When it comes to marriage, most people focus on the joys, trials, and tribulations that come along with the relationship at the center of it before ever tying the knot — and rightly so. However, in addition to your relationship with your partner, your relationship with your in-laws is something you might not give much thought to until after the wedding. And sometimes, you’ll soon find out you’re face-to-face with some potentially toxic in-laws. But are they truly a negative influence on your life, or are they just plain ol' pushy and a little too involved?
Relationships with your in-laws can be tricky, and the dynamic varies greatly from family to family. Some accept new spouses into their circle with open arms, while others view significant others as a threat — someone who is there to steal their beloved son or daughter away. But instead of dealing with the lasting effects of those tense moments forever, there are some things you can do about it, as Dr. Jenine Lowery, Ph.D., LPC, founder and director of Black Female Therapist, LLC, explains to Bustle. “It's critical to recognize the warning signs of toxic in-laws and be aware of what you can do to stop them from turning you and your partner against each other,” Lowery says.
It's important to note, however, that there's a big difference between being toxic and just having different views and opinions. “The term ‘toxic’ is always relative to each relationship and is highly subjective, depending on the couple, their relationship, individual histories, etc.,” Meredith Shirey, MS, LMFT, tells Bustle. “In general, I would say what crosses the threshold of becoming ‘toxic’ is when there are clear and overt boundary violations, without acknowledgment or repair. What this means in simpler terms is that whatever boundaries the couple sets, if overtly or consciously violated by the in-laws without any attempt by the in-laws to understand, apologize, or make amends after the breach, would probably be grounds for ‘toxic’ behavior — especially if this becomes a repetitive pattern.”
So, here are eight signs that your in-laws are indeed a harmful influence on your life — as well as what you can do if they are, because faking sick every Thanksgiving really isn't an option.
1. They try to turn you and your significant other against each other
“In-laws are not always easy to deal with; however, there are some signs that can help you identify if an in-law is trying to turn you and your partner against each other,” Lowery says. For example, if your in-laws turn everything into a horrible game of "he said, she said," it's a solid sign that they're bringing some negativity into your relationship with your significant other. Not to mention, it can cause some major and unnecessary confusion between the two of you.
How to Deal: Quite simply, you and your partner need to unite as a couple. “The best way to deal with these in-laws is to communicate with your spouse and let them know what is happening,” Lowery says. “Additionally, it's a good idea to consider expressing your feelings to them calmly and respectfully. Maintaining composure and keeping in mind that your in-laws are merely attempting to get your attention is critical.”
Unfortunately, you can't control what your in-laws say, but you can control how you react. Take everything they spew at you with a grain of salt, and then have a frank conversation with your S.O. about the seeds they planted in your head so you can work through it as a couple, as Heidi McBain, LMFT, LPC, PMH-C, explains to Bustle. “Be clear with your partner ahead of time surrounding what you are and are not OK with when the in-laws are in town, and let your partner know what support you need from them, and vice versa, to get your family through their visit in a healthy way,” McBain says.
2. They insert themselves in your decisions as a couple
There are those in-laws that are a little too pushy and involved — but in a somewhat loving and endearing way. However, if your in-laws are involving themselves in your decisions as if their opinions should carry just as much weight as yours, then you have a problem. Whether you're discussing which home to purchase or when you should start having children, your in-laws contribute their two cents as if they should cast the deciding vote.
It’s important to remember, though, that you and your partner may have different perspectives on this. “This really depends the degree to which each person in the couple feels their parents are entitled to influence such decisions,” Shirey says. “If the in-laws’ suggestions feel intrusive or seem to be overstepping, it is important to make sure your partner knows what you are feeling and that you both create a plan for how to address it. ... Discussing expectations is paramount.”
How to Deal: You have a few options in this case, but you should definitely begin by discussing it with your S.O. “First, talk to your partner about this intrusion,” McBain says. “Then, come up with ways to set boundaries in a clear but firm way with them. If they continue to disrespect you and your relationship, this may mean less time spent together in the future.”
