One of the things I get asked for as an experienced marriage and family therapist, is advice on specific topics. Many times, couples come to therapy with mother in law issues. These issues with a spouse’s mom can cause a couple to fight. It can also be an example of triangulation in the relationship. Let’s take a look at what is going on here and how to handle it in a healthy way.
What is going on in the relationship with mom and the adult children
There can be many things happening in this situation in the relationship between the critical mother and the adult child. If we are to assume best intentions, then it is likely concern for her child that is driving the mother to be critical of the child’s partner. However, even with the best of intentions this creates an imbalance of power in the relationship between mother and adult child.
Worst case scenario, the parent may be acting out of jealousy of her child’s partner or may be experiencing mental health issues that are keeping her from understanding the inappropriateness of her behavior.
No matter the reasoning for the criticism by the mother of her child’s partner, her son or daughter is left with the issue of misaligned boundaries in the relationship. This can lead to emotional and mental health issues for the son or daughter, and the spouse. It can also lead to emotional and mental health issues for the father of the child as the mother is so involved in the relationship of her adult children that it harms her own romantic relationship. There are also potential repercussions for other children of this critical mother in law as she learns to treat off of her children’s siblings poorly.
What is going on within the couple relationship
The critical mother in law dynamic can have a toxic effect on the relationship of the couple. If it is handled well this can bring the couple together. However, most do not handle it well.
This can leave the husband or wife feeling very upset and like they have no where to turn. They risk the anger of their spouse in dealing with the problem, have to deal with the affect of the critical mother on their relationship and even impacts on her own children and extended family.
If this situation is handled poorly, then the couple are likely to end up divorcing or living as room mates. They will not support each other and the stress may play out elsewhere in the family such as their own children acting out.
What’s going on with the adult child
Often, you find that the adult child feels stuck in the middle between mother and spouse. They may feel guilty trying to say no to both parties. They may even tell their partner that it isn’t their problem, and they aren’t getting in the middle of it.
Either way, they may not know what boundaries are appropriate to set with anyone involved. They can also feel resentful for feeling stuck in the middle and pressured from one or both sides.
What is going on with the adult child’s spouse
The spouse in this situation often feels unimportant, unloved and walked on. They may want a better relationship with the mother in law or may want to cut off ties with her, or even the spouses entire family, depending on how bad the situation has gotten. They may feel that they fight more with their husband or wife because of the interference from the family.
The husband or wife often feels like their spouse should do something about their mother. If this does not happen it can lead to much resentment and even divorce over time.
Looking at triangulation
At times, the mother in law issue can be an issue with triangulation. Triangulation is when a couple is having problems and instead of talking to each other about them, they involve a third party such as a family member in the issue to release stress. If there is an issue with triangulation, you must immediately get the third party out of your relationship and quit talking with them about it. Now is the time to learn to set good boundaries.
Looking at the boundaries
Even if the issue is not triangulation, there is a problem here with boundaries. It seems that the mother is still treating her adult child as if they are a child, instead of an adult, and expecting to have too much say in their life. Although, I would say that a good parent would not even be that rude and critical of the significant other of teenager son or daughter.
In this case, mother is in the wrong. No matter what the issues are she has with son or daughter in law, they are being handled in a way that is unhealthy.
In this case, boundaries need to be set, if they have not already. If it’s your mom who is the problem here, it’s your job to set the boundaries. Putting this on your spouse will only cause more conflict between them and mom. Putting the boundary setting on your spouse will also harm your relationship with your partner.
So now that you know you need to set a boundary, what do you do? The next step is to talk with your husband or wife about the issue.
How to talk with your spouse about the issue
Talking with your husband or wife about boundaries with your mother can be difficult. But it will be worth it in the long run. It will make your family life better, as well as improve your relationship and help protect your mental health.
When having the discussion with your husband or wife, first off, let them know you’re on their side and you put them first. Let them know that you want to handle the issue with your parents and that you need information from them in order to do so.
Ask your husband or wife to help you understand exactly what is being said or done to upset them. Ask questions to make sure you completely understand the issue. If you are having difficulty with this, take a look at our article on communication exercises for couples.
Ask your partner what they would like to see change. For some it may be that they don’t want to spend any time alone with your parent. For others they may want you to defend them when mom gets critical. This is how you determine what the boundary is.
Once you have determined the boundary you want to set with your mom, it’s time to have the discussion.
How to talk with your mother about the problem
The first time you set boundaries with someone the conversation can be uncomfortable. If you can, pick a time when no one is already upset. Make sure that you are calm, and take care to use a tone that is kind and considerate. You can do this by assuming that your mom is trying to be helpful, and just falling short of the mark.
You will want to talk to your mom alone. This keeps her from feeling like you and your husband or wife are ganging up on her. It also helps alleviate the thought that your partner is making you have the conversation. Allowing the other parent or other family members into the conversation will only muddy the waters and make the discussion harder.
Start out by telling your mom that you’ve noticed that she treats your husband or wife in a certain way, and that you no longer want her to do that. Here is where things often get complicated. Your mom may get defensive, or even deny the behavior. She may even ask you why she should have to change. You do not need to explain yourself here. “No” is a complete sentence. You don’t have to justify why your spouse shouldn’t have to be treated in this way. You just need to let her know you want it to stop happening.
The next thing to state once you’ve told her you no longer want to see the problem behavior is what will happen if she keeps doing it. There needs to be a consequence or it’s going to keep happening. At this point you may get a guilt trip from your mom, tears, arguing etc. But stay strong. An example of this conversation looks like:
Mom, when you were here for Thanksgiving dinner I noticed you were very critical of my wife’s parenting in front of the children. You may not mean it to be that way, but that is very disrespectful behavior, and I want this to stop happening. If this continues to happen, we won’t be inviting you to our home anymore and we will have to see each other in public as you have never done this in public. I would like you to apologize to her for harming her authority with our children.
For some mothers this one conversation will be enough. Other mothers will push the boundaries and test you. If they do the behavior again that you asked them to stop, then you must enforce the boundary with the consequence. So in the situation above, if mom is critical of the wife’s parenting again at Christmas, you will need to take her aside again and let her know that you’re not having her over to your home again until she has apologized and you’re certain she will stop being critical.
If you don’t enforce the boundary, the behavior will get worse. Also, your relationship with your partner will suffer. If after repeated attempts to set boundaries with your mother, you’re still having issues, it’s time to get help.
When to get help
If you’ve tried setting boundaries with your parents and it’s not working, it’s time to get the help of a therapist. A good family therapist can work with you and your mom to improve the family dynamic and make for healthy relationships. It may be helpful to have more than just you and your mom in the therapy sessions. The therapist may work with just the two of you, or may bring in your spouse, your dad, or other family members as needed.
It is also possible that you may get stuck in the process in agreeing with your husband or wife what the boundaries with mom should be. If this is the case it is a good idea to get some advice from a therapist here. You can have a few sessions of couple therapy to help you agree on how to handle your mom. You may also need some couple counseling sessions to help reduce any tension that the issue with your mom has brought into your couple relationship.
Another time you may need help is is the relationship is affecting your own children or if mom is bringing other family members into the conversation to try and force her point of view. At this point it’s a good idea to get some help so that the kids are not affected or other family relationships aren’t broken.