Look, it’s a cliché (and popular movie plotline) for a reason: Conflict with the mother-in-law is most definitely a thing. But how do you know when a rude comment over Sunday night dinner is just your MIL having a bad day or something more problematic? We picked the brain of clinical psychologist and author Dr. Bethany Cook for how to identify a toxic mother-in-law and then handle the issue in a healthy and constructive way.
10 Signs You’ve Got a Toxic Mother-in-Law on Your Hands
Is it just me? If you ask yourself that question after every interaction with your MIL, the feelings you’re experiencing definitely warrant a thorough analysis. Of course, the answer to that question could be that it is you—particularly if you have unresolved issues with insecurity or a history of fraught interpersonal relationships. Or it could be that your partner’s parent is downright poisonous. These things are complicated, but according to Dr. Cook, here are ten warning signs to look out for:
1. She Ignores Personal Boundaries
Example: You’ve explicitly asked your MIL not to post pictures of you (or your kids) on her social media account but she does so anyway.
If you laid down the law and your family member promptly and consistently flouted it, you have a right to your fury. Boundary-setting is no small project—many of us spend a lifetime refining this valuable skill—but once you’ve made yourself crystal clear, the work should be done. Unless, of course, you're dealing with a toxic MIL. Dr. Cook explains that in many cases, this toxic tactic is designed to set up a power struggle—one that your spouse will likely be roped into at some point as well.
2. She Offers Unsolicited Advice
Example: “You know, John actually likes his underwear folded this way.”
Paging Dr. Freud: This one is equal parts reviling and insulting...and it’s not all that uncommon. If you’re familiar with this sort of mommy-knows-best behavior, there’s a good chance that your MIL is creeping into toxic territory by “trying to insert herself into the intimate dyad of a couple’s relationship,” says Cook. This behavior creates a dynamic known as triangulation—and the MIL’s end game is to control and manipulate in order to have her own needs met.
3. She Cancels Plans Last Minute or Shows Up Unannounced
Example: You’re sharing an intimate evening with your spouse when (surprise!) the doorbell rings: It’s your MIL because, you know, she was in the neighborhood and just had to say hi.
Showing up at someone’s home unannounced is rarely acceptable, and the flip side of this bad behavior—frequently pulling out of scheduled plans on a dime—is equally problematic. The reason? “[A] mother-in-law will do this as a way to control situations and make sure she is the center of attention and everyone’s life revolves around her and her needs.” Per Dr. Cook, if your spouse’s mother is toxic, it might take the form of a desperate need to not be ‘forgotten’ that manifests with this type of manipulative and controlling behavior, in which she once again “places herself in the middle of the couple.”
4. She Buys Inappropriate Gifts for Your Spouse
Example: It’s your spouse’s birthday and your MIL gives him something super intimate (like sexy underwear) or something very expensive (like a trip to the Caribbean…for just the two of them).
If a MIL is always beating you to the punch in the gifting department, something’s not right—namely that it “undermines [you] and is downright rude.” The same is true when intimate items are involved, but with another layer of inappropriate. Bottom line: It’s probably not a coincidence if your MIL is consistently stealing your thunder.
5. She Gives You Gifts…But with Strings Attached
Example: Your MIL buys you clothes that she approves of and pressures you to wear them in her presence.
The above example is particularly egregious because no one should be policing your style, but Dr. Cook says the bad behavior can take other forms as well—like when a MIL gets offended because a gifted home decoration isn’t on display. “Giving something as a gift and expecting someone to use it is a toxic and more subtle form of manipulation. She is trying to change the person her child married.”
6. She Thinks That She’s Always Right, without Exception
Example: When you and your MIL have a disagreement, no matter how trivial, she works tirelessly to ensure everyone (including your partner) takes her side.
Dr. Cook says this is another triangulation tactic used by a MIL who wishes to insert herself in a partnership. The end result is the “couple’s relationship needs being put on the back burner to satisfy MIL.” FYI: A healthy mother-in-law won’t ask anyone to take sides, least of all your significant other, in a minor dispute.
7. She Straight Up Ignores You
Example: [radio silence]
When it comes to toxic mother-in-law behavior, it doesn’t get more passive-aggressive than this. In fact, Dr. Cook points out that ignoring someone is a form of psychological abuse as the perpetrator is using silence to demean the victim—a method that’s particularly hard to confront. In other words, a MIL can easily come up with a bunch of phony excuses for shutting you out (“I thought you were mad at me” or “we didn’t have anything to talk about”), when in reality she’s just trying to get your goat.
