Ask the Panel: How to Set Boundaries with Your Mother-In-Law

Marriage panel members answer the question of how to set boundaries with your mother-in-law.

This post is part of our ASK THE PANEL series where readers submit questions and our marriage panel answers them.  As explained here.

Here’s the submitted question:

“Hey Celeste,

I love your idea for a PANEL series and I’ve got one for you.  Although, even at the outset, I feel kinda guilty complaining because, really my life isn’t that bad, this is just an area that weighs on me a lot so I’d love some advice.  So, my problem isn’t so much about my marriage per se, but more to do with an in-law issue, well more specifically a mother-in-law issue.

About a year ago, my husband found a great job in his hometown and we ended up buying a house just a block or so over from his parents.  My mother-in-law is actually a really amazing lady, she’s just a little . . . intense.  Type A.  She watches my two little kids once or twice a week so I can get some work done, which I really appreciate, but she’s always been very passive aggressive and opinionated in giving me advice.  Everything from how I discipline my kids, to how to do their hair to how I do my laundry.  I believe she has my best interests at heart, but I’d be lying if I said it doesn’t drive me crazy!  And the thought of living with this every week for the rest of ever makes me want to cry.

When I talk to my husband about it, he agrees, like, “Yep, sounds like my mom.”  Shrug.  He thinks saying something to her would really damage our relationship with her and wouldn’t be worth it.  Add to that that I hate confrontation and I just really don’t know what to do about it.

So my question for the panel is does anyone have any experience in setting boundaries with in-laws?  Or a script?  LOL  Any experiences or advice would be appreciated!  Thanks!”

How to set boundaries with your mother-in-law

How to Deal With a Difficult Mother - in - Law Kayla
This is such a difficult situation- she’s not exactly behaving badly but she’s also not necessarily treating you with the respect you deserve as an adult and a member of her extended family.
My best advice is to respond in a short, assertive way and then change the subject. If she comments on how you’re disciplining your children then you should respond with something like, “We’re doing what works for us. Did you see that article I sent you on Facebook this morning?” When she comments on their hair, “I like it that way. Have you talked to Grandma Sue lately?” Believe me, she’ll get the point.
Be prepared though- she might call YOU out and ask you what’s wrong. At which point you can say something like, “I appreciate having you in the kids’ lives but sometimes you share your opinions on my parenting and housekeeping in a way that hurts my feelings. I know you love us though and we’re so glad to have you nearby.” Make a compliment sandwich- good things on either end, truth bomb in the middle. 
If her behavior worsens, however, I am a firm believer that handling misbehaving in-laws is the job of their own child. If her unwanted commentary escalates or becomes more aggressive then your husband needs to step up and have a conversation with his mom.

How to deal with a difficult mother-in-law  Kate

I totally understand where you are coming from. My mother-in-law is also extremely difficult.

I also completely understand your lack of motivation to have a conversation about it with her. As far as I’m concerned, having that convo with my mom-in-law would do nothing but hurt her feelings. Her behavior wouldn’t change, she’s just not at a place where she can make changes like that because she suffers from mental illness. However, this doesn’t make her insensitivities any less hurtful to me, particularly when it comes to raising my kids. Here are some things I’ve learned over the years:

1) Complaining doesn’t help anything. I used to adore telling stories about my mother-in-law acting nutso. I’ve told Celeste a million of them. They were just too good and shocking and evoked too much sympathy for me to keep my mouth shut. A little while ago I met a woman who swore that her difficult mother-in-law became manageable, even likable, when she stopped complaining about her. So I tried it. It is honestly the hardest self discipline thing I’ve ever done, but it makes a huge difference.

1a. Don’t complain to your husband either. My mom once told me that she was complaining to my dad about his mom. After a while he couldn’t take it anymore and said “please stop, that’s my mommy.” I think putting our spouses in a position between their wife and their mom makes it so they can’t win. We should honor that relationship as much as we can.

