Not everybody in the world gets along with their in-laws. This is the basis of one of the oldest bits of humor in the world; but it can be a lot less funny if their behavior stops being simply annoying and starts getting toxic. In case you can't quite figure out if your in-laws fall in that category, there are nine different kinds of toxic in-law behavior that might indicate where they stand. If you're truly unlucky, they might fall into several of them. Isn't love grand?
One of the best books ever written on this topic is Toxic In-Laws: Loving Strategies For Protecting Your Marriage by the psychologist Susan Forward, who's also done some valuable work on the experience of surviving toxic parents. If your in-laws strike you as potentially toxic, it's a wise investment to get hold of her book, as it's chock-full of strategies to deal with them and determine precisely what kind you have on your hands. Toxic in-laws, rather like rare birds, come in a variety of colors and species, and identifying the precise kind you're dealing with can be difficult (indeed, they might fit into several categories at once).
Otherwise, dealing with a toxic in-law takes finesse and a united front between you and your partner. You'll have to learn to establish boundaries, protect yourself, and figure out how to deal with the problem (direct confrontation with the in-laws? Working out an action plan to minimize damage?) In particularly strained circumstances, like if an in-law is an addict, counseling may be a good way to help you going forward as a couple.
Boundaries are important in every relationship, and these kinds of in-laws will completely ignore any line you draw in the sand. Don't want them to call when the baby's asleep? They'll do it anyway. They'll visit unannounced, talk to people about your personal business even if you've told them not to, demand to know all your intimate news, and be extremely offended if you tell them "no" and demand reasonable adult accommodations for being a separate entity. This equally applies if they mind your boundaries but can't seem to realize that their own offspring is no longer a child and now deserves a life apart, without being checked on constantly or walked in on.
This is one of Forward's definitions. Controlling in-laws, she explains, "believe that your partner is incapable of handling his or her own life and step in to do it better." Whether it's doing their taxes, stepping into their professional life, insisting that they do all the shopping or cooking or anything else, they treat your partner (or you, or the two of you together) as feeble children without any real ability to do what's "best." It can, at first, seem like the path of least resistance to let them do everything as it makes them happy, but it's actually a deeply unnerving and problematic dynamic, as your protests about your own capability to control your life together will be met with complete disdain, laughter, or even anger.
The term "gaslighting" is taken from the film Gaslight, in which a husband attempts to convince his wife she's going insane by frequently denying her beliefs and experiences, including turning down the gas and then denying that the light has changed.
In-laws don't have to be in control of the dimmer switch to do this, though. They'll simply have their own version of events, and be utterly unable to admit that yours is wrong. "I never said that," or, "you definitely said Saturday and not Sunday, dear," or, "of course your child loves Brussels sprouts, don't be silly:" they'll convert your reality to something more convenient to them and refuse to admit that your own opinions or memories are valid.
The Over-Reliant Ones
These are the in-laws who really require your spouse or partner to be the dominant force in their life, and feign complete helplessness without them. It can be particularly dominant if one parent isn't actually around. Susan Pease Gadoua at Psychology Today explains that this is a "surrogate spouse role," noting that "those who are using their children to get their emotional needs met may believe that the new arrangement is a good one because they believe everyone benefits. They get their needs met and, as they see it, their children benefit because they get to feel useful and loved." They do not understand that your partner's first duty is in fact to you, and will get extremely upset or bitter if you're "put first," forcing the partner into a seriously awkward position.
These differ from The Controllers in that you are just a tool to get them what they want: praise from their peers, grandchildren, time with their beloved son or daughter, or whatever else they prioritize. Your own thoughts, feelings, and choices don't matter, and if necessary they will do virtually anything to get what they feel they deserve, from tantrums to guilt to bribery, whether of you or of other members of your family (particularly children).
The toxicity of this doesn't really need to be articulated. If an in-law has a serious problem, whether it's from substance abuse, alcohol or something else, it can completely ruin or threaten every instance of family togetherness, and create a kind of tornado at the center of the family dynamic, where you're always waiting or planning around their next binge. The addiction site The Fix notes that 70 percent of adults with alcoholic or addicted family members say it has had a serious effect on their emotional health, which is not surprising; and coping with the chaos of an addicted in-law can cause enormous strain on a marriage.
This is another of Forward's definitions: engulfers "view your marriage license as enlistment papers, signing you up to total involvement with them." This is different from the ones who don't respect boundaries in one particular sense: as Forward told People, engulfers "want to live through their offspring and act as if the child never left the family."
Engulfing in-laws completely subsume you into their family dynamic and expect your marriage to basically dissolve or become invisible against the weight of "being family." They will have severe difficulty understanding that your marriage comes before family at any point, and want to be part of everything that you do, always, constantly, in a way that is neither appropriate nor particularly helpful.
The phenomenon of the narcissistic in-law requires a bit of explanation: it's not just about the fact that they need to be the center of attention of all times. As psychotherapist Michelle Piper explains, being in a relationship with the child of a narcissist means threatening one of their sources of "narcissistic supply;" children of narcissists are often one of the methods through which they reassure themselves of their importance and take glory from the world.
Narcissist in-laws will fight furiously against the idea of this "mirror" being taken away from them, or just hate the fact that you're distracting from their spotlight. You will never be good enough, and they will spend a lot of time informing you of that fact.
These are the most stereotypically toxic in-laws, but their disapproval can be exceptionally powerful. Whether they criticize you to your partner or to others (or even to your face), anything might be up for their critique: the way you dress, your career, your choice of servings on Christmas Day, your parenting, your religion, name it. Psych Central notes that this is one of the most difficult toxic in-law situations to change, as personal attacks make us understandably defensive or upset no matter how much we attempt to empathize with the feelings behind them.
Luckily, many of the tips for dealing with toxic parents can also be useful for dealing with toxic in-laws, so make sure you're well-versed in those and check out Toxic In-Laws: Loving Strategies For Protecting Your Marriage. Most of all, don't be afraid to talk with your partner about establishing healthy boundaries with their family. It's uncomfortable, but it's important.
Images: Universal Studios; Giphy