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.

23 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!

    • Eueu says:

      Nobody can hate/dislike you and love your children or vice versa!

      • Tara Kelly says:

        Amen!!! My in laws became so invasive and hostile, I had to seek legal action. I also forbid them from seeing my daughter, who was a newborn when their antics were going on. It didn’t help they lived down the street, and some lived the next town over. Extended family members revealed my husbands parents were using/selling drugs, which explained their behaviors. Further, extended family members warned me of the aunt, who pushed a family member of mine in church during my daughter’s Baptism, who was taking professional pics of us on the church altar, only for her to cut him off and stand a foot away from us with her cell phone camera in our faces. She also showed up at our former home unannounced, and told me I shouldn’t take my daughter out, who was then 9 months old in her carriage. She started to pull the carriage away, i resisted and she then pulled harder and faster, the yelled “Don’t take her out!” As she barged into MY apartment, before shutting the door in MY face. That was the last time she ever saw me or my daughter. Once she was confronted in court, she was shaking like a leaf and insisted she was looking out for my daughters safety and that “Nobody told me to leave and my nephew invited me over.” When in fact the truth was, he did not invite her over. The judge favored me and she hasn’t been in my life or my daughters life since.

  • 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!

    • Silvia says:

      It is understandable that you get jealous when your son spends time with his wife’s family.

      That said, realize that if you become overly critical or passive-aggressive that your son and his family may start to resent your controlling ways. They need to feel free to live their life without being made to feel guilty.

      Consider addressing your loneliness and insecurity by enriching your life. This way you will be so busy meeting new people that you won’t find time to keep score and track down how much time your son spends with his wife’s family.

      Volunteer in a church or school. Adopt a pet. Learn a new hobby like bird-watching, a musical instrument or language. Join a book club in town.

      • Ronolla Belle says:

        Amen!!! They always use the title of parents and family and use their favorite line “you only have one mother amd one father..” Like seriously??? GET OVER YOURSELF!!! CLASSIC MANIPULATION AND GUILT TRIP…ITS ALWAYS WOMEN..MOTHERS IN LAW ALWAYS LIKE TO BASE THEIR HAPPINESS ON THEIR SONS AS IF THEIR SONS ARE SOLELY RESPONSIBLE FOR MAINTAINING THEIR HAPPINESS!!! THIS IS NOT FAIR TO BURDEN AND SQUARELY PUT THAT ON SOMEONE ELSE. …ITS RIDIC OFTEN TIMES THEY (MOTHERS IN LAW) FORGET THAT THEY HAVE A HUSBAND OF THEIR OWN AND SHOULD BE FOCUSING ON BEING EMPTY NESTERS AND FOCUS ON THEIR OWN MARRIAGE AND HUSBAND….INSTEAD THEY ACT LIKE THEY ARE MARRIED TO THEIR SONS…THATS WHY AM GOING TO MARRIAGE COUNSELING BEFORE I MARRY MY FIANCE….HIS MAMA IS NUTS!!

    • Alison says:

      This article is only in regards to in-laws who are controlling manipulators. Reading it is only helpful if your in-law happens to be this way. So no one is forgetting that there are good in-laws out there.

  • 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.

  • Ksmith says:

    This is helpful information and I plan on purchasing any resources available. I have an invasive and controlling Mother-In-Law. Unfortunately, I saw signs during our courtship and engagement period and even brought it up during our pre-martial counseling; only to be scolded by our counselor and criticized as being insecure. We’re still newlyweds and it so apparent that my husband mother DOES NOT CARE for me, to the point now where she “pops” me on the top of my head as she passes by while I’m sitting on the couch next to my husband. Of course, I told him (since he says he didn’t see it) and his reply was I should’ve said something to her. I feel that would be confrontational and is exactly what she wants. I’ve talked to him before that started, about how she treats and talks to me when he or no one else is not around versus what she displays when there is an audience, but I don’t want to become the nagging wife. Lord help me is all I can hope for now because right now I truly don’t feel protected and covered by my husband. God first, each other second…tell me where his mother has the right to treat me like this!

