercoaster? Toxic people are masters at emotional manipulation and mind games. The more off-balance you are, the easier it is to control you.

Trust and empathy may be important values in your life. But your mother-in-law sees these as weaknesses she can use against you.

One moment she seems sympathetic to you, and the next she’s indifferent. Other family members may seem to turn against you as well.

A manipulative mother-in-law is likely at the center of the drama.

8. She Makes Sure You Look Bad

Toxic Mother in Law Making Wife Look Bad

There’s only room for one strong person in this family – your mother-in-law. She can’t feel powerful if someone else is stealing the spotlight.

Anything that makes you look good is a threat to her sense of strength. You need to look like an obvious failure, and she’ll make sure plenty of people know it.

She won’t waste an opportunity to see you trip up. Any chance she gets to knock you down a peg, she’ll do it.

9. She Tears Down the People You Care About

Why just insult you when you can bring down everyone else around you, too? Your mother-in-law takes whatever opportunity she can get to insult your family, coworkers, and close friends.

Tearing you down is the primary goal, but it’s even more effective to include others you care about as well.

Your parents may be a prime target or maybe your hometown. Anything that trashes your origin or social network will be used against you.

And if she insults any one of these people in person, she adds embarrassment into the mix. All of this chaos keeps you hurt and reactive while she runs the show.

10. Apologies and Praise Come With a Price

Your mother-in-law may surprise you with an apology or unexpected compliment. If this feels very surprising and out-of-place, your instinct may be on-target.

A person who is truly toxic and manipulative rarely offers genuine kindness. Most likely, there are strings attached.

An apology may include a subtle insult. A compliment in front of others can have a sudden twist at the end that causes embarrassment.

And if any of these are done publicly, she can put on a good show in front of a crowd. She will still find a way to disrespect or diminish you when the others aren’t looking.

11. She is Unlikely to Change

In the end, all this trouble is caused by a totally self-absorbed person who meets her needs at the expense of others.

Your mother-in-law has lived much of her life getting her needs met in unhealthy ways that hurt others. She has also developed very little empathy and has no remorse for stirring up so much chaos.

Your mother-in-law likely learned these terrible behaviors as survival skills.

She honed them long before you came into her life. At this point, this is all she knows how to do. The odds of her having a new perspective on life are slim.

You’ll walk straight into a buzzsaw if you try to fight her on this.

12. She Acts Like You Don’t Exist

Toxic Mother in Law Alienating Wife

Maybe your biggest problem is that you feel like a ghost with your mother-in-law.

You are so insignificant to her that she barely acknowledges you. Rather than chaos, you are met with a relationship void. You simply aren’t a thing to her.

This can feel almost worse than being constantly insulted. At least a putdown requires some conversation. Being ignored creates awkwardness, shows a lack of respect, and questions your value.

Your mother-in-law doesn’t have to say a word. A shutout like this can hurt even worse when she publically showers other family members with attention and praise.

How to Deal With & Eliminate a Toxic Mother-in-Law – Coping Strategies

So now you’ve confirmed your suspicions. The mother of your wonderful spouse is toxic to everyone around her. What can you do? How do you make a good life with this dark cloud lurking around every corner?

Fortunately, you have many healthy strategies to pick from. Make no mistake, these are not always easy choices. Remember, she is a master of emotional manipulation.

You are likely to pay the price for your choice, but you may be better off in the end.

All of the coping methods offered here interrupt your mother-in-law’s ability to disrupt your life. Since you cannot change her, you need to focus on what you can do.

Dealing with a toxic person can be very draining. The best strategies help you conserve your energy and minimize the negative impact on you.

When you feel more empowered and in control of your circumstances, you can better handle the pain and chaos she throws your way.

1. Choose Your Battles Wisely

Choosing Battles Wisely With Toxic Mother in Law

It’s rarely a good idea to get into an argument with a toxic person. They go for the win and don’t care about the pain they cause. However, standing up to someone like this is necessary at times.

Make sure you know which hill you are willing to die on. For example, you may be willing to tolerate her insults about you, but if she comes after your parents or your kids? That’s a different story.

You still need to avoid giving a strong reaction, even though you’ll want to unload on her.

Be calm and assertive, saying as few words as possible to get your point across. Again, it can be helpful to rehearse a few short statements for a moment like this.

You can take your stand very clearly with less temptation to fly off the handle. “I will not discuss my parents’ money situation with you. It is not your business and this conversation is over. Goodbye.”

2. Set Time Limits on Conversations

You can’t control anything about your mother-in-law, but you can control yourself. Limit your interactions and make them as brief as possible. If you can’t leave the conversation quickly, change the topic to something light and easy.

It might help to have a few canned phrases or excuses to help you step out of a conversation or change the subject. Make yourself just too busy to ever get into much of a conversation. Have an exit strategy where a friend calls you to interrupt you.

