by Annie Gurton, Imago Relationship Therapist from Sydney’s Northern Beaches

For most of us, having a mother-in-law is a blessing. She is someone kind and helpful, never intrusive, always supportive. Sadly, some find ourselves with a manipulative witch who is dismissive and disrespectful, always trying to come between you and her son, and expecting you to spend your life pleasing her even though she clearly believes you can never be good enough.

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Dealing with such a situation requires the diplomatic skill of a politician and the artfulness of a fox. You cannot relax, for she will lull you into a false sense of security before landing another bomb on you which may cause problems between you and your husband, or the kids, or both. She is able to make you look like the villain of the piece while butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth, and she is able to manipulate her son so that he is largely unaware of the most subtle of her ploys, and defends her when he does see her playing her tricks.

How to navigate such a situation, and keep your marriage intact? Its tricky. You could try calling her out, but that risks her being over dramatic and dividing your husband’s loyalties.

Or you could stay away from her, but that can be impractical and after all, she is the children’s grandmother. They might lose a lot if they have no contact with her.

Sadly there is no easy answer to managing a toxic , over-bearing mother-in-law, but the best advice is to both take one day at a time and have a long term plan. By taking one day at a time you can aim to be firm but not hostile, and welcoming but resistant to taking all of her advice. You can try to stay calm when she irritates and patronises, and yet include her in your family so that the children benefit from her presence. And if she is willing to baby-sit and you trust her, she could be useful in helping you run the home more efficiently.

In the long term, the best advice is to seek help from a relationship counsellor – they are not just for couples, and they can help you understand the emotions and thoughts that are affecting your relationship. The chances are that her son has chosen you because in some ways you resemble her – but the reason you don’t get on is also because you resemble her.

There are often two types of people in relationships – minimisers and maximisers. Minimisers are typically avoidant, shy, unavailable, withdrawn and appear uninterested. They shut down, turn away, detach and avoid attention.   Maximisers are typically intrusive, insensitive, controlling and invalidating. They cry, pursue, cling and attract attention. Whatever your style of defence in emotional situations (pulling in, pushing out, shutting down, shouting out), it is likely to be what terrifies your mother-in-law the most, and vice versa. Or it may be that you are both minimisers or both maximisers, and this may be why you trigger each other and appear so incompatible. This is part of Imago Relationship Theory, and you can find more information from your nearest Imago Certified Therapist.

Once you realise that you and your mother-in-law are behaving in predictable ways you can start to function in patterns that are complimentary to hers. In the best situation you should have a few sessions together with a Certified Imago Therapist with the intention of improving your relationship – the success rate is remarkably high. But if you daren’t even raise the suggestion with her you can still talk to an Imago therapist without her there, and come to understand the dynamic between you and how you can learn to live harmoniously in the family.

Another complication may be that her son, your husband, may be co-dependant. That means that his happiness and well-being relies on her approval, and he still looks to her for approbation. This is a complex dynamic but not an unusual one. Again, professional help is recommended, this time mainly for your husband because a married man with his own family who is still dependant on his mother to feel good about himself clearly needs some help to look at himself and work out ways of establishing his adult identity.

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Right now, the best thing you can do is to establish some boundaries that will make you feel better. If she tends to drop in unannounced, tell her politely that she needs to call first; if she tells you what to do with the children, you need to be clear that they are your children and you’ll do what you want with them. If she interferes in your family too much, establish some days for visiting, or times which work for you. It may be tough to do, and sadly you may not be able to ask your husband to do it – if he is still too much under her thumb he will likely find it impossible but you have to just take a deep breath and say your piece. On the positive side she is unlikely to want to be alienated from the children, and she will want to continue to be part of your family, so you have a trump card.

The lasting problem is that both of you love and want to be the centre of the world of one person – your husband and her son. This means that whatever you want to have will be her loss and she is more invested in having a good relationship with you. The strongest weapon you have is empathy for her situation, and an understanding that she doesn’t mean to come across so toxic. Try and practice kindness towards her, even if she doesn’t appreciate it.

It’s best if you can leave your husband out of things, and not treat him as a middle man charged with delivering messages to her. He wont thank you, and involving him wont win you her respect either. But when you do discuss her with him, try to stick to talking about her behaviour rather than her character. So rather than saying that she is manipulative, just tell him that she told the kids something that would get them to ask for more treats from you and make your life more difficult. Stay with the facts rather than your interpretation.

If you feel upset, don’t just let it stew inside you – bring it up with her and have it out. You are likely to have a 30 year relationship with this woman, or more, so its time you started as you’d like to go on. Establish boundaries, let her know that you are your own woman and wont be abused. Provided you treat her respectfully she will, with luck, accept your assertion.

And even when the relationship with your mother-in-law is at its worst, and you are seething and furious, try to remember that you have been brought together by the love of one person, and think of him and how uncomfortable the difficulties between you must be from his point of view.