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How to Handle Your Monster-in-Law

Take on the beast.

Key points

  • One study found that one in four daughters-in-law despise their mother-in-law, finding her “controlling.”
  • Research shows that daughters-in-law’s resentment stems largely from mothers-in-law thinking they are the ultimate authority on parenting.
  • One way for daughters-in-law to manage their resentment of their mother-in-law is to relax on their ideals and work with the way things are.

In many families, the mother-in-law is jokingly referred to as the “monster-in-law.” Yet, the strain that parents-in-law can place on a couple is no laughing matter. It can, in fact, ultimately destroy a relationship. According to parenting website Netmums, one in four daughters-in-law (DIL) despise their mother-in-law (MIL), finding her “controlling.”

The site’s poll of about 2,000 women found that the DILs’ resentment stemmed largely from MILs thinking that they are the ultimate authority on parenting. A classic example is an MIL undermining a DIL in front of her husband and children. Other complaints included being made to feel not good enough for their partner, and over a third of respondents described their MIL as “judgmental” or “interfering.” Not surprisingly, nearly a quarter of respondents described their relationship with their MIL as “bad” or “terrible.” In some cases, the stress of the in-law situation led to families moving away or even to marital collapse.

Needless to say, the MIL/DIL relationship is most stressful for the DIL. If your own situation is causing you anguish, learning how to manage your feelings and the situation is critical in taking care of your well-being and ultimately, your family’s.

1. First, sit with the self.

Before you can take on your MIL, you need to give yourself a time-out (probably more than one) to evaluate the situation and develop a game plan that’s right for you. Find a quiet space free of distractions where you can note everything that has taken place to date.

Allow yourself to process the list, mulling and fuming over it — getting all your feelings out — until you can revisit it with a calmer frame of mind. This will enable you to constructively take on the situation, coming from a more rational space when moving forward.

2. Consider where your MIL is coming from.

With or without empathy or sympathy, try to see your MIL’s side, and how her behavior may be a symptom of larger issues she has with herself and her relationship with your spouse — and not you. In some cases, a mother-in-law's hostility may be an act of frustration over being disconnected from him. If this is the case, this is something that your husband needs to work on with his mother.

While it's challenging, try to be objective as you evaluate the situation. Honestly ask yourself if she has a valid opinion. Consider if her actions and words are coming from a place of love, and if this needs to be acknowledged. Consider, too, if she’s struggling with feelings of having been dethroned in her family, and if there are ways you can make her feel important and needed in her own way.

3. Ask yourself what role you’re playing in the situation.

There are situations in which a person has done nothing to cause the relationship with in-laws to become strained. Yet there are also situations in which the DIL is doing, or not doing, something that is causing the in-laws to treat her the way they are, warranted or not. Think back to how you’ve engaged your in-laws, and ask yourself honestly if a third party could find fault with that. Are you a total victim in this scenario, or do you do or say things to instigate a negative response? If so, consider how you can change the way you’re handling the situation or reacting to it, so as not to invite any antagonism.

4. Don’t have any expectations.

We can all learn from the Buddhist belief that expectations lead to suffering. Don’t allow yourself to suffer anymore. Let go of expectations around how things "should" be when it comes to family relationships. Don’t want what you can’t have. Instead, be realistic about the situation, including any nonnegotiable circumstances. If you’re not going to be close, given what has transpired, maybe that’s for the better. Instead of trying to live out some Hallmark illusion, contemplate how you can work with the way things are. For example, is a coolish relationship possible?

5. Be okay with not having their approval.

You don’t need anyone’s approval to live your life the way you want. Don’t drive yourself crazy trying to get your in-laws' thumbs-up. Not caring what they think about you could be freeing and empowering.

6. Trust your instincts.

If your intuition sounds the alarm, listen to it. It’s there to take care of you, as Camilla, a 35-year-old consultant, learned: “The first time I met my mother-in-law, I found her warm and beautiful. But when she hugged me goodbye at the end of that evening, something went off in me indicating that this wasn’t a good person. Sadly, my instincts weren’t wrong.”

How to Engage

Unless your spouse wants nothing to do with his parents, you can’t ignore your in-laws. So when you find yourself in their company, do the following:

7. Don’t try to fake a relationship that isn’t there.

Yes, they’re legally your parents-in-law, but are they really treating you like family? You don’t need to refer to your in-laws as “Dad” or “Mother,” if there is no intimacy or warmth that warrants the use of the terms. Using these words also adds to a power dynamic with them that may not work for you. In calling your parents-in-law by their first names, you create a more level playing field.

8. Be assertive.

This needs to remain central, no matter what you’re communicating. While initial attempts to engage your in-laws should be courteous, the problem with being too polite for fear of coming across as rude or pushy is that you don’t establish the necessary boundaries. Thus, you aren’t able to communicate how deep the problems are, and how troubled you are.

Remember, you’re not necessarily dealing with a person or people who are nice. You don’t need to always play nice in getting your points across.

9. Avoid stooping to her level.

It is tempting to fight fire with fire, taking digs at your MIL, calling her names, or being equally rude. Don’t go there. In your discussions, no matter how heated, stick with the facts. Interact using mindfulness, and take the higher road without compromising how you will allow yourself to be treated.


How to Stay in Control of Your Emotions

Central to managing your in-laws is managing your emotions:

10. Don’t take criticisms personally.

As Hilary Rodham Clinton put it: “Take criticism seriously, but not personally. If there is truth or merit in the criticism, try to learn from it. Otherwise, let it roll right off you.” In many cases, you’ll realize that your MIL is just being her usual self, and that she, at the end of the day, has to deal with herself and the consequences of her actions.

When she throws dirt your way, have a visualization exercise that allows the statement to literally roll off your back. Envision what she just said captured in a water balloon, which then rolls off your shoulders and down your back before smashing on the ground below your feet.

11. Have a way to deal with your anger.

This might be going for a walk following a difficult interaction, or hitting the pool to blow off some steam, or taking to the golf course for some relaxation. You cannot allow the anger to consume you, or else it will destroy you and your marriage. Find your outlets for working through the negative energy on a regular basis.

12. Find trusted persons to vent to.

Your spouse may not always be in the mood to hear about how awful his mother and parents are. It’s important to turn to good friends and/or support groups in getting some things off of your chest. Your marriage will become even more strained otherwise.

When All Else Fails

13. Practice a "healthy selfishness.”

You need to take care of yourself before you can take care of a situation. This involves excusing yourself from family gatherings for some quality “me time,” not answering the phone when you know it’s your MIL, and keeping your distance as a couple around times like the holiday to take care of yourselves and your family, in spite of expectations. It is only when people practice this kind of “me” and “us” prioritizing that they reach their full potential.

14. Opt out.

Some in-law situations never get to a better place. As Christina Steinorth stated on “Just because you’re married, you’re under no obligation to be emotionally abused by toxic people.” If your MIL was a boyfriend, your friends would tell you to dump him. If your MIL bullied someone, people would advise that person to keep his distance and set limits. Just because she’s your MIL doesn’t mean that you have to tolerate abuse.

15. Limit your in-laws’ involvement.

Whenever anyone becomes toxic to your marriage or family, you have the right to roll up the “Welcome” mat and say, “Game over.” You, your spouse, and your primary family have the right to a peaceful existence, with the people in your circle being those who are a positive and supportive presence. If you are being disrespected and mistreated by your in-laws, then they aren’t entitled to the privileges that come with being in that circle. You have every right to draw and maintain strong boundaries in protecting yourself and your marriage. Nobody has the right to make your life miserable, and only you can make sure of that.

More from Yvonne K. Fulbright Ph.D., MSEd
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