10 Tips for Coping With Toxic In-Laws
Toxic In-laws are a common problem. Many parents have hopes that their child will marry the perfect spouse whom they approve of. However, the reality is that people will choose a partner whom they love, and identify with as opposed to one who their parents deem suitable.
In the majority of cases toxic in-laws begin with one (sometimes) both of one spouse's parents, and from there can become infectious and spread throughout an otherwise loving family.
In my personal case toxicity began with my Mother in law, spread to my sister in law and from there infected its way throughout an otherwise loving and supportive family over the span of 18 years.
Today I am sharing some of the coping mechanisms that have helped my Husband and I withstand the abuse and keep our family intact.
Don't take it personally.
This is the most important thing to do in the case of toxic in-laws, but unfortunately is also the least practiced, and least understood. You have to learn not to take it personally when your toxic in-laws attack you, your character, or your marriage. When I was younger it was difficult not to take these attacks personally, even though my own family members, friends, and typically every other human being on this planet regarded me as a kind, worthy acceptable member of society. The problem with toxic inlaws ALWAYS resides within themselves and it's never about you. These in-laws often have deep-rooted issues that began in their own childhoods. Many of them have unresolved conflicts with their own parents, turbulent relationships, traumatic past experiences, and a highly inappropriate and unhealthy parent-child relationship that knows no boundaries or respect. When your in-laws unjustly attack you, turn others against you, gossip relentlessly about you, exclude you from a family gathering, and make multiple attempts to tear apart your family remember that it has nothing to do with you, but rather with their desire to control their child. Although it can be incredibly painful for you, your spouse, and your children, DO NOT TAKE IT PERSONALLY. These people have unresolved issues that have nothing to do with you. However many people do not understand this unless they seek counseling, or in my case study psychology!
2. Practice Understanding
When you can effectively understand that vicious toxic in-laws have nothing to do with you, then you can practice understanding. Do your best to empathize with your toxic in-laws. After a few years of knowing my toxic mother-in-law and her toxic daughter, I came to understand some of the roots of their maladjusted behavior. Unfortunately, this isn't a perfect world, and the majority of us aren't born into perfect happy healthy family situations. In my personal case of inlaw toxicity, I was able to identify the issues that cause lifelong suffering and hardships that can be difficult, if not impossible to overcome. Identifying these issues can help ease the pain of your suffering and allow you to practice empathy for them. When you practice understanding you allow yourself to console and love rather than to seek being consoled and loved.
3. Always be kind no matter what
When you're dealing with toxic in-laws they live to ruin your good character and elevate their own. Toxic in-laws take delight in knowing that they are harming you, your family, and the union you have with their family members. It's imperative to never submit to their toxicity by playing the same cruel games that they play against you. Always practice the golden rule of treating others how you would like to be treated. Be kind to them regardless of how they treat you. I'm thankful for my personal upbringing because I was taught from a very young age to respect others and to be kind. When you're accepting and genuinely kind to others it makes it clear to them who's the aggressor. Being kind also ensures that you are not adding to any pain and misery that your toxic in-laws are experiencing. Aggressive, mean, and nasty behaviors most often come from sadness and inner suffering. When met with aggression, kindness can have benefits that may be unseen and unbeknownst to you. Kindness is always the best medicine.
4. Remain True To Yourself
I personally grew up in a happy safe and loving environment where I felt accepted, respected, and cared for. The consistent availability and reliability of my caregivers fostered self-acceptance, trust, and security. I grew up liking myself and believing that I could do all things that I set my mind to accomplishing. However when I met my husband we were only 15 years years old, we had a child at 16 and from that moment on I was met with unacceptance, criticism, personal attacks on things that I can not change, and pure cruelty. Because I was so young this caused me to doubt myself, and oftentimes led to a great deal of pain and sometimes depression. I had the misfortune of becoming involved with a toxic Mother-in-law when I was in one of the most critical stages of my life (the teenage years). They introduced self-doubt, fear, and confusion during a time where I was naturally vulnerable, and to top it off I was dealing with an uncommon situation (teenage pregnancy). Although dealing with toxic in-laws can cause negative change and self-doubt it's important to hold onto your own upbringing and positivity that you grew up with. This may be much easier to do if you meet your spouse when you're older, more established, and less vulnerable to personal attacks. However, when you're feeling lost in how your in-laws make you feel simply remind yourself of the love and care you knew in your formative years, whether it came from your parents, grandparents, or any other loving supportive relationships. Avoid allowing negative perceptions of you to dictate who you are.
5. Practice Self-Care
Toxic-In laws can be exhausting and painful. Sadly, their behavior can begin to take a negative toll on you if you aren't careful. That's why it's important to strengthen yourself (and your union) by practicing good self-care. I personally like to stay in shape, work out, educate myself, and nourish my body with healthy food. This keeps me healthy and helps to defend against depression, and anxiety, both of which can be formed by constantly dealing with highly toxic family members. Self-care also reinforces a healthy dose of self-esteem which is VITAL when dealing with toxic people. Always practice good self-care when you're involved with toxic in-laws.
