Last Updated on September 21, 2021 by Alexander Burgemeester
My mother in law manipulates my husband all the time! Anything she says or does, he follows. I respect that she is his mother, but she’s constantly twisting her words and making it seem like I’m the bad guy. I hate feeling like we’re in competition with one another! It totally seems like my mother-in-law controls my husband, and I’m tired of it!
Does that script sound familiar? Do you believe you have an emotionally manipulative mother-in-law? If so, you’re probably exhausted, frustrated, and uncertain about how to proceed. So let’s dive into how a toxic mother-in-law can be so problematic and explore what you can do about it.
11 Signs Your Mother-in-Law Is Manipulative
No parent is perfect, but learning how to deal with a controlling mother-in-law makes family dynamics even more challenging. Here are some key signs that your mother-in-law is manipulative or toxic.
#1 She Disrespects Boundaries
Does your mother-in-law show up on your porch unannounced? Do you make plans for a trip, and she invites herself to come along? Has she ever picked up your child from school without asking?
Manipulative mothers-in-law don’t abide by normal boundaries. Instead, they comply with whatever rules they think are appropriate. As a result, they have no problem minimizing, arguing, or even flat-out refusing to respect your limits.
#2 She Is Highly Critical of You
Dinner would have been perfect had you not burnt the potatoes. You look lovely, but have you gained some weight this month?
If your mother-in-law has no shame in critiquing your efforts, she’s probably toxic and manipulative. Sometimes the insults seem like backhanded compliments. This is a form of gaslighting- if you confront her on how the insult made you feel, she may insist that you’re overreacting or taking offense to nothing.
Other times, the insults may be more obvious, such as, We liked ___ better (when referring to your husband’s ex-girlfriend), or I can’t believe you’re going to work. Children deserve a mother who wants to be home with them.
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#3 She Only Loves You In Public
Does your mother-in-law dote on you in front of her friends? At family dinners, does she act like you two are incredibly close?
Some women will pretend to adore their daughter-in-law when others are around. This is because they know that maintaining a specific image is vital for their reputation.
Unfortunately, this clashing behavior may feel even more confusing for you. On the one hand, you know she doesn’t like you very much. But on the other hand, when she’s lavishing you with compliments, you might wonder if you’re too sensitive.
#4 She Constantly Plays the Victim
You never spend time with me! I spent so many years sacrificing everything to give you a good life, and you can’t even spend the afternoon with me? I guess nobody really does love me.
A manipulative mother-in-law will use these dramatic statements to exert control over their adult children. They will sometimes act this way with the entire family, hoping their crises will give them sympathy and attention.
People who play the victim typically act as if they are the fallen hero in every situation. As a result, they often fail to take any responsibility for their actions, and they perceive any potential rejection as a catastrophic abandonment.
#5 She Complains About You To Your Husband or Punishes Him
My mother-in-law manipulates my husband by always telling him he deserves better. Sometimes, when he invites her for dinner, she flat-out says no because he chose to be with me. At Christmas, she gives everyone wonderful and expensive gifts, and I might get a set of socks- if I’m lucky!
This narrative may seem dramatic, but it is the reality for some families. One of the most unmistakable signs your mother-in-law is manipulative is her inability to accept your role in your spouse’s life.
In some cases, she may still believe she’s the most important woman. However, she might also feel afraid of losing her connection with her son.
An emotionally manipulative mother will make her son feel guilty for his choices. She may do this aggressively or passive-aggressively, but the motive is to make him feel bad about himself.
#6 She Tracks You
An emotionally manipulative mother-in-law may seem overly interested in the mundane details of your life. For example, she might ask many questions about your daily schedule or want to know more about your friends and coworkers.
Over time, you might notice that your mother-in-law knows details that you know you haven’t told her. She very well may be spying on you. Unfortunately, technology makes it easy, especially if you use social media. She may track your whereabouts, friend activity, and participation in certain groups.
Her stalking efforts are intended to “keep track” of what you’re doing. They can also help her seemingly build more of a case against you if needed.
#7 She Always Thinks She Knows Best
Whether it’s choosing an appetizer or buying a home, a toxic mother-in-law assumes her opinion is the only valid one. She will often scoff or criticize other points of view as if they are entirely beneath her.
She will often offer unsolicited advice and then get offended if you don’t follow it. This can undoubtedly cause marital problems at times, particularly if your husband goes along with her guidance.
