Dicey Dealings: How to Handle Invasive In-Laws

One of the most difficult situations married couples face is dealing with invasive or controlling in-laws. Maybe they’re critical, nosy, or they monopolize your (or your spouse’s) time. Perhaps they don’t think you can take care of their “baby” as well as they did. Whatever the case, these situations can get dicey in a hurry.

In today’s blog post, we’re going to focus on how to deal with invasive in-laws who are making your life as a couple harder than it should be.

Have a Heart-to-Heart…With Your Spouse

Is your mother-in-law rifling through your things when you’re not home? Has your father-in-law repeatedly interfered with your home repairs and handyman projects? Do your in-laws probe you both for personal information?

It’s time for a heart-to-heart talk…but not with your in-laws.

Even though you might feel tempted to address them yourself (especially if your frustration level is high), it’s best to rely on your spouse–who is their child–to be willing to draw a line in the sand. That means you need to approach your husband or wife first, and lovingly talk to them about what’s happening and how it makes you feel.

You could say something like, “I know your parents love us, but this is making it hard for me to be close to you. When they (fill in the blank), I feel (fill in the blank).”

Be patient with your spouse; it’s often difficult for a person to hear that their parents have such a negative effect on their spouse. And they may not admit it at the time, but they’re probably feeling pretty frustrated with their folks, too (maybe even more than you are).

Don’t shift the situation into an attempt to control your in-laws through your spouse; instead, say your peace, and give your spouse space to process the situation. He or she may need a little time to figure out how to approach your in-laws.

Setting Boundaries With Your Invasive Parents

If your parents are guilty of invasive or controlling behavior, it’s your responsibility to be your spouse’s advocate (and your childrens’, if you have kids). We know that approaching your parents isn’t going to be easy, but it’s essential for the health of your marriage.

Be kind when you approach your parents. You could say something to them like, “You guys are so helpful to us, and we see all the love behind what you’re doing, but we’re going to have to decide/work through this on our own.”
Let them know you understand their love for you. Acknowledge the good they do in your life, and the wonderful part they have in it. If they respond with hurt feelings, understand it’s normal for parents to mourn the loss of a large role in their adult child’s life, but remain firm.

Sometimes, we run into situations where we can’t easily set boundaries with our in-laws. For example, if you know your mother-in-law has a key to your home and has been going through your personal belongings–but you can’t prove it–you have to find a workaround, since you can’t confront her. To set a boundary around this behavior, you could lock away your personal items or send the kids to her house for babysitting, instead of having her keep them in your home.

Here are a few more quick tips for dealing with sticky in-law situations:

  • If your in-laws are monopolizing your time, ask your spouse to set aside time for you
  • If your parents and your spouse don’t get along, get out of the middle of their disagreements and let them work things out for themselves
  • If family functions are stressful, work together to maintain a sense of humor about the situation

Advocate for Your Spouse

Remember, if your parents are the ones creating problems in your marriage, it’s up to you to change the dynamic of your relationship with your spouse for the better. A toxic relationship with in-laws can be really harmful to your marriage, so it’s up to you to be your spouse’s advocate and change your relationship with your parents on his or her behalf.

There may never be an ideal or perfect relationship, but you have the power to make your marriage the very best it can be. That includes protecting it from outside sources–parents or not–that may interfere with your peace.

We’ve included a chapter in our book, The Control Freak, that deals with invasive in-laws if you want to know more about how to navigate these tough situations.

Have you and your spouse dealt with invasive in-laws? How did you navigate the situation? We’d love to hear from you in the comments section.

12 Comments

  • jill says:

    Thank you for your article on sticky issues. Early in our marriage, my husband had to learn what a healthy boundary was and I had to be patient has he processed and slowly added it. Great ministry.

  • Linda M says:

    Thank you for this thoughtful posting. Could you also comment on new marriages with older couples, whose children are grown, and the problems that can be caused by children who are too overprotective of their parents? Thank you!

  • Sharon Hatch says:

    My husband and I are in-laws and I appreciated this article!

  • Michael Van Dyke - Living Hope Church in Mn. says:

    Don’t care in the least about the errors. I read past the error to the subject. I had to have this talk with my parents very late in life. I was 50 when I had to have that discussion. My parents were being what I think they would say lovingly concerned. But for me they had become almost cruel to my wife. Anyway one Sunday afternoon after church I went to see them and the proceeded to attack my wife because she and our kids in their estimation were not spending enough time with them. It sweetened to them she was always having to go here and there. She was. The kids and her had busy lives and we got them over to see them as often as we could. That’s all it seemed to be about. After 15 minutes of defending her I abruptly got up and left telling them they were wrong and if that is how they felt then they did not need to be a part of our lives. In addition I told them my relationship with her was more important to me than any other, and I would always side with her. This may not have been the best way to handle things, and it infuriated my mom, but that is the direction I took. A week later my dad called and apologized to me and my wife. My relationship with him was great until his death a few years ago. My mom on the other hand has never gotten over me cutting the ties and as of today despite my best effort will not speak to my wife or I. I have not spoken with her now for over two years. At this time I have no doubt I did the right thing, and I Have no regret over the outcome of the situation.