If you want to take the more direct route, you and your partner should explain to your in-laws that, while you value their thoughts and opinions, this is a decision the two of you need to make. Or, if you want to try to maintain some peace, simply nod your head and smile while they share their view — and then make your own decisions anyway. Just remember that this could cause more problems, and you may have to directly address it down the line anyway.
3. They intentionally make you feel bad
Some folks take more time than others warming up to people — and that’s OK — or maybe your in-laws will never feel 100% about you. However, just because they're adults doesn't necessarily mean they'll be grown-up about it. If your in-laws say and do things to hurt you and intentionally get under your skin, that is crossing the line.
How to Deal: With the support of your partner, you can try explaining to your in-laws that their words and actions hurt your feelings. But, if this doesn’t go well, unfortunately, your best bet here might be to limit your interactions with them. “Let them know that you won't be disrespected in that way, and then talk to your spouse about what you're going to do moving forward,” McBain says. “Do you need an apology? Do they need to leave early? Do they need to stay in a hotel?”
Most importantly, keep in mind that their behaviors are not a reflection on you as a person. “Don't worry about what your in-laws think of you,” Lowery says. “Know your worth; you don't need them to validate you. If you start to struggle with this, find a good therapist to help you see that you can't overthink what people think of you, including your in-laws. Just be your fantastic self and focus on the people that think you're awesome!”
4. They don't respect your space
Perhaps your mother-in-law has made a habit of dropping by unannounced, or your father-in-law expects to spend every Friday evening with your significant other — even though that's one of the rare nights you actually have time for each other. In-laws that refuse to respect your space as a couple can definitely complicate things.
How to Deal: It's hard to tell somebody to stop coming around so much without seeming rude and standoffish. But, if your in-laws are truly impeding on your time and space, it might be necessary. “You should first discuss the issue with your partner,” Lowery says. “Additionally, you ought to investigate the reasons behind the in-laws' behavior. Sometimes when you have a better understanding of someone's motives, it helps to facilitate a respectful conversation concerning the issue.”
Explain to your in-laws that, while you love spending time with them, it's important for you and your partner to have time alone. To help soften the blow, you could coordinate a set date every week or month when you can all spend time together as a family. “However, if you feel your partner's family members are being rude, you should try limiting their contact with you,” Lowery says. “If you think they are constantly undermining you and your relationship, you should take some time to yourself and spend time with your partner.”
5. They continue to treat you like a child
Sometimes, it's nice to be treated like a kid again — it’s hard to complain about someone cooking you delicious meals or sending you home with cookies. But, if your in-laws are making big decisions for you, writing off your thoughts as naive, or anything just short of offering to cut your steak into tiny, bite-sized pieces, the infantilizing has gone to a whole new level.
How to Deal: Draw the line. Let your in-laws know that you appreciate their help, but that you can handle that yourself. Discuss it with your partner, too. Perhaps there are cultural expectations that differ from your own upbringing that they can explain to you. “The most important thing to do is for the couple to speak about their feelings and expectations,” Shirey says. “If both partners are in agreement that in-laws are overstepping or overbearing ... then they must decide as a couple what makes the most sense in addressing this with the family.” After a few instances of standing up for yourself, they should start to back off a bit.
And if they don’t, as Lowery explains, just remember that you can’t appease everyone, including your in-laws. “There may be nothing you can do to change how your in-laws feel about you,” says Lowery. “Maybe one day they will come around, but if they don't, it's not your fault as long as you are respectful. Most of the time, when people have an issue with you, it's about something bigger than what you think, so don't always take things so personally. Some in-laws are afraid their child's partner will take them away from them. Or, they might be concerned that their child's partner will start to control them in a way that will affect their parent child-bond. None of this is your fault, and if you try to change your in-laws, you may just become frustrated with trying to undo something you have no control over.”
6. They freeze you out
The in-laws who behave as if you don't exist have to be among the toughest to deal with. They talk about you as if you aren't there. They completely ignore you at family dinners, treat you as if you’re totally nonexistent, and maybe even refuse to see you.
