Toxic Mother-in-Laws and Other Boundary Busters

Mother-in-law or Monster-in-law?

One of the pain points I hear most often as a therapist are from women who have experienced or are currently experiencing mother-in-law wounds.

My clients who struggle with this toxic family dynamic share feelings of hurt, anger and confusion as a result of being ostracized, ignored, criticized or emotionally abused by their mother-in-law.

Additionally, these hurting women discuss feeling as if they are required to compete for their husband or partner's love and attention. The husband shares feeling pulled between the "two women" in his life.

It is not unusual to hear comments like these,

"I always dreamed of having a great relationship with my mother-in-law, instead she is the wicked witch of the west."

"I feel as if I have to take a constant back seat to my mother-in-laws wants and needs. It is her way or the highway."

"I feel so resentful toward my husband at times. He constantly jumps to her defense if I try and share the slightest thing about his mother that bothers me."

"There is only one woman allowed in my partner's life and his mother makes sure I know it is her and not me."

In the worst case scenarios, couples split apart as a result of the on going tension, arguing, and splintering that this kind of triangulation creates. These hurting women go from feeling emotionally abandoned in the marriage or relationship to physically abandoned.

What to Do with A Toxic Mother-in-Law?

Very often the husband or partner dealing with this mother dynamic, described as the "Mother Enmeshed Male" or MEM, needs support in healing unresolved guilt, or emotional incesting by his mother.

He will likely require (and likely resist without a non-negotiable request from his spouse or partner) help in learning tools to find his voice and set boundaries. In my experience, it is very rare for a MEM to be able to do this on his own - especially if the enmeshment dance has been going on for decades. There is too much shame and guilt informing the mother/son relationship. Many times the anger he feels toward his mother is then shifted over and acted out toward the wife.

Additionally, the wife needs validation in her own therapy that she is not, "crazy, mean, or disrespectful" for wanting to have healthy boundaries in place. For example, it is not unhealthy to say no, or to have a holiday at your home instead of his mother's home, or to spend Sunday without your mother-in-law around. Nor is it unreasonable to expect that your mother-in-law call before dropping over, and/or knock before entering your home.

Helping couples learn tools to move forward so that each person is heard and respected, and to team up together to create a couple's agreement regarding family members is wise. To be clear: this is not a team up against the mother, rather it is a chance to heal, discuss basic rules of engagement, to jettison resentment, to rebuild trust, to create safe boundaries, and to move forward.

Two wonderful books on this topic are, "When He's Married to Mom" and "Silently Seduced" by Dr. Kenneth Adams (available on Amazon). Note: Dr. Adams also facilitates couples healing workshops on this topic as well.

Non Family Boundary Busters: The Energy Vampires

It is good to remember with non-family members who are boundary busters or energy vampires as I call these folks, such as friends, work mates, room mates, acquaintances, employees, supervisors, social media "friends", class mates, neighbors, when it comes to healthy interactions there are some people that will suck the life right out of you if you allow it.

With these people, no matter how much you give, encourage, help, team up with, provide information and cannot please them, nor should you attempt to do so. Why? Because these individuals lack insight and are intent on finding fault in people, places and things no matter what you say or do for them.

The boundary busting energy vamps move through life determined to look through a lens of disappointment and complaints. I call these hurting people the "Negative Nellies" or the "Envious Irmas" or the "Passive Aggressive Pauls" - no matter how much you give, they will never, ever be satisfied.

Not because they are an evil person. Rather boundary busters are hurting people who have not done the work they need to do. Or they are terrified to do this work. Or unresolved trauma or other disorders impede insight, or they are dealing with anger and simply refused to take ownership for their negative contributions.

Sadly, as a result they blame shift, snarl, blink in innocence and/or refuse to do their own healing work all the while expecting the people around them to adopt what they are attempting to disown. There is a hole in their soul that needs healing and filling that you cannot provide. They often require constant attention and reassurance. When not given, they will act out with attention seeking behaviors that leave other people in their wake exhausted and drained.

As a therapist, I help these kinds of hurting people gain insight into their self sabotaging behavior (self sabotage is one of the 27 forms of anger FYI). But we are not all therapists, and even if we are, our job is not to do all of the heavy lifting in every single relationship, nor are we required to put up with abuse or heal the world.

No thanks. Not my circus not my monkeys as the saying goes.

The best we can do with toxic hurting people who "barf" their pain all over us is to have very good boundaries. Do not pick up what they are attempting to lay at your feet (call projective identification). Do not engage in the anger dance they will attempt to coax you into. Do not personalize their pain, however, do not over identify with their pain either. Instead, take a deep breath, be polite and kind, state your truth clearly and respectfully, and move out of their negative circle as quickly as possible.

If you are dealing with a difficult family or non-family member and need help learning how to find your voice, set boundaries or heal trauma, I encourage you to reach out to a therapist in your area for support.

Self care is imperative when dealing with a toxic hurting human being. There is an old say, "Hurting people hurt people" - yet you are not required to be anyone's door mat. You have every right to set boundaries.


Mari A. Lee, LMFT, CSAT-S