  • Brian says:

    We were married a year and my Dad visited us. I had left for work in the morning and when I came back, I sensed something was amiss. I took my wife aside and soon found out that he had bought some groceries that needed ‘cleaning’, and being the extrovert that he is, he made friends with the neighbors who gladly cleaned it, to the shock of my young wife. Well my Dad and me had a ‘chat’ and I had to ‘make arrangements’ for him to stay elsewhere for the rest of his stay. In leaving he said, ‘Son I admire you’. Well the relationship did take many years and a host of these interventions, but eventually, they did get on with each other!

  • J says:

    It’s also fair to note that oftentimes in a new marriage, in-laws aren’t being as invasive as they are perceived to be. I remember early in my own marriage it was stressful to have my in-laws visit because I thought they were watching me like a hawk, waiting for me to mess something up, but it was my own insecurity causing those feelings.
    Other times, in-laws don’t even realize that you have different ways of doing things than their child. I expected at least a week’s notice for company to stay the night, whereas my in-laws would drive 3 hours for a surprise visit and show up unannounced. My husband loves surprises. I do not! I brought it up with my husband, who then did the right thing by letting his family know that they needed to at least call me, and let me in on the surprise for my husband.

  • V says:

    Thank you for addressing this. I don’t want to be that type of “in-law” and now have three married daughters (as of next weekend). I worry that I don’t pursue them enough for them to feel like they are loved and still very close to my heart and a vital, vibrant part of our family. I realized only two years ago that all my energy was going into maintaining a peaceful relationship between my sister, my mother, and myself, and that a good portion of it had to do with their dislike of my husband. I tried defending him, explaining him, and explaining why I chose patience in times of pain, but nothing seemed to help or squash the toxic gossip that had been bouncing from family member to family member. I finally, as a woman in my fourties, had to confront first my mother, and then my sister. When they both made it clear they preferred to keep things the way they were, rather than show respect to my marriage by refraining from making derogatory comments and/or sharing inappropriately, I told them I didn’t think we would be able to talk much under those conditions. Now I have been grieving my alive mother AND father (since he wouldn’t dare contact me without going through her) , my sister, and my nephews for over two years. While setting those boundaries almost instantly made my life and marriage easier and created more time for my adult children, it is very hard to explain my decision to them! I have always tried to example longsuffering to…especially with my family. I have encouraged them to continue on in relationship with these family members, because I value family and don’t want them to be punished for our failures, but I’m beginning to wonder if I’ve made a mistake!

  • Michelle Elliott says:

    My husband and I have been married now for 4 years and even before we got married I built a great friendship with his mom. My mother in law and I are wonderful friends and we have a lot of respect for one another. My father in law is also great.
    During the dating and then engagement process my own parents, mostly my dad was the controlling one. My dad would say one thing, then come back a week or so later and the story was completely twisted. My grandmother (dad’s mom) gave me $1000 dollars from grandpa’s estate for the wedding. My dad told me that whatever money was left from that he would use for whatever he wanted. Then he wanted to put the $1000 in my parents bank account. (Side note: my parents have never been good with money, so I knew it was a mistake to let him do that). I argued with him saying no, that money was given to me from Grandma. Ugh…It was stressful! Because my in laws were paying for our wedding because again , my parents didn’t have the money to pay for the wedding at all, so we agreed my parents would pay for the rehearsal dinner. My dad proceeds to ask my father in law if he’d pay the tip. My father in law refused nicely because they were already paying for our wedding. Ben and I paid for the church and other things, and my in laws helped with the rest. My parents have always been very toxic and slightly controlling. The whole in laws issues does not apply to us, it applies with my parents.
    My parents have said some not very nice things to hubby and I about his parents. It came to the point where I spoke with my mom on the phone to tell her that Ben and I need some time apart from my parents because of their bad behavior. The frustrating part is that they (my parents) especially my dad does not see their wrong doing. We are all believers here, but my parents don’t practice Christ like behavior. I get a long better with my in laws than I do my own parents. I feel bad for my hubby because he doesn’t have the best in laws (regarding my parents) it’s frustrating. But we are practicing drawing boundaries with my parents. Luckily they live about 3 hours away so it’s a good kind of distance. Proximity wise I am closer with my in laws because we go to the same church and live in the save town. We’ve had issues with my parents being jealous of our relationship with Ben’s parents. I’ve also had to nip that in the bud. My parents act like little children and we aren’t having that disrespect!

  • Micki says:

    Well I am the mother-inlaw! I do not intrude on their personal space or “rifle”through their houses. Have 2 living sons! Babysat for all 5 grandchildren while they worked, have taken all 5 grandkids away on vacation,etc.This article maybe about some inlaws. But I need to say something to all couples regarding their parents! You only have 1 mother and 1 father, make sure you spend quality time with them while they are alive! (Don’t be putting flowers on my grave!) I do not want to be included in every aspect of their life, but I do want to be part of their life! My feelings get hurt when I see them doing more things with their wives family! The old saying “a daughter is a daughter for lifse, a son is a son until he takes a wife!)God blessed me with 3 sons, but 1 son died in a very tragic way that has affected Ted my whole family . I just want to be remembered and respected! I probably am more sensitive to this situation since my son , Tommy died, but I am being truthful! Please try to understand the normal inlaws side of the story!

  • Pa rud says:

    Great information…. Over 34 years too late! Dealt with this at a very young age with in-laws and family-owned business that also controlled the purse strings for us both…. Wish that this insight had been shared way back when… Could have saved a lot of heart ache that we still deal with as controversy now.

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