The less time you spend with your mother-in-law, the less time she has to hook you into something uncomfortable.

3. Don’t Respond or React

Toxic Mother In Law Initiating Drama

A toxic person feeds off emotional reactions. Everything they do is meant to charge you up and create a juicy emotional scene.

The more easily you react, the more attractive you are as a target. While it can be tough to keep a straight face, it’s a real buzzkill for someone like your mother-in-law.

If you are a more sensitive person, this may be especially challenging. Emotional sensitivity is a beautiful personality trait and should be cherished. Make it a game with yourself to be the most boring person ever when they talk to you.

Pretend you are on stage acting a part in a play. Speak in a deliberate monotone if that helps. If you take all the electricity out of the situation, you become uninteresting. That’s a good thing.

4. Put Some Distance Between You

Sometimes distance can be the best barrier between you and a toxic mother-in-law.

No matter how determined she may be to stir up trouble, it’s more difficult when you don’t live close by. She’ll have a lot more trouble dropping in unannounced.

You’ll also have a built-in excuse for not traveling too often. The bigger the move, the more helpful this strategy can be.

This is basically the “time limits” method on a bigger scale. You gain a sense of freedom when you don’t worry about casual drop-ins or running into her at the grocery store.

You can feel free to absorb yourself in a new community without having to work around her interference.

It may seem like an extreme move, especially if you really enjoy spending time in the area where she lives.

However, the constant drain on your energy and emotions is a hefty price to pay. If it’s more than you can manage, moving far away can be the right answer.

5. Get Support From People Who Care About You

Couples Having Fun Drinking Wine

Going up against a toxic mother-in-law is no small task. You’ll run out of strength and patience long before she does, especially if you go at it alone.

Instead, use your support network to help you stay calm and focused when it matters the most.

Need to rally yourself ahead of a Christmas gathering at your mother-in-law’s house? Spend time with your family or good friends shortly before.

Feel defeated after a demoralizing phone call from her? Get on the phone with your best listening friend and spill your feelings.

The most important person to have on your side is your spouse, your mother-in-law’s adult child. When they back you up, you’re a strong team that can’t be torn apart.

Sometimes your spouse might feel caught between you and their mother. Encourage them to stand up for themselves even when it’s uncomfortable.

6. Eliminate Her From Your Life

If you’ve tried everything here or she has crossed an unforgivable line, you may need to take the biggest leap. You might need to cut her out of your life completely. It may be the only way to protect you and your family from ongoing harm.

You and your spouse must be in complete agreement on this. It’s a huge step and not to be taken lightly.

With a choice this big, there’s bound to be some fallout. You might lose some inheritance. Other family members may side with her and stop talking to you. You might feel both free and lost at the same time.

Take heart – if you’ve made this decision and know it’s the best thing, you will be better off for it. You and your family can live in peace and leave the pain behind. However, this kind of adjustment can be stressful and emotional.

Keep in touch with people who really care about you. You and your spouse might find that this decision has brought a lot of pain to the surface. If this becomes overwhelming, go to some counseling sessions and find ways to cope with the change.

Wrapping Up a Toxic Mother in Law

Dealing with a toxic mother-in-law isn’t easy. Ultimately, you’ll need to use the strategies that fit your situation best. Above all, remember to take care of your well-being first. Your mother-in-law certainly won’t.

Frequently Asked Questions

People also ask:

What Can I Do If My Mother-In-Law is Toxic?

The first step is to identify the problem. You need to figure out what exactly is making your relationship toxic. Is it her attitude? Is she always criticizing you? Or does she just dislike you? Once you identify the problem, then you can start working on a solution.

There are many things that you can do if your mother-in-law is toxic. You may try telling her how you feel and why her behavior bothers you so much. Also, try setting boundaries for yourself and telling her what behaviors will make your relationship more difficult.

How Do You Act Around a Toxic Mother-In-Law?

Even if you disagree with your in-laws’ actions or way of life, always be respectful. Accept as much as you can that they may have opposing ideas. This does not imply that you and your partner must tolerate their rudeness. If you feel upset, you (or your husband) may always suggest that they stop or cancel the visit.

How Do You Ignore a Negative Mother-In-Law?

If you find it impossible to speak to or simply be in her presence, it may seem that the only way to maintain your sanity and happiness is to ignore your mother-in-law. You may ignore your mother-in-law if you restrict your time with her, cope with her challenging behavior, and make an attempt to confront or become aware of the difficulties in your interaction with her.

How Do You Outsmart a Manipulative Mother-In-Law?

It is not easy to outsmart a manipulative mother-in-law, but there are some ways that you can try.

  • Recognize her intentions
  • Avoid triggers
  • Dissociate from her remarks
  • Let go of the urge to please
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Jennifer Tanaka

Jennifer is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker with a passion for helping couples struggling within their marriage, relationship, or during the divorce process.

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