#8 She Never Apologizes (Or the Apologies Are Entirely Fake)
Does your mother-in-law never admit when she’s wrong? Does she continue blaming other people even when something is clearly her fault? Or, worse, does she make excuses for her behavior or apologize in such a way that makes you feel guilty?
Toxic mothers-in-law refuse to hold themselves accountable for their actions. If they must apologize, their sorries are insincere and even blaming. These fake apologies can sound like, I am sorry you couldn’t see that I was trying to do something nice or, I am sorry, but I don’t know why you’re so upset).
#9 She Holds Grudges Forever
Did you accidentally call her friend by the wrong name once? Did you show up for an important event five minutes late ten years ago?
If so, with a manipulative mother-in-law, you will likely never hear the end of it. Her grudges feel lifelong, and she will use any excuse to bring up old issues from your past.
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#10 She’s Entirely Self-Absorbed
Does every conversation turn into expressing her needs and wants? For example, when you start to tell a story, does she interrupt with her opinion?
Self-absorbed people often lack empathy and don’t have adequate social skills in interpersonal relationships. They tend to dominate conversations and make everything about themselves. Even if she feigns interest in your life, she quickly moves the discussion over to her needs, complaints, or stories.
#11 She Insists You Don’t Love Her
It just seems like your wife doesn’t like me much. No matter how hard I try, she’s so distant and guarded. Your ex-girlfriend and I got along so much better- why didn’t you just stay with her again?
An emotionally manipulative mother-in-law might work hard to convince your husband that you’re the difficult person in the dynamic. She may do this by playing the victim or twisting what you say to make it sound like you actively insult her.
Unfortunately, this behavior can put everyone in a challenging position. Your husband might feel like he needs to play referee. You may feel completely annoyed and even rejected. And nobody might know the absolute truth, all of which adds more mental anguish.
Signs Your Mother-in-Law Is Trying to Take Over Your Child
My mother-in-law is rude, annoying, and causes problems between my husband and me. But how do I know if my mother-in-law is manipulative to the point where her motives affect my child’s well-being?
Unfortunately, toxic grandparents exist, and toxic mothers-in-law inevitably impact children and their family systems. So here are some signs to watch out for.
#1 She Only Listens to Your Husband’s Rules
Sometimes, a toxic mother-in-law manipulates boundaries by picking and choosing which ones she follows. Because she may want to stay on your husband’s good side, she may listen to his rules eagerly and without any arguing.
For example, you might insist that your children go to bed at 8:00 pm. But until your husband says something, she might ignore or “forget” your request. Once he says something, however, she suddenly understands the rule.
#2 She Badmouths You to Your Children
Does your mother-in-law demean or criticize you to your children? Does she make it seem like you’re the bad guy? Does she complain about you to them?
A healthy grandparent respects their grandchildren’s parents, even if they don’t always agree with their decisions. But a toxic grandparent will often try to meddle and cause problems within the family system. They have no problem pitting children against their parents, especially if the children start to prefer them.
#3 She Plays Strong Favorites
A toxic mother-in-law will often prefer certain grandchildren over others. For example, she might like one gender over another, children with good grades over children who struggle in school, and children with conventionally attractive appearances.
If you have children from another relationship, she may ostracize them altogether. She might also act differently towards adopted, fostered, or stepchildren.
In most cases, she will deny playing favorites. However, if you confront her on her behavior, she will likely insist that she loves all her grandchildren equally.
#4 She Spoils Your Children Mercilessly
There’s nothing wrong with occasionally indulging a child from time to time. But excessively spoiling a child can impact their health and have negative impacts on their development.
Unfortunately, a toxic mother-in-law will often justify her spoiling behavior. She may try to make you feel guilty for “making her feel bad.”
Or, she might even try to band your children against you- after all, they probably love the excessive junk food, fun gifts, and late bedtimes. They may come home convinced that you’re just an overly strict parent. This mindset keeps them loving their grandmother while possibly resenting you.
#5 She’s Mean To Your Children
Maybe it’s one thing for you to tolerate her cruel tactics. But once it passes down to your children, it may feel like a different story altogether.
Toxic mothers-in-law might be aggressive or rude to anyone around them. They may be blatantly disrespectful in some cases. Other times, the behavior is more passive-aggressive.