8. She’s Impossible to Please
Example: A MIL who’s often judgmental and rude or dispenses criticism with no regard for how it’s received. (You know, like when she comes over for dinner and proclaims that “these mashed potatoes are just too gloopy for me.”)
If your MIL walks into your home and immediately starts making comments about how it could be improved and areas that need a better cleaning...something toxic this way comes. Unless you have expressly asked to hear her thoughts on your housekeeping or cooking skills, there’s a good chance she’s spouting off with the intention of either riling you up or lording power over you so that you aim to please her first and foremost.
9. She Behaves Differently When Your Spouse Isn’t Present
Example: Your MIL is appropriate and respectful when your spouse is present, but when he steps out she takes on an openly critical or nasty tone.
When a MIL plays to the intended audience (i.e., her child), it’s a major red flag. If she’s only on her best behavior when your spouse is within earshot, she’s being disingenuous and manipulative. What’s her end game? “A wedge between you and your spouse [that can make] you look like a liar and instantly cause trust issues.”
10. She Gossips About You to Family and Friends
Example: Your MIL shares stories about your life in a style that makes you look bad in contrast to her. (Think: “The kids just love coming over to grandma’s house so they can finally have a homecooked meal!”)
First of all, when it comes to events in your life, you should be the one spilling the beans. That said, not all gossip is created equally toxic. The worst kind is when your MIL weaponizes private information, or even mundane occurrences, to “paint you in a negative light while she is the hero.” This behavior “undermines your standing in the community [or] family system” and leaves you with little recourse, since you aren’t present to contest the narrative.
How to Deal with a Toxic Mother-in-Law
If you’ve checked some boxes on the above list your instinct might be to scream some choice words...and we don’t blame you. Still, that’s probably not the coping strategy that serves you best. Good news: If you try this strategy instead, that MIL nonsense will start rolling off your back—or, better yet, it might cease to exist.
1. Communicate with Your Spouse
It might be hard, especially in instances where a spouse is particularly protective of family, but open and honest communication is an essential component of an enduring partnership. As such, Dr. Cook recommends you share your feelings with your spouse (you’re supposed to be on the same team, remember?). Your significant other might have noticed the bad behavior as well, but even if that isn’t the case, the conversation should end with mutual understanding—i.e., “strength and support when talking to your MIL.”
2. Talk to Your Mother-in-Law
After coming clean to your spouse about what a challenge their mother is, your partner should now have your back for the heart-to-heart that is yet to come. Yep, that’s right—you should try to go straight to the offending party. Dr. Cook says you ought to sit down with your MIL and calmly express your feelings in the hopes that she didn't realize how her behavior negatively impacts you. (OK, the cynic in us thinks that she probably did know but might stop when you stick up for yourself.) Since there are a lot of emotions involved and complicated dynamics, Cook recommends you go into this talk prepared with notes and rein in your self-expression with “I feel” statements rather than starting with the more accusatory “You…”
3. Minimize Exposure
If the talk it out approach didn’t bring about significant change in the dynamic, Cook says your best bet is to reduce your contact with the antagonist. However, this move doesn’t need to, and really shouldn’t, take the form of an authoritarian gesture (i.e., “she’s not welcome here anymore!”) as that only serves to strengthen the dysfunctional power dynamic. Instead, Cook says to play it cool: “If your spouse wants to go spend time with their mom, let them and take that time for self-care.” The problem will largely be resolved simply because you’ve limited your exposure to the negativity. Will your MIL be pissed that you decide to skip a few family functions? Probably. But Dr. Cook points out that she’d feel the same if you did show up. “Remember, you can’t please her, so at least please yourself.” Amen.
4. Encourage Your Spouse to Enforce Boundaries
If you’ve tried and failed to enforce boundaries with a toxic mother-in-law, it’s time to call on your significant other—it’s his incorrigible family member, after all. It might be a hard pill for the MIL to swallow when your spouse steps up to the plate so be prepared for her to “blame you for ‘changing’ her child.” Nevertheless, “that child is now your life partner and needs to...protect the union of the couple,” says Cook. (Hear, hear!)
5. Don’t Take It Personally
This one is much easier said than done and may require a lot of practice—an admittedly unpleasant training process. Still, Cook reminds us that “how others react to us has more to do with them than you.” So, try to find your inner Zen and avoid negative engagement, even when you can’t avoid the person. Cook also recommends “reframing your perspective and expectations of what it is you want, need and will get from your relationship with MIL.” After all, it’s much easier to change your own expectations than it is to change someone else—and the former will certainly spare you the disappointment and frustration of the latter.