In-Law And Order

6 Signs Of Toxic In Laws — And How To Combat Their Behavior

It helps to be aware.

Originally Published: 
Husband and wife in kitchen with mother-in-law
10'000 Hours/Getty

We don’t get to choose our in-laws. They’re a package deal that comes with our partner. In most cases, in-laws are lovable albeit quirky and a little annoying. They may dote too hard on the grandkids or be a bit passive aggressive from time to time but...they mean well. In some cases, however, in-laws can be problematic if they’re inconsistent, disrespectful, and often try to manipulate situations for their own gain. Their presence raises temperatures and unearths a lot of frustrations, making family gatherings difficult.

Tatiana Dyachenko, a psychologist and relationship therapist, notes that not all toxic in-laws behave in the same way. One may be quietly manipulative, while another may be overdramatic. However, she says that there are some unifying traits among them. They’re incredibly reactive or overbearing. They love to blame others. They’re likely controlling.

“The main reason an in-law behaves like this is because they feel threatened by you,” says Dyachenko. “You’ve come into their offspring’s life and might take them away.”

In order to know whether or not you’re confronting a toxic in-law situation, there are warning signs to know. Some behaviors can be less toxic than others, and it’s important to be able to tell the difference. It’s also important to realize that these behaviors fall on a spectrum and just because your in-laws may be a bit overzealous in one area doesn’t mean it’s an end-all be-all issue.

There’s a big difference between a loving and generous but controlling mother-in-law and one who purposely sows seeds of discord, points fingers, and is verbally abusive. Only you know the degree. In any case, it’s important to know the signs of toxic in-laws and some helpful tips for handling them well.

1. They Play The Blame Game

It’s a standard trait of toxic in-laws, and toxic people, in general, to not take responsibility for their own actions. “They find a way to twist the truth, lie or manipulate others so they can pass off their problems to you and others,” says Lynell Ross, a certified health and wellness coach.

What you can do: In those situations, it’s important to not accept the blame that they put on you. “When they are blaming others, you can do your best to ignore their complaining or limit your exposure to their ranting,” Ross says.

2. They Don’t Respect Boundaries

Toxic in-laws often have no sense of what’s appropriate when it comes to boundaries or knowing their place. They show up unannounced. They stay longer than you want them. They ignore the rules you have with your kids. And so on.

What you can do: Along with your partner, it’s crucial to set firm boundaries upfront. Even if your in-laws push back, you have to realize that it’s up to you to maintain that boundary. For example, if you’ve asked them several times to not to come over unannounced and they swing by one afternoon without saying anything, tell them they can’t come in. If they get mad, remind them that you told them this several times and you’ll be happy to schedule a visit in the next couple of weeks. “The hardest part of setting and upholding boundaries is sitting with the discomfort when the other person gets mad,” says Ross.

3. They Are Over-Dramatic And Reactive

Toxic in-laws tend to take any situation as an excuse to react negatively, make a scene, or put you on the defensive. “Toxic in-laws react negatively to almost anything,” says Ross. “They blow little things out of proportion, view any comment as a reason to blame or shame you, or become angry, or verbally abusive.”

What you can do: When dealing with this kind of negativity, it’s important to bring up the issue directly with them and calmly explain in so many words that it is unacceptable behavior and they need to address it. If it continues, Ross says you don’t have to allow yourself to get sucked into their drama. “Remain calm and remove yourself and your family from the situation,” she says. “Do your best to limit contact with them. Just because they are your in-laws does not mean they have the right to be in your life.”

4. They Are Controlling

A sure sign of toxicity is in-laws who want you and your spouse to do everything their way and, if you don’t, will make your lives miserable.

What you can do: What you need to do is turn the tables on them and not allow them to gain the upper hand. “Turn a controlling person into a frustrated person,” says Ross. ‘You and your spouse can educate yourselves on how controlling people learn to boss, manipulate, and coerce others, and refuse to buy into their tactics.”

5. They Find Fault With Everything

A favorite tactic of the toxic in-law is making you feel “less than.” They will say and do anything in order to criticize you, your parenting, your home — everything. Sometimes they’ll do it openly, and other times it will be couched as a backhanded compliment.

What you can do: “By being aware of how damaging a critical parent is, the more power you and your spouse will have,” says Ross. “Refuse to take what they say personally. When a person criticizes it says more about them than you.”

6. They Are Inconsistent

Problematic in-laws are also unpredictable. You never know what kind of mood they’re going to be in when you see them, or what you might say or do that will set them off. “They may be nice to you if they want something,” says Ross, “but when you need help or a sympathetic ear, they lack empathy and tell you to deal with it.”

What you can do: Don’t set yourself up for disappointment. Measure your expectations with your in-laws and factor in their inconsistency to any plan you might make. “Surround yourself with good friends, babysitters, and others who you can count on,” Ross says, “and who can count on you to make your life more stable.”

This article was originally published on