2) Just smile and nod. Your mother-in-law has no real power over what you do in the walls of your own home. She can complain all she wants but you are the one making final parenting decisions. Feel free to be drunk off that power. You can let her talk at you, while you smile and think ‘I am not going to listen to a thing you say.’ It’s oddly liberating. Having someone criticize our parenting is really hurtful, but as Eleanor Roosevelt once said “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” Try to grow some tough skin, it’s hard and it takes practice and time, but you can do it.

3) Is she right? This is incredibly difficult, but I think all of us can admit that we aren’t perfect parents. Perhaps there’s something we can learn from the woman who raised the man we fell in love with? When people with aggressive personalities give us advice it is easy to be defensive, but if we can be humble we might be able to pull a kernel of truth out of what they are saying. Remember that you’re both on the same team. You both love your babies. You want what’s best for them. She won’t be right all the time, but instead of immediately thinking ‘these are my kids, not yours.’ maybe we can think ‘is she actually making a valuable suggestion?’ Even if it is sometimes disguised as abrasive criticism.

4) Make “I feel” statements. I hope this doesn’t sound cheesy, but if something hurts your feelings you shouldn’t feel bad about expressing that. You don’t need to have a big huge conversation about how she is constantly bossy and critical. Just the next time she says something hurtful you say “That hurt my feelings” or “I am trying really hard with these kids and when you said that it made me feel like you don’t think I am,” or whatever. If you talk about how you feel she won’t be able to argue with you and she probably doesn’t want you to feel like that. It might be scary but it will really bring you closer together. When I read your sentence about dealing with this for the rest of forever it made you want to cry, my first thought is that your mother-in-law does not want you to feel that way. She needs to understand how she is making you feel.

5) Serve her. The best way to develop love for someone and get to know them better is to serve them. As you love her and know her more, then your reaction to her criticisms will more closely resemble your husbands: a shrug and a ‘that’s my mom.’

Hang in there! This will get easier as you get used to each other and as your kids get older.

How to Deal with a Difficult Mother-in-lawAmy

I feel for you!! I think many people have situations like this in their married life. I think dealing with different  family cultures, especially with in-laws, can be one of the biggest stressors in trying to build a successful family. I would say I get along pretty well with my mother-in-law, but there are a few things that rub me the wrong way. I also have some personality conflicts with a sister-in-law that have left me in tears to the point that meeting up at my husband’s family reunions have been so nerve wracking that I dreaded them for months in advance.

While I was attending college, I had a chance to also attend some religion classes at an Institute of Religion for our church. One of my teachers was Dr. John Lund and in addition to being a religion teacher, he was a marriage and family therapist. He’s the author of the book, “How to Hug a Porcupine: Dealing with Toxic and Difficult to Love Personalities”. His book teaches about different toxic behaviors that people in our lives (or we, ourselves) might have. These toxic behaviors might range from passive aggressive behaviors like you spoke about with your mother-in-law to cutting off people when they are talking.

The take home message that I got from the book was that I need to recognize toxic behaviors in that person. Then I need to recognize in myself what it means to be a good daughter-in-law or sister-in-law, etc. I also had to recognize that I cannot change that person. The most conflict I’ve had has been with my sister-in-law. I felt like she was always judging me on the choices I made while raising my kids. She is also quite sensitive and frequently gets her feelings hurt by others in the family.

It has taken me very many years to get to the point to say to myself, “That is how she is. I can’t change her but I can change how I deal with her.” The funny thing was, when I got my feelings hurt by her, I wouldn’t necessarily take it to her to talk about it, because she wasn’t ready to hear my complaints. This might be similar to what your husband said about talking to his mom might hurt the relationship more than it helps. I would take my struggles about her to the Lord and found that if I hashed it out before the Him, I could come to forgive her for her behavior toward me.

