Is there anything you can do?

So, you have a toxic In-Law. The signs were there when you were in the dating-zone with your now-spouse — those little digs at your looks; the side-eye when you suggested anything remotely nonconformist in front them; the never-ending barrage of ‘how-tos’ on anything and everything.

Let’s be real — I am talking about my own experience with a toxic in-law, but I know I am not alone. For me, it’s a toxic mother-in-law, but this could apply to either part of the in-law relationship.

The signs were always there with my now mother-in-law, but I ignored them because I was in love with her son. I wasn’t marrying her; I was going to marry her child. What did it matter that she was a difficult person to be around?

Well, our marriage changed everything. The toxicity moved to the next level.

It was our wedding day; I felt beautiful. When she saw me in my gown, she shrugged and raised her hand, and in a slack-tone said, “You look…nice.”

Cut to a few years later and we were expecting. When we called to tell her the exciting news, she sounded angry and hung up the phone. I was dumbfounded and also hurt.

These little ‘jabs’ as I began to call them, really got under my skin. My husband defended me, us, to her, when something great on our end turned out to be something upsetting for her.

She disagreed with many of our choices and always let us know.

I started to become all-engrossed in her passive-agressive attitude toward me. I wanted to know why. I wanted to know what I was doing wrong to receive such coldness from her. I made it about me.

But it wasn’t really about me.

No. It was about her own well-being; her perception of reality. And it has taken me years of therapy to understand the inner-workings of it.

I used to called her toxic, but I know, deep down, it’s not the right vocabulary — she has her own inner-work to do.

But, I have a few takeaways from these experiences that may be helpful when dealing with a difficult in-law. Here are my top tips.

Create distance.

When things get too heated, or when you feel utterly defeated, create physical and emotional space between you and the offending party. Can your spouse do the communicating? Can you walk away when that person is in your home and has upset/angered/insert feeling here/ you? (I often say something like “I have to go fold some laundry. I will be back soon!” and come back when I’ve caught my breath again. Never in a million years would I have imagined calling the laundry area my ‘safe space,’ but here we are.)

Do not…I repeat…Do NOT take it personally.

It is important to reflect on your own behavior, to ask yourself if you’ve done something to cause this person to react the way he/she did in a situation. But when you are quite certain that nothing you’ve said or done was meant to harm (especially if the other person does not tell you as much), it’s important to let go of the self-blame. This is difficult to do, especially if you are sensitive in nature, as I am, but it is probably the most important thing you can do to protect yourself.

You do you.

Don’t change who you are to appease someone who thinks you should act a certain way.

Smile and nod.

Sometimes it’s just not worth your time or energy to discuss anything further when the offering party has said something cruel.

Meet at a neutral location.

When we get together with my in-laws, we sometimes go to their home and they sometimes come to ours. It’s harder now to go somewhere ‘neutral’ with toddlers in tow, but if you can swing it, try meeting anywhere other than your own homes. If your in-law wants to say something rude about someone, at least it will be directed toward someone else’s establishment, and not at your personal space.

Remember why you fell in love with your spouse.

Don’t let your in-laws infiltrate your relationship. I was guilty of this for a time. I wondered why my spouse allowed my mother-in-law to treat me poorly. That is like trying to assemble The Shrine of the Silver Monkey on Legends of The Hidden Temple; It’s just not going to happen. I had to give that up.

Create Boundaries

Boundaries are your friend. Embrace them, set them, tell the world you’re using them. You will thank yourself. Once you have some boundaries in place, ones that you and your spouse can both make work, that will not create additional tension, then you’ve hit the jackpot in dealing with a difficult in-law.

You’ve got this.

Writer of nonfiction & narrative. Lover of language and creative endeavors. Mother of twins. See more at relationship-development.com.

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