Mother-In-Law Blues

Dear Toni-

I know this will sound like a cliche, but my mother-in-law is ruining my marriage. From the beginning of our dating relationship, "Sophie" was overly involved and boundary challenged. In the guise of helpfulness, she attempts to take charge of everything in our lives from how we decorate our home to how we should be raising our kids. She is so NICE in how she goes about her attempts to manipulate and control that I always end up looking like the bad guy when I push back and try to set appropriate limits. What really gets my blood pressure up is when my father-in-law is used as the spokesperson, telling us how disappointed or hurt they are about our not giving in to something Sophie wants. My in-laws live out of state, but visit for weekends every few months and call at least weekly.

My mother-in-law's behavior drives my husband crazy but he usually deals with a situation by not answering the phone or tuning her out and going off and reading/working on the computer during their visits. Since she usually directs her stuff at me when he isn't right there, he gets annoyed when I complain and tells me to just confront or ignore her. It would be easier to stop a charging elephant than get her to back down on one of her agendas--she is relentless.

I'm sure you won't be surprised to hear that this is causing a lot of friction between my spouse and I--and it's not uncommon for us to have a heated argument in response to something Sophie has said, done or is up to. Any thoughts or advice on how we can work on minimizing her negative impact on our family life and relationship? --Smothering In-Laws

Dear Dear Smothering In-Laws,

You last line offers a crucial clue as to where the solution to your overbearing in-law lies--with the two of you. If I'm reading your letter correctly--your spouse deals with the problem by not dealing with it, which leaves you standing all alone on the end of the relationship limb. Not only is this not fair, it won't solve your problem and will leave a lot of negative residue in its wake. Therefore, the first part of the solution will require hubby to man up.

You and your spouse need to present a united front. This involves the two of you figuring out together what your comfortable limits are and where you want the boundaries to be set. After you come to an agreement--you will both need to act as enforcers in a consistent way with your in-laws, each having each other's back when necessary. At first you should anticipate quite a bit of resistance and it's likely she will regroup and seek creative ways to do end runs around your limit setting. This is where the consistency comes in--and you will need to work hard to stay the course and realize that some battles my become a bit bloody but if you can win the war, peace will follow.

It's always useful to apply the carrot and stick approach. While setting limits, offer support and praise for the helpful and cooperative interactions she has with you and the children. Look for ways to praise her wisdom and experience as a mom--after all she did raise your husband and contributed to his being the guy you fell in love with and chose as your life partner. Look for ways to involve her that fit with what works for you. Grandparents can be a wonderful source of support for tired parents, and the value of their unconditional love and attention for the children shouldn't be underestimated.

If your efforts do not reap positive results and she continues to fight you after you have given this strategy ample time to work--you will have to start setting limits on how often and long the visits will be. If it comes to that be clear with her that you would like to see them more often, but that they have made it too much work and create too much stress due to their refusal to accept your authority and boundaries. Remind her that she did a good job as a mother and it is time to trust that her son can take what he learned and apply it to his own family.

With patience, strong but caring limits and functioning as a team--you and your spouse should be able to look forward to many happy years of visits, holidays and special celebrations with your extended family.

(from November 2013)

Want to read other columns on this subject?

This is the first "In-law Challenges" column.

List of more
"In-law Challenges"

"Mother-in-law sticking us with the tab"


Toni Coleman, LCSW
Phone: 703-847-1768


Copyright 2008-2015 Antoinette Coleman. All rights reserved.

Distribution Rights: The above material is copyrighted, but you may retransmit or distribute it to whomever you wish as long as not a single word is changed, added or deleted, including the contact information. However, you may not copy it to a web site.

Reprint permission will be granted, upon request, to student newspapers, universities, and other nonprofit organizations. Advance written permission must be obtained for any reprinting of this material in altered or modified form.