Are you dealing with an intrusive mother-in-law?

Managing the relationship with an intrusive or overbearing mother-in-law can be a challenge for many people – from the difficulty of understanding their behaviors and the motivations behind those behaviors, to finding strategies to establish limits and interaction boundaries in order to effectively manage this dynamic.

How does an intrusive or overbearing mother-in-law behave?

An intrusive mother-in-law makes her presence felt almost always, constantly involves herself in your life and your family's life, tries to control various aspects of your lives, including how you choose to raise your children and how you manage household chores. She offers unsolicited advice, makes unannounced visits, or imposes her presence without considering your schedule and needs.

She interferes in decision-making that should primarily be made by the couple, imposes her point of view and gets upset if things are not done her way.

She does not respect your space and privacy – she disregards personal boundaries and tends to frequently invade the couple's personal space. She shows up at the door without announcing, goes through your things, makes changes in the house without asking, etc.

She frequently criticizes you, whether it's about your physical appearance, personality, career, abilities, or your role as a parent. She may believe that no one can do things "right" except for her, thus meeting her expectations proves to be a real challenge (and often impossible).

She does not respect you and does not treat you as an adult, but behaves with you, and also with your partner, as if you were incapable children who need to be guided step by step, although you did not ask for this.

She makes any situation about herself – she wants to be the center of attention whenever possible. If you have children, she might try to be the "favorite grandmother" (so that her presence is constantly desired), indulging all their whims (for example, giving them chocolate before bedtime), despite the fact that you disagree with this. She may also ignore topics unrelated to her, always trying to bring herself into the center of attention.

She "spies" on you – that is, she monitors what you do throughout the day, calls you, visits, sends you messages, asks you a multitude of questions like: "where are you going", "with whom?", "how long will you stay?", "who are you talking to on the phone?".

Things have to go her way – even if you have a different point of view, she will continue to insist you do as she wishes, until you feel exhausted and give in. If you respond in any way that bothers her even slightly, she will make a big drama out of it, complain to your partner, accuse you of being a bad person, disrespectful or impolite. You will feel attacked without understanding why. Essentially, you did nothing else but express your point of view.

She wants to have the last word and believes she is always right – she may have an attitude of "either we do it my way or not at all". She does not give up until she is proven right and believes you should follow all her advice, whether solicited or not, because she knows better.

Any actions, no matter how annoying they may actually be, are put under the motto "I do this because I care about you / I'm thinking of your wellbeing".

She plays the victim and uses all sorts of strategies to appear as the "good" one and you as the "bad" one in the eyes of your partner – she cries, sighs, sits sullenly, refuses to eat, suddenly feels "ill" just because she had an argument with you.

She resorts to manipulation and emotional blackmail – inducing feelings of guilt and shame  represents a tool through which the mother-in-law tries to get what she wants. She may say things like: "after all I've done for you, you can't even do this much for me?", "I'm sorry I've become such a burden to you!" (said when her wishes are not fulfilled).

She behaves wonderfully in public, is affectionate, loving, and polite – a manipulative and overbearing mother-in-law wants you to have no influence over her child, but for her to have control and to be prioritized over you. A way she tries to do this is to appear harmless and gentle, showing others how much she appreciates you and how nicely she treats you. You might believe this side of her, as if the other negative aspects were just in your head. Most often, the benevolent attitude is just a mask through which she tries to manipulate you more effectively.

She expects you to perfectly fulfill the roles and tasks from which her son/daughter benefits. From her perspective, you should always be full of energy, without personal needs, and willing to cook, clean, do laundry, take care of the children, and if you don't have children, to have them sooner. These are just some examples, but basically, it's about her expectations, vision, and values – how you should be in accordance with her vision.

What could be the motivations behind these behaviors?

An intrusive mother-in-law may fear losing her child in favor of the spouse and the new family the couple wants to create. She feels insecure, fears she will no longer be as important in her child's life or receive the same attention, and these aspects may drive her to try to maintain as much control over their life as possible.

It could also be about the need for admiration and appreciation, certain personality traits, or even a personality disorder, such as narcissism or a pattern of behavior that has perpetuated over time – she is an authoritarian and domineering mother accustomed to involving herself in her son/daughter's life and decisions, controlling every move.