  • Silvia says:

    You are absolutely correct in that she is playing that game where she is provoking you to confront her she can act offended and play the victim.

    My mil played this game with me.

    Understand your mil is desperate for attention. It is fuel to her.

    Avoid her like the plague. Don’t attend any events where your mother-in-law may be.

    Now your husband knows the truth. He is terrified of confrontation and wants peace at all costs so if he’s not doing his job of dealing with the situation, then understand that first and foremost you have a husband problem.

    That said, I had to show my husband how to set boundaries to his mother as he was basically scared of her and her ruthless retaliations. (Smear campaign, triangulation, gaslighting. Yep, yep, yep).

    By removing myself from her, mother-in-law went crazy mad. She likes that superior position of acting the victim and she needed to see my hurt reaction after her cruel jabs.

    Once I stayed away holidays and such, she went in for the kill. Mil obliterated my character. Because I stayed away, she couldn’t accuse me of saying or doing anything because I am not there!

    My husband had to decide which woman would be primary in his life: his possessive and cruel mother or his loving and kind wife.

    I didn’t give my husband an ultimatum mind you. His controlling and manipulative mother did!

    He chose me.

    And with her out of our lives, our marriage has never been better!!

    Just stay away from her.
    She will make a fool out of herself.
    Your husband will then choose you!

  • Anitram says:

    Help I have a FIL who I recently found out is a little racist and if his visits last too long he tends to discuss inappropriate things he insist on speaking about in front of our children such as how our oldest was an ugly baby and bashing others religion,countries politics e.t.c…
    We’ve spoken to him and he’s apologized and unfortunately relapsed and then asks how often he can visit when we’ve voiced we’ll let him know it falls on deaf ears and he shows up without warning I’ve asked the hubby to speak with him again and I realized he doesn’t share the same upset and I don’t want to cause tension between them so when I said I can speak with him hubby flipped I don’t know what to do and I’m sorry for any typos

  • Erin says:

    Have you written a follow-up for the spouse who does not take action?

  • Lori Mott says:

    My mil says she hated me.. I told my husband he asked her of course she said no she didn’t . She is a manipulator and a liar. She goes to church weekly and claims she is a Christian. I am so disappointed in my husband for not having my back I want out. He can have it. I am the third wife. Recently I got brave enough to talk to the other two same story.

  • Charles says:

    My wife has recently passed away. My late wife’s family have for the weeks beforehand been insisting ‘if I need help I should ask for it and I should not be too proud’. Only massively patronising, given I’ve had to manage my household for quite some time while my wife was ill with cancer in the 3rd world country we were living in until recently, thank you very much.

    Yesterday the MIL sent me a text asking whether I was home (and ignoring the response) showed up uninvited with SIL, and parked themselves in front of my car when I was about to go out. Having mentioned I was needing to go out before I had another call from my boys school (loss of his mum has been hard on him), I then got a lecture, a long lecture, about what I should do with him, how my parenting was wrong, I should get kids to help out, don’t need to do everything at once, Rome wasn’t built in a Day, should install a whiteboard here on the wall and she has one spare, and so on. Everything they have said to me enough times already, that I am already thoroughly fed up with no only hearing, I well understand without the once too often repeated lecture.

    With two women essentially ranting at me in my kitchen I lost it. They then told me I should not talk to them like that and I was so stressed (caused by them!) that I obviously needed help! Talk about controlling, manipulative behaviour.

    What gives women the right to walk into a man’s home and start lecturing him about his house, his children, or anything else, and then lecture him further about his response to that?

    Even going out the door the MILL starting asking about some pieces of furniture and what was I doing with them when they could go into the attic. Talk about being tone deaf.

    If they try that again they will be getting a rude shock, my late wife made it clear boundaries were set and never tolerated this nonsense, I’m now going to have to do it the hard way whether they like it or not.

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