How to Deal: If your in-laws don’t see to want anything to do with you, the best thing you can do is turn to your partner for support. “Being a united front as a couple is the first defense against disconnection caused by family members,” Shirey says. “A ‘united front’ looks different for each couple, though the foundational understanding is that each person feels secure and supported by their partner, able to express themselves openly, and secure in their belief that any issues can be addressed and reasonably resolved with their partner.”
Consider also having a one-on-one conversation with your in-laws about the circumstances. It's difficult for them to ignore you when it's just you in front of them. If nothing improves after that conversation, simply explain that you won't be coming around as much anymore. There's no point in dedicating your time to being ignored and mistreated.
7. They are manipulative
Emotional manipulation can look a ton of different ways, each with its own set of problems and ways to approach it, but it all comes down to control. In general, though, a manipulative in-law can result in a lot of strain for a couple. “Toxic in-laws are challenging to deal with — they can cause a lot of damage to a relationship,” Lowery says. “They are usually very selfish and will do anything to get what they want. They may also be very manipulative, making your partner feel guilty for things like not spending enough time with them, not giving them enough attention, and not giving them enough money.”
How to Deal: Oftentimes, toxic behavior by in-laws is a reflection of something deeper. It could range from insecurity in their relationship with their own in-laws, to fear of losing their child, to intergenerational trauma. Discussing their behavior with your partner can sometimes help illuminate what might actually be going on or make you realize you and your partner have different boundaries when it comes to families.
“Having open and honest conversations about each person’s background and family history will provide invaluable information in how to approach setting boundaries,” Shirey says. “What are each person’s expectations for relationships with in-laws? If there are differences, how does the couple intend to address them? This is where conversations about personal history, backgrounds, upbringing, family norms, and traumas are extremely important for each person to disclose to their partner with as much openness and empathy as possible. From these conversations, couples can more easily determine how they want to approach setting expectations with in-laws and hopefully circumvent serious conflict.”
8. They are constantly passive aggressive
Having an in-law be flat-out offensive to your face is one thing, but being passive aggressive and belittling is another. Not only is it mean and frustrating, but it's downright childish.
How to Deal: First things first, as with most of these issues, is to bring it up with your partner. Perhaps your S.O.’s parent is unknowingly passive aggressive and doesn’t understand that it hurts you, and your partner can suggest how to address it. “The overarching goal here is to ensure that the couple is aware of what feels passive aggressive and has a shared plan of how to deal with it,” Shirey says. “Discuss what felt or feels like passive aggression from the in-laws, and how you as a couple wish to address it. Ultimately, it may mean one person either directly confronting and asking the in-laws to clarify their meaning, or (respectfully) asking them to reframe [or] restate their words.”
Directly confronting the issue isn’t always possible or even productive. “Usually it is difficult at best, if not impossible for the offended partner to have a direct conversation with their in-laws voicing displeasure without at least one party feeling slighted or disrespected,” Shirey says. “It is generally advisable to address passive aggressiveness either verbally as a couple, or by deciding as a couple what steps each person can enact to ensure their own safety. This might look like avoiding conversations that lead to passive-aggressive comments, respectfully withdrawing from conversations, or even limiting time with in-laws.”
All in all, identifying toxic behaviors in in-laws and figuring out what to do about it is a difficult and often uncomfortable job. But for every situation, it’s important to begin with kindness and the benefit of the doubt. “The key to having any discussions with family members about how they treat you or your partner is to be as respectful, kind, unassuming, and non-blaming as possible,” Shirey says. “Ideally, as a family or as a new family, you want to create a sense of trust and safety for and between everyone. Approaching any issue with generosity in your assumptions and deference in your words will convey the message that you want to create love and connection, not division.”
If things get really tough and you and your partner feel stuck, speaking with a therapist — be it alone or together — can also help identify solutions. “This topic comes up all the time in therapy!” McBain says. “Therapy is a great place to talk about these dynamics and figure out how and where you need to set boundaries in your relationships to better take care of you.” After all, what is most important is you and your well-being.
Dr. Jenine Lowery, Ph.D., LPC, founder and director of Black Female Therapist, LLC
Meredith Shirey, MS, LMFT
Heidi McBain, LMFT, LPC, PMH-C
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