Question: My mother-in-law is extremely controlling. She disapproves of my parenting style and speaks to me disrespectfully in front of my husband and our children. I’ve put up with this kind of treatment for years, but I think I’ve reached my limit. What can I do?


Before addressing your question directly, it’s important to set the stage with a fundamental Biblical principle. Genesis 2:24 says that “a man shall leave his mother and father and cleave to his wife.” Jesus repeats this command in Matthew 19:4-6 and Mark 10:6-8. In this context, the word “cleave” refers to the establishment of a “one-flesh” union between husband and wife. It means that when a couple marries, they are given the task of founding a new family unit, distinct and separate from their families of origin. They are further required to grant this new family unit priority over the old. If they cannot do this, their marriage will not be successful.

Scriptural principle

The Scriptural principle is clear. Your mother-in-law has no right to treat you with the disdain and disrespect you’ve described. According to the Bible, your husband has a responsibility to you and to your children to step up to the plate and defend you. If he’s afraid to take this step or simply doesn’t want to rock the boat, we suggest that you make a date with him – dinner at a restaurant, perhaps – and tell him you have some important things to discuss away from the kids. Lovingly and patiently explain that you’ve had it with your mother-in-law’s mean-spirited attacks and criticism, and that it’s time for both of you to start setting some firm boundaries with her. Explain that you can’t do this alone and that you are counting on his support.        

Be united

Since this is your mother-in-law and not your mother, it’s crucial that you and your husband agree on a course of action. The two of you should sit down with his mom and let her know that things are going to be different in your relationship from this point forward. Your husband should take the lead in this conversation, telling his mother that her constant sniping at you hurts him deeply and that he is no longer willing to accept it. He should make it clear that unless she can make a sincere effort to change her attitude and behavior, she will no longer be welcome in your home.

Stand your ground

Given her past record, it’s likely that your mother-in-law will react in anger or play the martyr in an attempt to make you and your husband feel guilty for confronting her. Stand your ground and refuse to be manipulated. Unless she is prepared to admit her faults and make some significant changes, you may also want to consider limiting her access to your children. It can’t possibly be in their best interest to spend much time with a woman who is so hostile and demeaning. Perhaps her desire to see her grandchildren will motivate her to examine herself more closely.

In the event that your husband can’t find the courage to back you up, we suggest that you seek the assistance of an experienced family therapist. Among other things, that will show him that you’re in dead earnest about dealing with this issue. If you feel a need to discuss these thoughts on love at greater length, we’d like to invite you to speak with a member of our counselling department. Our counsellors are available Monday through Friday between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. Pacific time at 1.800.661.9800. They can also provide you with a list of licensed Christian marriage and family therapists practicing in your area. Don’t hesitate to call if you think this might be beneficial. We’d be pleased to assist you in any way we can.

Copyright © 2010 Focus on the Family. Used by permission.

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