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The Toxic Mother-In-Law, Part 2  Part 1  Part 3
By Barrington H. Brennen, April 15, 2024


In my last article, I began sharing about the elephant in the room: A person we do not want to admit is a problem, or we just turn our heads and let her do whatever she wants to do because “she is our mother.” This person who on the surface appears caring and concerned, turns out to be a toxic mother-in-law.

To review, I will briefly list the first six signs of a toxic mother-in-law I shared in the last article from author and licensed social worker, Tricia Johnson, from her article “Toxic Mother-in-Laws: 12 Signs & How to Deal with One.” They are: (1) She Doesn’t Respect Boundaries. (2) She Thinks She’s Always Right. (3) She’s A Master Manipulator. (4) She’s Emotionally Abusive. (5) She’s Passive Aggressive. (6) She’s a One-Upper: A one-upper is someone who always wants to top your accomplishments or make you feel inferior.

Here are her remaining six signs of a toxic mother-in-law.

  1. "She’s a Gossip: Toxic mothers-in-law are known to gossip, but not just with the ladies at the mahjong table. They gossip about you with anyone and everyone who will listen, including other family members. This may be her method of trying to spread her version of you as truth, and once again manipulate a situation.
  2. She’s Impossible to Please: With a toxic mother-in-law, nothing you do is ever good enough. She may visit your house and offer subtle, unrequested comments about how she keeps her cabinets organized. Or she may offer to give you her foolproof technique on how to wrap picture perfect holiday gifts. Although these suggestions may at first glance seem thoughtful, coming from a toxic mother-in-law, they are actually invasive and judgmental.
  3. She Helps Without Being Asked: “Helping” without being asked to do so may be seen as nice or even thoughtful. That is, until you dig a bit deeper and question the mother-in-law’s motivation behind helping out. Is it to truly be helpful or is there an ulterior motive? A toxic mother-in-law acts this way because she feels that she is the only person capable of doing the job correctly.
  4. She’s a Narcissist: There are some pretty clear-cut signs of a narcissistic mother-in-law to keep an eye out for. These may include a constant need for admiration, lack of empathy, and an inflated sense of self.
  5. She Causes You to Doubt Yourself: A toxic mother-in-law may slowly and subtly start to question you and your ability to make decisions. Planting seeds of self-doubt is another type of emotional abuse that can be debilitating and traumatic over time. Again, it is a way to exhibit power and control over another person.
  6. She Ignores You: A toxic mother-in-law may ignore you frequently and this is a hallmark type of passive-aggressive behavior. She may not talk to you and only speaks with your spouse, pretending like she didn’t hear you. If confronted, she will come up with excuses and attempt to shift the blame onto you.

I hope these twelve signs by Tricia Johnson were helpful. I will now share how to deal with a toxic mother-in-law. Regrettably, it is almost impossible to change a toxic mother-in-law. However, you can find ways to cope with her and develop a better communication pattern and respect. Unfortunately, many husbands are blinded by their mother’s toxic actions, and actually see nothing wrong with her behavior. This causes tremendous stress in a marriage. He will defend her endlessly, displaying his loyalty first to his mother. He says: “Because she gave birth to me. she comes first in my life.” This belief and practice leaves the wife feeling stranded on a lonely island of frustration, aloneness, and fear.

Although we need to find a way of re-training our daughters to become understanding mothers-in-law, I want to start by talking to the adult sons or husbands. Sons, it was not the Creator’s intent for you to stay with your mothers through your lives physically nor emotionally. You (and adult daughters) are to “leave” your parents (Genesis 2:24/Mark 10:7-9) and join with your partners to become one.

That means:

  • You are married to your wife and not your mother. You have no obligation to inform or discuss any matter with your mother that is a part of your life or your marriage. You may share it with your mother only after there is a discussion and understanding with your spouse and it can be beneficial doing so. Most topics or issues should be kept strictly between you and your spouse.
  • There is to be mutual decision-making with your spouse only and not your mother. Do not decide on things with your mother and expect your wife to just go along with them.
  • Remove your mother as the main beneficiary of your insurance. Instead, put your spouse as the primary beneficiary.
  • Stand up lovingly and firmly to your mother when she calls late at night requesting your attention by saying to her: “Not tonight, Mom. I will do it in the morning,” when she insists that you “come over right now” to do something that is not an emergency.
  • Be prepared to hold firm against your mother’s responses to your standing up to her. She will make you feel guilty and might even call you names. She might even say to you: “You are being disrespectful to me,” or “How could you do that to your mother?” Sons, that’s the manipulator’s playbook, but do not give in.

Remember sons, toxic mothers-in-law aim to disrupt marriages and keep your loyalty to herself alone. They are self-centered and appear to be emotionally needy. Their screams or even floods of tears will shake you to the core if you do not create your own strong beliefs about who you are and your responsibility to your spouse.

Next week I will share more on the topic in Part 3 of “The Toxic Mother-In-Law.”

Barrington H. Brennen is a marriage and family therapist. Send comments or questions to question@soencouragement.org  or visit www.soencouragement.org  or call 327 1980






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