In all cases, cruel behavior can least lasting impacts on a child’s self-esteem and trigger shame. Likewise, if you don’t intercept, children learn that you inevitably tolerate the mean behavior.
#6 She Disregards Feedback
Do you try to be gentle with confronting her behavior? Or are you assertive and even aggressive at times? If so, it won’t seem to matter- some toxic mothers-in-law won’t receive any feedback well. Instead, at even the slightest hint of rejection, they become reactive.
Your mother-in-law might become defensive over her behavior, insisting she was just trying to do the right thing. Or, she may apologize in front of you but continue to engage in the same pattern. In more destructive cases, she will complain to your husband (or others) that you’re too demanding and controlling.
#7 She Creates Drama Everywhere
Do you perpetually feel like your mother is about to explode at any given moment? Does she become hostile at a moment’s notice- and without any real explanation? Do your kids report her being moody or strange?
A toxic mother-in-law often struggles with emotional regulation, making her highly reactive to the world around her. She may be incredibly sensitive and constantly waiting for people to harm her. As a result, her mood may shift all the time- you never know what you’re going to get.
If drama follows her everywhere she goes, it’s a red flag. Even very young children can pick up on this type of unstable behavior- they might try to be subservient to pleas her. Or, they may learn how to lie or omit important details to avoid an argument. Chances are, these aren’t the skills you want them practicing.
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10 Ways How to Handle a Manipulative Mother in Law
How do you deal with an emotionally manipulative mother-in-law? Unfortunately, there isn’t a single, easy answer. Coping with her behavior often requires solid boundaries and being on the same page with your husband. Here are some crucial tips to consider.
#1 Consider Her Motives
How do you cope with feeling like you’re never good enough? Or, how do you deal with a gaslighting mother-in-law who twists your reality? These aren’t easy questions to answer, but it can be helpful to reflect on your mother-in-law’s potential motives.
In mild cases, your mother-in-law may simply feel threatened by your presence. This might be true if the relationship is new or if she has a very close dynamic with your husband. She may worry that she will no longer feel important. Simply validating and including her more in your life may resolve some of her angst.
In more severe cases, narcissistic or borderline personality disorder may explain her behavior. Personality disorders are fixed across most settings- that means you aren’t the only person who feels attacked or gaslit.
#2 Really Talk To Your Husband
Even if your husband loves his mother, he should not tolerate her abuse of others. Sometimes, this is easier said than done, and that’s why it’s crucial to start having honest conversations with him about your feelings.
If you’re reading this and saying, but my mother-in-law manipulates my husband, and he won’t believe me, pause. There is a reason you chose to marry this man! Give him the benefit of the doubt.
Start the conversation by being as objective as possible. While your feelings absolutely matter, he must understand the facts of the situation. Your mother said I don’t know how to cook. When we were at your parent’s last night, your mother hugged everyone except for me. Your mother sent me two texts asking why I haven’t brought the kids over in a week.
Then, let him know exactly how these experiences made you feel. Explain your discomfort, fear, or anger about the situation. Do not blame him for enabling her- instead, focus on showing him how her behavior affects your well-being.
#3 Anticipate Some Defensiveness and Excuses
She didn’t mean anything by it! You know how she is- she doesn’t have the best filter when she talks to people. She adores you, I promise!
Mother-son relationships can be complex, and it’s important to prepare yourself for your husband’s initial resistance. However, it doesn’t mean he is automatically disqualifying your needs. Instead, it likely means he has some blind spots when it comes to his mother.
Be gentle but firm. This is where having boundaries comes in. You need to let your husband know that, even though he loves his mother, you will not tolerate her toxic behavior.
Remember that change can take time. If you’ve tolerated your emotionally manipulative mother-in-law without saying anything for years, your disclosure may come as a complete surprise to your husband. He may need time to really process his emotions and fears.
Try to be respectful of his feelings without disregarding your own. Chances are, he feels awkward about the situation himself. It’s helpful to be open and supportive of his emotions.
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#4 Consider Your Boundaries
What behavior is entirely non-negotiable to you? What expectations do you expect other people to follow in your home?
Your boundaries are your limits of safety. According to Stephanie Camins, MA, LPC, boundaries are invisible force fields, and we are in charge of protecting those fields. To recognize when someone might be crossing your boundaries, pay attention to your emotions. Red flags might include increased stress, anger, fear, or resentment.
Some common boundaries you might want to set with your mother-in-law include:
- No name-calling or criticism.