6. Focus on Your Relationship
Not all in-laws want to break apart the union of their child and their child's spouse. Many simply don't like it and express that every chance they get. But in my personal situation, my Mother-in-law has made multiple clear and explicit attempts to break apart my marriage to her son. If your spouse is the right spouse for you, he will make all efforts to keep your union together by all means. Don't be afraid to put aside the feelings of your toxic family members and focus on your relationship first. A healthy marriage is one where the focus and priority are put on the union. Anything outside of that union is not a priority. Your spouse is not responsible for his mother's feelings. A toxic in-law will often force your partner to feel like they must choose between you (and your children) or them (the family of origin). This is extremely toxic and incredibly inappropriate. If you find yourself in this situation, as painful as it is you must put the focus on preserving the marriage and the emotional health of both spouses and the children. Allowing the toxic in law to take precedence is unhealthy and counterproductive to everyone involved. Both spouses must be committed to one another first and foremost.
7. Foster Healthy Relationships
When you're dealing with a toxic in-law they will most likely play the most common card in the deck of in-law toxicity, which is to turn as many family members against you as possible. This is extremely predictable and can be expected of even the most innocent-looking mothers-in-law. When a toxic mother-in-law feels like she is losing to the wife she will resort to playing the role of a victim towards the rest of the family. In my personal situation, my mother-in-law has turned other family members against my husband and me by all means possible. We have lost the love and support which we once had from siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, our children's Godparents although we have never done anything or disrespected these individuals. Her reach seems to have no end and unfortunately, that is the case when it comes to toxic in-laws. They are usually very manipulative and very good at making themselves out to be a victim. This is why it's important to foster healthy supportive relationships with people in the community who support your marriage. My husband and I have found great consoles and support for our marriage within our church. We are able to connect with people who believe in our union and support the vitality of our family. We've also found support for our marriage through friends, some members of his paternal side of the family, and most importantly through my own family who support our union to the moon and back. We tend to focus on those relationships because they foster growth for our union, which means health and growth for our children. It's imperative to locate support for your marriage when one set of in-laws consistently disapprove or set out to ruin it. This could be the difference between a successful strong marriage or an impending divorce.
8. Practice Clear Respectful Communication
When you have to speak with your in-laws always do so with respect. This ties back into kindness, empathy, and remembering who you are. It also gives them zero chance of being able to drag your name through the dirt without being outright dishonest. In my personal situation, I am careful to tiptoe around my mother-in-law and her daughter. I avoid saying anything that can be taken out of line as disrespectful, but I am also very clear in all that I say to them. Do your best to leave nothing that can be misinterpreted as disrespectful but be clear in everything that you say. For example when I was attacked because my children were being unruly, loud, and rambunctious when left in her care. I respectfully let my mother-in-law know that children will act out when bored and unattended and that I love to engage my children in activities that help them keep good behavior such as coloring, playing, or other adult-led activities. I respectfully disagreed with her that I have bad children, while clearly communicating that any child left unattended will inevitably get into trouble. The art of effective communication must be learned, fine-tuned, and practiced often. It's important not to feed the beast of toxicity by learning to tame your own tongue.
9. Establish Your Own Boundaries and Respect Them
At the root of every toxic in-law is the inability to respect boundaries set by her own adult child. Toxic in-laws fail to respect the adult child's union to another and fail to respect healthy boundaries regardless of how often their need for boundaries is expressed. However, you and your spouse must make your boundaries clear and you must respect them first. Do not expect the toxic person to respect your boundaries because they often do not have the capacity to willingly do so. You have to do it yourself. Each couple's boundaries will differ from the next couple, but either way, it's important to express them, and respond appropriately when the boundaries aren't respected. In my personal situation, my husband has been very clear that our boundaries are being disrespected when his mother (and sister) make attempts to persuade him to divorce me, and when they intrude upon our privacy. We've also made it clear that our boundaries are disrespected when she badmouths us to our own children and other members of the family. When she disrespects these boundaries it's up to us to enforce them, and we do so by limiting our contact with her, which limits her ability to disrespect our family and our union. It's important to set clear boundaries, express them clearly, and reinforce them when they are disrespected.
10. Don't Expect Them to Change
One of the worst mistakes that I made when it comes to dealing with the abuse from my toxic in-laws is expecting them to change their ways. For the sake of Christianity and forgiveness I have allowed my mother-in-law access to hurt me, my husband, and my children time and time again, all while believing that all people make mistakes, all people deserve forgiveness and a chance to change their ways. Although that is somewhat true, it is also naive. As I've grown older I'd learned that forgiveness doesn't equate to forgetfulness. I fully forgive my mother-in-law and her daughter for all of the hurtful things they'd done and continue to do, but I also see them for who they truly are and I don't expect them to change their ways, and that's 100% okay. I can not change other people, I can change my own behaviors. I've learned (through the wise advice of our Catholic Priest) that it is okay and encouraged to accept my in-laws for who they are and respond to them with grace and love all while putting my union first. I've learned through studying psychology that it is very difficult for someone of her age to change her ways and that she more than likely never will. With this knowledge, my husband and I are able to better control her negative effects on our lives. Learn to take comfort in the knowledge that you can not control the actions of others, but you can always control how you respond to them.
It took me a total of 17 years to learn how to cope with the abuse from my toxic mother-in-law and her daughter. I've cried many tears, prayed thousands of prayers, and studied psychology relentlessly. I've forgiven hundreds of times and hoped for the best all before I've learned that my priority is not to be accepted by them, but rather to love my husband, and be the mother and wife that I was raised to be.