The existence of certain unresolved conflicts or issues from the past can contribute to this suffocating behavior. For example, the mother might have had certain expectations from her son/daughter (even if selfish or unrealistic), expectations that were not met or she may feel dissatisfied with some of their choices, all of which amplify her feelings of helplessness and frustration. To now accept another decision with which she disagrees, to give up her stubbornness in guiding their destiny, and to accept the new path of her son/daughter can prove to be very difficult.

Other times it is about good intentions manifested inappropriately. The mother wants her son/daughter to be happy, successful, and well-off and tries to do everything possible for that, even if it means becoming overprotective or getting too involved in their life, believing that this way she can help.

How can you more effectively manage the relationship with an intrusive or overbearing mother-in-law?

Although it's difficult, try to understand why she behaves this way – for example, she may feel sidelined, and through her intrusion, she tries to regain the affection and attention she feels she has lost. In this case, finding other ways for your mother-in-law to feel involved and appreciated, while respecting your boundaries, can be a more desirable option – inviting her to certain family events or asking for her opinion on specific matters.

In other cases, the criticisms she brings may just be simple projections of her own problems and have nothing to do with you, your value, or competence, so try not to take them personally. You can view them as suggestions and not as absolute truths and, to avoid giving her ammunition, you can respond with: "I'll think about that", "That's an interesting perspective", "I understand your point of view, but I prefer to...".

On the other hand, if there are constant criticisms regarding your values or lifestyle, or attempts to impose her vision or values on you, you can explain in a clear and firm manner that you do not accept such an attitude and ask her to stop. If you start giving too many explanations or justify yourself, she might cling to anything you say to invalidate your opinions. We don't have to like or agree with other people's values and choices, but it would be good to respect them, as we have no right to mold those around us to our liking.

As a person has flaws, so they have qualities, so encourage positive behaviors by showing your appreciation for them. This is one of the most effective ways to increase the likelihood that those behaviors will be repeated.

Ask yourself what your contribution to the current situation is – any relationship is co-created, and reflecting on how your attitude and behavior influence the dynamics of the relationship can help, as you can discover what you can change to improve the situation. What aspects are within your control and you can work on? When doing this exercise, try, as much as possible, to adopt as objective a perceptual position as if you were an observer "rising" above the situation for a more comprehensive picture.

Communicate openly – talk to your partner about what bothers and upsets you regarding your mother-in-law's behavior. Tell them your boundaries and what you need from them to feel supported, and ask them the same thing.

To avoid seeming aggressive or accusatory, you can talk about how you feel, instead of making reproaches that target your mother-in-law - "I feel" vs. "your mother is...". For example:

- "I want to discuss how your mother has been behaving lately. I feel overwhelmed by her constant involvement and wish to find a solution together";

- "I respect the relationship you have with your mother, I know you're close and I don't want to come between you, but I feel uncomfortable when she visits unannounced. I need her to respect my personal space and to establish some clearer boundaries. I don't blame you for her behavior, but I need your help to find a solution together";

- "I know you're in a difficult position and I wouldn't want you to think that I'm asking you to choose between me and your mother. I don't want the misunderstandings we have with her to affect our relationship. I propose we find a solution together";

- "Respecting our privacy and certain limits doesn't mean you can't have a close relationship with your mother. I respect this and I need you to respect my needs too".

If, for example, your mother-in-law has always been critical, demanding, or intrusive, what can help is finding ways to reduce your exposure to such behaviors by establishing boundaries and limits. If it's a behavior she only exhibits towards you, there might actually be another underlying issue that needs to be addressed.

Tell her that something has been bothering you lately and that you wish to have a conversation. This kind of phrasing, "it bothers you", can pave the way for a dialogue where the other doesn't feel the need to become defensive. Tell her you need her help to collaborate to better understand and solve the problems you've noticed. If you can't have a constructive dialogue, don't engage further in the discussion, as you will only fuel the conflict and, in a way, give her more opportunities to find fault.

