The in-laws are coming! Oh, no! Do you dread a visit from your in-laws?

We take great care to choose who we spend the rest of our lives with, it’s a big decision that’ll change the course of our lives, after all. Unfortunately, we can’t choose their family and all too often, toxic in-laws can make a successful relationship turn sour when they’re around. 

We’re all too familiar with the controlling mother-in-law stereotype, but any in-law can be toxic and problematic to you and your relationship. So, if you’ve been wondering how to handle your toxic mother-in-law or wondering what you can do to deal with your toxic daughter-in-law, this is the blog for you. 

I’m going to share with you the 6 signs that your in-laws are toxic, and the strategies you can use to navigate their behaviours to ensure your relationships remains happy and successful despite their attempts to thwart it.

1. Nothing will ever be good enough

Your in-law will continually make you feel “less than” in your encounters. There will always be someone better that they compare you to, a previous partner, their biological parent they see you as trying to replace, or simply the image they have in mind for who their loved one should be spending their life with rather than you.

You will be hearing constant criticism about you, your career, your parenting style, your home, even how you choose to dress, nothing is safe from their fault picking. This critique might be open and scathing or may come in the form of a backhanded compliment, either way, you can never fully relax and feel at ease around your in-law as a result of this toxicity toward you. 

It’s normal to feel defensive and get upset when you’re being criticised like this, it’s a form of bullying after all but the worst thing you can do is rise up to their behaviour. Refuse to take what they say personally because their criticisms about you say much more about them as an individual than it does about you. Remember that your partner chose you, so ask for their support in navigating this toxic behaviour. 

2. Boundaries? What boundaries?

One of the most effective ways of dealing with toxic people is to put boundaries in place that enable you to have distance from them. Unfortunately, toxic in-laws have a habit of refusing to accept their place in your relationship and will ignore any boundaries you attempt to establish. Want a romantic meal with your partner? Expect your toxic mother-in-law to turn up unannounced with some new life drama that only her precious child can help her with, and no, it definitely can’t wait.  

When your in-laws are seemingly spending as much time in your life or with your partner as you do, you need to be firm with those boundaries. Agree with your partner what the boundaries should be and how to enforce them, it’s going to take a team effort to ensure that your in-laws understand they can’t keep trampling over your boundaries and life in this way. 

Expect some push back but stick to the rules. If you don’t want to deal with them on a night-time, refuse to answer the phone or reply to that text after 6pm. It’s going to get uncomfortable for a while but sticking to the boundaries will help you feel more at ease, confident and happy at home and in your relationship. 

3. They react to everything with drama

Of course, sticking to your boundaries is going to come with a heap of drama, it’s not like your toxic in-law needs an excuse to create drama for you; they can pull it out of thin air! Negative reactions, public scenes, and blowing things out of all proportion are hallmarks of a toxic person, and your in-laws are certainly no exception. 

You can’t convince them to reflect on their own behaviour and the damage it is causing – so don’t get involved in debating or negotiating with them about the behaviour. The best way to respond to this type of toxicity toward you is to refuse to engage with it.  Don’t get sucked into their spiral of negativity, and don’t rise up to their verbal abuse toward you. Take a few moments to breathe and find some inner calm, and then remove yourself from the situation. 

You’ve chosen your partner and not their family, so they don’t have a right to come and force themselves into your life. You can limit contact with them and choose how and when you see them, so don’t be afraid to do just that.

4. They know how to play the blame game

Toxic in-laws are unable to take responsibility for their own actions. They’ll always find a way to twist the truth, gaslight you and others close to you, and manipulate situations so they come across as the victim and you the cause of their pain. 

This can be a difficult toxic behaviour to manage as your in-laws will be brilliant at weaving a story and encouraging others to believe them over you. Many family divisions are caused by just one toxic individual like this weaving a cunning web of lies and manipulation to turn you into the black sheep that all blame can be heaped upon.

You know your truth, and your partner should too. Never accept the blame being put upon you. Do your best to ignore what’s being said and avoid who’s saying it. Calmly explain to others that may get involved what actually happened in a factual way and allow them to make up their own mind who to blame. 

5. “Controlling” could be their middle name

Fed up with hearing that you’re doing ‘everything wrong’? Whatever it is, it’s not the right way of doing it because you should be living life just as your toxic in-law wants you to. They want to make your life miserable, difficult and maybe even turn you away from your partner and they’ll control and manipulate as much as they can to make this happen. 

This kind of toxicity is often seen with children who see you as the bad guy filling in a role in their family that doesn’t belong to you. No longer do they have the attention they used to, and they may feel threatened by this, so they try to manipulate situations to win back that attention and make you out to be the nasty one. 

Whether it is a child or a parent, dealing with this kind of toxic behaviour is difficult to do but you cannot allow them to gain the upper hand. Learn how manipulators turn a situation to their advantage and refuse to give in to these toxic strategies. When you’re able to resist their attempts to coerce and manipulate you their power is gone, and they’ll often become so frustrated they turn their attention elsewhere.

6. You can never predict their next move

One of the worst things about toxic in-laws is that they can be so unpredictable. Just when you think you’ve learned how to navigate their toxic behaviours and things are turning out well, they’ll blindside you with something new to contend with. 

Consistency is the key here. Keep those boundaries in place, keep calm and aware of how they coerce and manipulate, and how they’re always on the lookout for something new to criticise or blame you for. It’s often when things seem to be sweetness and light that they’re waiting for the moment to strike when you give them something new.

This can make it difficult to have a successful dynamic with your in-laws but remember that you’re not in a relationship with them but your chosen partner. While difficulties between yourself and your in-laws can bring strife into your relationship, good communication, clear boundaries and couples counselling to navigate and overcome these issues can steer you away from a rocky road and onto a solid path into the future.

Developing elegant solutions to complex personal issues

Daniel Lichtman MA (Couns Psych)

Daniel offers single session and multi-session packages of in-person and online counseling.  Online coaching allows you to gain support privately and discretely, wherever you are in the world.

Registered Psychotherapist (PACFA Australia) and Certified Transformational Coach (Circling Institute, USA) with over 8,000 hours experience.