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5 Healthy Ways to Handle a Manipulative Mother-in-Law

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Most women don’t get warm fuzzies when they hear “mother-in-law.” Somehow the woman who used to hold the number one spot in your husband’s life manages to cause a lot of stress in yours. You’re not alone. They don’t put mother-in-law suites on the opposite side of the house (or in the back yard) for nothing! Sometimes the problem is just a clash of personalities, but if you have an emotionally manipulative mother-in-law, you know a genuine struggle and it’s probably putting some stress on your marriage.

Because you love your husband and your kids deserve a relationship with their grandparents, you can’t ignore her or refuse to allow her into your home. Instead, check out these 5 manipulative behaviors and healthy ways to deal with them.

1. She lays it on thick with your husband.

This is probably the most common emotionally manipulative mother-in-law behavior. My friend Lauren’s mother-in-law gives her clothing. Yes, she’s trying to be kind, but their styles are 180-degrees different. When Lauren doesn’t wear what’s been given to her, her mother-in-law cries (actual tears) to her son, and Lauren gets accused, by her husband, of being ungrateful.

A Healthy Solution:
Lauren finally told her husband about the clothes issue and that while she’s happy to do other things to show consideration, as an adult, she is going to pick out her own clothing. Make sure your husband is aware of recurring issues. Yes, he should speak up, but don’t let her manipulation cause a rift in your marriage.

2. She tries to undermine your parenting.

Grandparents love to spoil, but when it crosses the line from spoiling to undermining, you’ve got to put your foot down. One difference is that undermining has a spirit of negativity: “It’s silly that your mom doesn’t let you drink soda. Here. Have some. You’ll love it.”

A Healthy Solution:
Point out the things you love about the way she interacts with your children. Tell her if she’s great at arts and crafts, gives the best hugs, or is your son’s number one soccer fan. Thank her for being part of your kids’ lives. She might be so flattered that you see her strengths that she’ll put more trust in your decision-making. If that doesn’t work, you and your husband will need to be direct with her.

3. She has no boundaries.

One evening I caught my mother rearranging my kitchen utensil drawer. I said, “Mom, stop. I like it the way it is.” Had it been my mother-in-law, I don’t think I’d have the guts to speak up. Whether she noses into your marriage, shows up at your house unannounced, or switches you from whole to skim milk, your emotionally manipulative mother-in-law probably lacks boundaries.

A Healthy Solution:
I don’t like this one, but you’ve got to do it. You and your husband have to lay some ground rules. It can go like this: “Mom, we love you and want to spend time with you, but when you want to come over, we’d like you to call first and knock before coming in.” Baby steps, my friend!

4. She is passive-aggressive.

Some mothers-in-law seem to speak exclusively in passive-aggressive language. Yours might give backhanded compliments or use sarcasm to express hostility. She might claim not to be mad when clearly she is upset about something. People who are passive-aggressive are often trying to preserve the relationship, but they’re going about it the wrong way.

A Healthy Solution:
The problem with passive-aggression is that it masks one’s true feelings and makes communication very difficult. The solution is to be direct. As you hand your daughter a cupcake and your mother-in-law says, “You’re going to let her eat that?” a direct response would be, “What do you mean by that?” You know exactly what she means, but this question opens the door for an honest conversation.

5. She is always right and you’re always wrong.

How you dress your children, what college plans you’re making with your teen, how you cut your carrots… How did you make it this far in life while being wrong about everything? If you have the guts to defend yourself, you’re probably met with condescension like, “You’ll learn someday,” or, “I’ve been doing this a lot longer than you.”

A Healthy Solution:
Call her more often to ask for advice. This is going to take a huge amount of humility, but most likely, she’s constantly correcting you because she wants to feel valued. Australian writer Mia Freedman wrote an essay called “Your Son Growing Up Will Feel Like the Slowest Breakup You’ve Ever Known.” It’s true. He broke up with her for you. We need to show empathy, especially those of us who are moms of boys—we’ll be in her shoes soon enough!

How do you handle issues with an emotionally manipulative mother-in-law?

ASK YOUR CHILD...

What’s your favorite thing about your grandparents?

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