That's why it's important for you and your partner to agree on the boundaries you want to set, to be on the same team, and to support each other. First and foremost, your partner needs to have a one-on-one conversation with their mother, especially since your attempts to talk to her often turn into arguments or she refuses communication when you address a problem.

How do you set boundaries? Once you've discussed with your partner and reached a consensus, both of you need to remain consistent in your behaviors. On one hand, you, and on the other hand, they, should express in a respectful, yet firm and clear manner, which behaviors you agree with and which behaviors bother you.

If there are children, explain to your mother-in-law your rules regarding them. She might be annoyed or not have the patience to listen to you, relying on the fact that "she knows better" because she raised children herself. However, it's important to remind her of these rules as clearly and concisely as possible, as children need consistency and limits. If she tries to undermine your authority in front of them, take her aside so the children can't hear you, and tell her you won't tolerate such behavior. Spending time with the children might help her feel useful, and might help you too, but if she consistently breaks any rule or doesn't respect your wishes regarding their upbringing and education, limiting these encounters might be a more effective long-term option.

Another example is that your partner might not be bothered by his mother's frequent, unannounced, and extended visits. A way for her to remain close to you, but at the same time for your need for privacy to be respected, might be to organize a weekly dinner or lunch together, with the rest of the visits being announced. In this sense, a diplomatic approach might be to tell her that scheduled visits allow you to dedicate more time and attention to her. This approach, for someone who wants to be the center of attention, can be very attractive. Another way is to tell her that all your friends and relatives need to call before visiting to establish if it's a convenient time, this being a rule of your family that applies to everyone.

Sometimes, being too nice, kind or diplomatic with a person who isn't like that, but instead pursues their interests without regard for others, can prove to be counterproductive. You fail to express how serious the problem is for you and to set the necessary boundaries because you fear being perceived as rude or aggressive. This fear is even greater when your mother-in-law used to not accept any negative feedback or resorted to emotional blackmail and victimization when something wasn't to her liking.

Don't be intimidated, but remain assertive. You have the right to say "no", the right to express your point of view and not accept behaviors that harm or disrespect you, the right to limit interactions if they disrupt your life. You're an adult and ideally, the interaction with your mother-in-law should be adult to adult, not child to parent, and if it's not, you have the right to redefine its terms, so you adopt a position that respects your authenticity, values, and needs.

Don't strive to pretend, to feign feelings that don't exist. There are still many situations where in-laws expect to be called "mom" or "dad", although these terms are far from reflecting the true nature of the relationship between in-laws and daughter-in-law or son-in-law. If you don't feel like doing this, don't force yourself just for the sake of appearances. It's much more important to be honest with yourself and accept reality as it is, even if it's not always as you'd wish.

Therefore, observe what your expectations are and whether they are realistic or not. Maybe you have certain expectations about how your relationship with your mother-in-law "should" be, but often expectations lead to disappointments, and it might not be the first time you feel disappointed and suffer because reality is different from what you wish. Be realistic and see what you can do and how you can improve your situation now, whether it's about another way of relating to things, accepting aspects whose change doesn't depend on you, or setting firmer and clearer personal boundaries.

When you express your dissatisfaction with her, even to yourself, you might say "she shouldn't have said/done that", but when you replace it with "I wish she hadn't done that", this subtle nuance between "should" and "wish" opens the door to acceptance. And accepting doesn't mean approving or agreeing with a situation, but recognizing that things are as they are and that people don't change just because we want them to, but change when they want to. Accepting a situation also means not accumulating resentments because we want it to be different and it's not.

Stop trying to meet her expectations, especially since you've noticed that your efforts have often been in vain. Focus on your life goals and what's better for your family in the long run. Maybe you make many decisions thinking about what she will think and say, whether she will approve or not, but you don't actually need anyone's approval to live your life as you see fit.

If someone in your circle of close acquaintances or friends behaves disrespectfully towards you or if their presence in your life becomes toxic, both for you and for your family, do you close your eyes and continue to accept this kind of behavior or do you set firm limits and, if nothing changes, distance yourself? The same is valid in this case. Don't allow anyone to disturb your existence to the point where you lose yourself or lose what's truly important to you.

Dr. Ursula Sandner


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