Dealing with mother-in-law is taxing

I am not sure how to deal with my husband’s family as his mother is very pushy, domineering, and tries to control everything. He has always allowed her to do this, maybe because he is her youngest and only son. She treats him like a child and he does not stand up to her. She also expects me to be compliant to her and the few times I politely refused, she got upset, tearful and phoned him to complain about me. I feel unhappy but don’t want to upset our marriage as he is a wonderful husband but his loyalty to his mother is affecting our marriage.

In many families, the mother-in-law is jokingly referred to as the “monster-in-law.”

Yet, the strain that parents-in-law can place on a couple is no laughing matter. It can, in fact, ultimately destroy the marital bond.

Before you can take on your mother-in-law, you need to give yourself a time-out (probably more than one) to evaluate the situation and develop an approach that’s right for you.

Find a quiet space free of distractions where you can take note of everything that has taken place to date.

Allow yourself to process the list, mulling and fuming over it – getting all your feelings out – until you can revisit it with a calmer frame of mind. This will enable you to constructively deal with the situation, coming from a less emotional space when moving forward. With or without empathy or sympathy, try to objectively view the situation, and how your mother-in-law’s behaviour may be a symptom of larger issues she has with herself and her relationship with your spouse – and not you.

In some cases, a mother-in-law’s hostility may be an act of frustration over feeling disconnected from her adult child. If this is the case, this is something that your husband needs to work on with his mother. While it’s challenging, try to be objective as you evaluate the situation.

Consider if she’s struggling with feelings of having been dethroned in her family, and if there are ways she can be made to feel important and needed in her own way.

There are situations in which a person has done nothing to cause the relationship with in-laws to become strained.

Yet there are also situations in which the daughter-in-law is doing, or not doing, something that is causing the in-laws to treat her the way they are, warranted or not.

Think back to how you’ve engaged your in-laws, and ask yourself honestly if a third party could find fault with that.

Are you a total victim in this scenario, or do you do or say things that instigate an antagonistic response? If so, consider how you can change the way you’re handling the situation or reacting to it.

Also, let go of expectations of how things “should” be when it comes to family relationships.

Instead, be realistic about the situation. If you’re not going to be close, given what has transpired, maybe that’s for the better.

Instead of trying to live out some Hallmark fantasy, contemplate how you can work with the way things are. For example, is a more dispassionate relationship possible? You don’t need anyone’s approval to live your life the way you want. Refrain from driving yourself around the bend trying to get your in-laws’ thumbs-up.

Paying little attention to what others, including your in-laws, think about you could be liberating and empowering. If your intuition sounds the alarm, listen to it. It’s there to take care of you.

However, unless your spouse wants nothing to do with his parents, you can’t ignore your in-laws.

So when you find yourself in their company, try the following: Yes, they’re legally your parents-in-law, but are they really treating you like family?

You don’t have to refer to your in-laws as “Dad” or “Mom,” if there is no intimacy or warmth that warrants the use of the terms. Using these words also adds to a power dynamic with them that may not work for you. In calling your parents-in-law by their first names, you create a more egalitarian relationship.

This needs to remain central, no matter what you’re communicating.

While initial attempts to engage your in-laws courteously is the socially expected norm, the problem with being too polite for fear of coming across as rude or impolite is that you don’t establish necessary boundaries, which may prevent you from communicating how deep the problems are, and how troubled you are.

You’re not necessarily dealing with a person or people who are nice.

You don’t need to always play nice in getting your points across.

Finally, avoid stooping to their level. It is tempting to fight fire with fire, taking digs at your mother-in-law, calling her names, or being equally rude, but in your discussions, no matter how heated, stick with the facts.

Remain calm, neutral and grounded in your truth. Rather take the higher moral road without compromising how you will allow yourself to be treated.

I feel anxious whenever I visit my grandparents. I am married and have two daughters. When I was a child my grandfather used to touch me in a way that made me feel uncomfortable but I thought I forgot about it and it was over. But I still remember and I am so worried that he will do the same to my daughters. They are getting older, are pretty and as much as I try to inform them of their rights and what abuse is, I still can’t ensure that this won’t happen when I am not around and when we have to attend family gatherings.

Your child’s safety comes first, trust the truth of your history, experience and gut feelings.

These are never wrong. Limit contact if you feel your children are not safe and may be abused.

If you have to interact with your grandparents, keep your children under close scrutiny.

When appropriate, and your children are able to understand, explain to them why you have chosen to limit contact with your grandparents.

Informing and protecting them in this way may save them from the terrible ordeal of what you went through.

The short and long-term effects of abuse of any kind has been well-documented as being severely detrimental to the victim, emotionally, psychologically, relationally and otherwise.

Carin-Lee Masters is a clinical psychologist. Write to her at or send a WhatsApp message or SMS to 082 264 7774.