It also took a long time for me to decide how I was going define being a good sister-in-law with her. Once, I realized that I was fulfilling my definition of a good sister-in-law, I can feel comfortable in my own skin. There did come a time recently that she was ready to try and change her behavior and we established how we wanted to move forward in our relationship. This was not an easy process. However, you may never get to that point with the toxic person in your life. They may never be willing to change. So, that is why it is so important for you to define for yourself how to be a good daughter-in-law and once you’ve done that, be okay with that.

If there comes a time when you do get a chance to talk to your mother-in-law about different things that you struggle with, I would suggest that you create a safe environment for both of you to talk about it. Maybe write down what you’re going to say beforehand. There are a bunch of good suggestions in the book if you get to that point.

I would recommend the book (and if you search for “John Lund Porcupine” on YouTube, there are a few video clips that he as on the topic of criticism and toxic personalities that I find helpful). Just be prepared to recognize a few toxic behaviors in yourself too (because no one is immune from them!) Good luck with figuring things out!

Celeste here.  I don’t have anything to add to this conversation (thank goodness my panel had such great advice!!), but one panel member emailed me this for help in determining how close to in-laws you should live 😉  and also gave me the idea for creating the pin for this post.

If you have any advice or experiences to share- add them in the comments!

And if you have a marriage question you’d like to ask our panel, fill out the form below (email and real name not required).

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10 thoughts on “Ask the Panel: How to Set Boundaries with Your Mother-In-Law

  1. Good day…i live with my in laws never met my father in law…my biggest problem is i have a mother in law who takes a knife and opens up my room and looks to wash my clothes and clean my room…i have talked to her about it that i just want my personal space but she still does it when my husband and i go to work apart from that she constantly calls my husband and ask so much questions ….like she doesnt respect me…i have a brother and his wife and they also lives here and she doesnt do them that only us…what could i do for her to respect my husband and i personal space

    1. Wow Shyann, this is a tough one! I would advise honest, candid conversations telling her exactly how you feel when she invades your personal space. Express gratitude for her care and then make clear, direct requests in a loving tone. Hope that helps! Thanks!

  2. I can certainly sympathize with other women having difficulty dealing with the MIL. It’s a hard situation ignoring the elephant in the living room. You just step around the issue. In my case the MIL does not live in the neighborhood. She lives in another country but when she does come “visit” it’s usually an extended stay, for an undetermined amount of time over which I have no control. It ranges from 3 months to almost a year. And she comes about every 2 years. My husband gets on the defensive all the time whenever an issue comes up. She is high maintenance. We have to watch what she eats because she’s diabetic but she doesn’t listen. She eats whatever makes her sick. And I usually get blamed. Once she fell and I got the blame because she was wearing sandals I had given her. She pretty much takes over the kitchen, gives her opinion freely on my child raising, housework, what I do with my free time. She expects to be hugged and kissed every time I see her. She’s been to the extreme of insulting me calling me ugly, and has let me know that I’m not good enough for her son. Then she turns around making herself the victim saying that nobody wants her and that this is the last time that she’ll ever come (she has said this before several times ). And of course my husband falls for this. She persuades him to feel sorry for her, and he continues to condone and even accept her. I’ve come to realize over time that she will never change and all I can do is ignore her and her foul manipulative behavior . I get away as often as I can.

  3. Truthfully, I don’t find this advice helpful at all. The DIL deserves to be treated with respect, so advice to “serve” the disrespectful MIL is ridiculous in my opinion. And damaging. The panel is asking this woman to walk on egghells and ignore bad behavior – yes, it is bad – she would never (I hope), accept from a friend. As a divorce lawyer who has heard everything and knows the harm in-laws can do to a marriage, my advice is to find a reputable couples counselor and decide on a strategy to deal with the MIL as a couple, to have a united front. In-laws like this do damage and your advice to essentially enable the behavior is disempowering and unhelpful. The writer already lacks confidence in herself and feels bad for complaining when life is otherwise good. Counselling to understand why she feels undeserving of respectful treatment and shouldn’t complain would help tackle the root issue here.
    I reccommend the book Boundaries and Boundaries in Marriage – Christian authors.