- No badmouthing you to other people.
- No undermining your parenting skills with your children.
- No showing up unannounced.
Stating your boundaries is one thing. Implementing them is another. Sharing boundaries without intending to set consequences is relatively useless.
You already know your mother-in-law will probably ignore, twist, or change the boundary in a way that suits her needs. It’s your responsibility to be ready to deal with that rupture as quickly as possible. She needs to know that you are serious and that there will be consequences for her decisions.
#5 Minimize Triggers When Possible
Does your mother-in-law become overly controlling on family vacations? Stop going on trips together. Does she make a scene on your birthday? Consider having a smaller dinner with just her and your husband and a separate event for everyone else.
Of course, you don’t need to contort your entire life to make your mother-in-law feel more comfortable. But, sometimes, it’s easier to eliminate triggers than cope with them.
With that in mind, it’s unrealistic to avoid all triggers, especially if her bad behavior is relatively universal. If that’s the case, it’s essential to have an escape plan and ground rules agreed upon between you and your husband.
#6 Avoid Gossiping
Even if it’s tempting, avoid badmouthing your mother-in-law to other relatives. You never know what might get back to her. Moreover, stooping to her level won’t make you feel any better.
If someone else (like your sister-in-law or a distant aunt) asks what you think of your mother-in-law, try to be as neutral as possible. Of course, you don’t need to lie and praise her. But don’t jump to list all her faults.
These people may be loyal to her and spill what you reveal. Or, even if they don’t, it could taint the way they perceive you and your husband- this can also cause relationship problems.
Finally, even if they start ripping on her, don’t join in. It could be a form of bait, and they might be trying to rile you up to hear your real thoughts. But in more sinister forms, your mother-in-law might have orchestrated this manipulation, and she’s designed the game intending you to lose.
#7 Consider Any Good Traits
Maybe she’s a terrible mother-in-law, but she is incredibly compassionate to your children. Or, perhaps she volunteers often and works hard to contribute back to society.
Focusing on positive traits doesn’t negate your feelings, but it can soften your anger towards her. Having some gratitude may also make it easier to tolerate more difficult circumstances.
If anything, try to consider her pain. For example, imagine how painful it must feel to be so jealous or unhappy in your life that you need to be so cruel to others.
Looking at your mother-in-law from this angle can help you feel more empathy and compassion. In addition, it may soften some of the hot anger you feel towards her behavior.
#8 Adjust Your Expectations
You and your mother-in-law might never be best friends. You two may never be the type to shop and go to lunch happily together.
At first, this reality may seem disheartening. But holding onto false hope often leads to more disappointment.
It’s okay if you have a relatively minimal relationship. It’s also okay if you choose to embrace a low-contact relationship, where you only disclose surface-level information with her.
Try to find support in other avenues, like with your friends, own parents, or a trusted therapist. You can lean on this support if you start feeling resentful or lonely. Similarly, they can be there to validate your struggles and “reality-check you” if you’re feeling like you’re overreacting.
#9 Find Acceptance
What do you do with a passive-aggressive mother-in-law? How do you cope with her irrational or vile behavior?
Sometimes, it comes down to accepting your mother-in-law for who she is. Accepting someone doesn’t mean liking or condoning what they do. According to Michelle Marcos, holistic health coach and journalist, acceptance means you choose to let go of the judgments, anger, and expectations. You stop trying to write the story in a way that satisfies your own ego.
Mindfulness and positive affirmations can help you find more acceptance. The next time you feel overwhelmed by your mother-in-law, take several deep breaths. Tell yourself an affirmation like this will be okay, or I can handle everything with grace. Remind yourself of this affirmation as often as you need.
#10 Remain United with Your Spouse
As much as possible, aim to stand firm with your spouse. If your husband struggles to support you, reinforce how essential it is for him to have your back.
According to The Gottman Institute, couples therapy can be highly beneficial for managing conflict and communication habits. It can also help people who struggle with feeling supported by their partners.
Couples therapy doesn’t mean your relationship is doomed, nor does it mean either of you did anything inherently wrong. Instead, this treatment aims to unite you both to tackle external issues- rather than pin them against one another.
Toxic mothers-in-law can be frustrating for everyone. You are certainly not alone in your struggle. That said, you don’t deserve to suffer. While navigating in-laws can be tricky, you and your husband can work together to make lasting changes in your family dynamic.
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