We all remember the classic Jane Fonda-JLo comedy from 2005 “Monster in Law.” But when you actually have a toxic mother-in-law who’s making your life hell, there’s nothing comical about it.
Toxic mothers-in-law seem to be a pervasive issue – there are whole columns, threads, and podcasts dedicated to the subject. Much of this content seems to be focused on the main goal of helping you “get back” at your MIL, but how does that help your relationship or help you grow as a person? She may be overly critical, dismissive, intrusive, or just plain cruel, but there are ways to deal with your toxic mother-in-law with grace, believe it or not. Here’s what you need to know.
Be the Bigger Person
Not only is this the most important piece of advice to keep in mind, but it’s also the hardest to follow. When it comes to passive-aggressive behavior, hurtful actions, or pointed comments geared towards you, it’s probably tempting to shoot right back at her. But being reactive, especially if her behavior is immature, is exactly what she’s after. Resist, resist, resist. Killing her with kindness will benefit you much more in the long run, and it’ll also catch her off guard. Don’t sink to her level, no matter how much she tries to get you down.
Whether you’re a newlywed or an old pro at marriage with a few kids under your belt, boundaries matter. Whether she seems to have an ugly habit of frequently dropping by your house unannounced or undermining your parenting, make sure that your boundaries are in place and that you’re being firm, however uncomfortable that might feel at first. Exhibiting just an ounce of hesitation or even distrust in your own rules as a parent and spouse gives her an inch to wedge her way in, whether it’s between you and your husband or you and your kids. Remember, the only people who dislike boundaries are the people who take advantage of them. Boundaries exist for a reason and will save your sanity as a wife and as a mom.
Accept the Inevitable
At the beginning of your marriage, as you learn more about your MIL and her not-so-motherly behavior, you might be hopeful that one day the two of you will have a friendship or at least a semi-decent relationship. This is a good goal to work towards, and if a positive relationship between the two of you is at all possible, it’s admirable to want to work towards that.
However, part of maturing (and protecting your marriage) may mean accepting the reality that the two of you will never have a great relationship. In the end, that’s fine. You don’t need to be shopping buddies or brunch pals to be polite and civil with one another, nor do you have to be BFFs to care for the family you’ve built with her son. Although it’s disappointing to realize, a great mother-in-law isn’t necessarily a prerequisite to a good marriage or to successfully raising kids. Accepting the inevitable – that you can get on without liking each other – will save you a lot of stress in the long run.
Talk to Her Privately
If things reach a boiling point, you don’t have to vent to your own mom or your friends. What good will that do in changing her behavior? If you feel you do have to address her, prepare accordingly and maintain your composure. Plan ahead of time what you want to say, and be prepared to be met with more toxic behavior, whether that’s total denial or gaslighting.
Make sure she understands the situation: Your relationship with your spouse is your priority, and any effort to undermine or minimize that relationship won’t be tolerated. Enlist your husband, if need be. He knows her tune better than you do, after all, and confronting her head-on will discourage any potential desires you might have to keep things bottled up inside or gossip about her behind her back – which would only give her more ammunition.
Put Up a United Front
You’re not in this marriage alone, and surely you’re not the only one who sees how passive-aggressive or inappropriate your mother-in-law can be. Don’t isolate yourself in thinking that this is solely a you-and-her issue. One of the best parts about being married is that for better or worse, you’ll never be alone in anything ever again. Ask your husband for help on the best ways to handle her behavior or what you can do to defuse tension. No matter what, even if you disagree on how to approach things, make sure that your mother-in-law (and kids if you have them) see you and your husband as a united front. This means that you don’t talk negatively about your husband, tear him down, or emasculate him in public. Your mother-in-law will look for any possible opening she can to sow discord between the two of you, so nip that in the bud before it’s even a possibility.
Give Her Space
Whether it’s physical or metaphorical, put distance between yourself and her. If you know things have a tendency to go south between the two of you, ensure that if they do, it won’t be your fault. An argument can feel good in the moment, but if you argue each and every time you’re together or you can’t be in the same room without snipping at one another, it’s probably best to look for that distance sooner rather than later.
Don’t Badmouth Her to the Kids
If your mother-in-law thinks you’re the toxic one, imagine how vindicated she’ll feel when your kids mention how you talk about her at home in front of them. One of the best things you can do for your children when it comes to their grandparents is let them form their own opinions of them (and chances are, if she refuses to change her behavior, they’ll realize how she is without you having to tell them). Again, if you need to vocalize your issues with her, go to your husband for counsel and support or straight to the culprit.
Above All, Remember Who You Married
Many people are of the opinion that when you marry someone, you marry their family as well. In some cases that might be true, but when it comes to a toxic MIL, you certainly didn’t sign up to marry her. However atrocious and horrible her behavior might be, the worst thing you can do in this situation is let her toxicity pervade your marriage. However unkind, judgmental, or unpleasant she might be, guard yourself and your marriage from letting those traits become commonplace in your relationship. Let your love and appreciation for your spouse outshine her behavior, and make sure she sees it too.
Jane and JLo may have been able to make it work by the end of the movie, but that doesn’t mean you’re required to. You, your husband, and your family come first above all else, and with that mantra in mind, let your MIL take all the shots at you she wants. With the two of you committed to one another in love, compassion, and understanding, in good times and bad, she won’t even make a dent.
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