    1. Thank you! I agree especially the panelist who said to “serve” the MIL, is giving advice to insecure women who haven’t put up strong boundaries just to deal with narcissistic behavior from their in laws. No one should have to walk on eggshells around their family. This is where Respect and Boundaries come into play. Just smiling and nodding has been a mistake I have made for about 3 years. I never wanted to make a scene at family events or cause tension between my husband and his parents. By doing this I have allowed my in-laws to disrespect me, my opinions and values, my relationship with my husband (their son), and made me question and feel insecure about myself. This is unacceptable, and has affected my mental health badly making me feel like I deserve to be treated this way. Becoming more confident I’ve learned I have to be assertive when letting them know their behavior is unacceptable. They don’t have to agree or even understand my thoughts, opinions, or actions, but they have to Respect them! Don’t ever let people walk all over you and make you feel uncomfortable or insecure! Specifically to the one who wrote in this question, you have to talk to her be a kind but assertive! She needs to know you aren’t ASKing for her to stop criticizing your parenting and how you run your household, you are TELLing her it needs to stop. Yes we love them and want them in our lives but you can’t allow them to negatively affect your mental health.

    2. Well that can go both ways. I have a DIL who refuses to let us see our son and grandchild. We have tried all the feel good tactics and respect and still have to deal with her manipulation, division and lack of consideration for everyone is our family not jus me. We have provided everything she needs for her child but has taught my son to distrust us and I am sorry to say that I know longer know who my son is anymore. Nothing but prayer is going to work with this family relationship. She has caused so much distress and division in our family. The breaking point was her not allowing our son and granchild to visit- we are considering not providing for our sons future any longer because of her cruel deception against us.

  4. When my husband and I got married my mother still wanted to control my husband. I remember one time my husband had gotten paid and handed me his check to deposit in the morning. Well the next morning he asked me if I had a couple of dollars and when I said no cuz I had to deposit, she jumped in and said , well what do you do with all the money he gives you. I just said, well first of all it’s none of your business and you have a room in the back I suggest you go there. She went to her room. That afternoon she came out apologized never interfered again. She lived with us for 10 years in one house then we moved, she’s lived 13 years in our other house. We got so close. You need to set some boundaries.

  5. Even though this is about married couples, I am currently a similar situation with my boyfriends mom.. I am living with him and his family. His mom and I used to be amazingly close, but then she basically turned on me when her son dumped me two summers ago, and lied about the situation to make himself look good. I’m finally passed that drama but can never seem to get passed the torment of his mom.. It has been a repeat cycle for the past 2 years with her. Few weeks she’s buddy buddy with me, and then out of the blue she’s threatening me and kicking me out of family groups.
    Today, I was supposed to go to his results appointment about his kidneys (he had kidney failure awhile back but got surgery). He told me he wanted me there and I said I would.. The mom came in the room yelling at me 5 minutes before leaving saying I’m not going. That she doesn’t care if I’m his girlfriend, she has more control because she’s his mom. And said she doesn’t want me there… Then she went on and on how I disrespected her.. He was upset and crying..but never did anything. I left to visit my sister till he came back home, and he said he’s over it. That if I want to leave then I should. That both of us acted immature mostly me. And that he moved on from the situation after 5 minutes… After awhile we cooled down… and then I told him that this relationship isn’t working and is causing more harm than good..I was about to tell him I was ready to leave, but he started hysterically crying and I got scared and just told I’m not leaving him….
    5 minutes prior posting this, his mom just got mad at me for taking out his laundry (which was clearly dry) and said for now on she’s doing his laundry because I don’t know how, and haven’t kept up with it…
    He’s 23 and doesn’t know how to put up clothes..the clothes she washed of his were clean clothes he threw on the floor after I folded them…

    Someone please help me fix this..because at this point my only option is to stay at a shelter…I have no friends or family that have room for me.

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