We don’t get to choose our in-laws. They’re a package deal that comes with our partner. In most cases, in-laws might just be quirky or a little annoying. In the worst cases, toxic in-laws can become your new normal, and dealing with a toxic father-in-law or controlling mother-in-law is not easy.
Relationship therapist Tatiana Dyachenko notes that, of course, toxic in-laws behave in a variety of different ways. 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,” she says. “You have come into their offspring’s life and you might take them away from them. There are of course other reasons. If you can get to the bottom the reason you may be able to mend the relationship.”
In order to know whether or not you’re confronting a toxic in-law situation, there are some warning signs you might want to look at. Some behaviors can be less toxic than others, and it’s important to be able to tell the difference. 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 problematic in-laws and some helpful tips for handling them well. Here’s what to know.
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 Ross.
What you can do: In those situations, you can’t 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 are over-dramatic and reactive
In-laws who are toxic 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 Lynell Ross, a certified health and wellness coach. “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, 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. 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.”
3. They don’t respect boundaries
In-laws who are toxic have no sense of what’s appropriate when it comes to boundaries or knowing their place. “They show up unannounced, stay longer than you want them, and constantly tell you what to do,” says Ross.
What you can do: Along with your partner, set firm boundaries upfront. Even if they push back, you have to realize that it’s up to you to maintain that boundary. ‘For example, if you ask them not to call after 9 pm at night, and they call, do not answer the phone,” says Ross. ‘If they get mad, you remind them that your family does not take calls after 9 pm. The hardest part of setting and upholding boundaries is sitting with the discomfort when the other person gets mad.”
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, they will make your lives miserable. What you need to do is turn the tables on them and not allow them to gain the upper hand.
What you can do: “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
In-laws who are toxic 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.”