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5 Signs You Have Toxic In-Laws

Identifying these red flags is the first step to protecting your mental and emotional well-being.

Meet The Parents, Monster-In-Law, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, The Big Sick. These are just a small handful of famous films about toxic in-laws. And it's a common Hollywood trope for a reason: A lot of people can relate. In an ideal world, getting married would mean being graced with a bonus set of loving, accepting, supportive parents. But for many, that isn't the case. While you can't control who your in-laws are, therapists say being able to recognize their toxic ways is the first step toward protecting your well-being—and even your relationship with your spouse.

So, what are the signs of toxic in-laws you should be looking out for? Read on for expert insight into not only how to identify this behavior but also some helpful tips on how to deal with toxic in-laws so you don't have to compromise your emotional or mental health.

RELATED: 5 Crucial Boundaries You Need to Set With Your In-Laws, Therapists Say.

How Is Toxic Behavior Defined?

Shot of a young woman using a smartphone while carrying her baby at home

First things first. What makes someone's behavior "toxic?"

According to Becca Reed, LCSW, a perinatal mental health and trauma therapist, any behavior that's harmful—say, in a way that's controlling, manipulative, or disrespectful—can be considered toxic.

Another way to think of it is how the behavior affects you.

If someone's actions or words consistently make you feel uncomfortable, distressed, anxious, or otherwise upset, that's a good sign that their behavior is toxic, says Kathryn Smerling, LCSW, a Manhattan-based psychotherapist in private practice.

RELATED: 5 Red Flags Your Parent Is a Narcissist, According to Therapists.

5 Signs of Toxic In-Laws

Young man settling conflict between mother and wife, family problems, quarrel

Do you suspect your mother-in-law or father-in-law might be exhibiting toxic behavior? Consider whether any of the following signs of toxic in-laws sound familiar.

1. They find fault with almost everything you do.

A hallmark sign of toxic in-laws is constant criticism. This can leave you feeling frustrated or defeated—and you may even find that this behavior takes a toll on your self-esteem.

"They might frequently criticize your choices, appearance, or parenting style," explains Kristie Tse, LMHC, a licensed psychotherapist and founder of Uncover Mental Health Counseling. "Persistent criticism can undermine your self-esteem and create a hostile environment. It shows a lack of respect and support."

2. They have no boundaries—and ignore yours.

In a good relationship, both people can respect each other's boundaries. So, if you have an in-law who keeps trampling over the limits you set, that's a red flag.

Here are some examples of what that might look like, according to Smerling and Reed:

  • Asking invasive questions even after you've declined to answer them.
  • Showing up unannounced when you've asked them not to do this.
  • Insisting on being involved in financial decisions between you and your spouse despite not being asked for help.

It can be especially confusing if your in-laws agree to your boundaries after you vocalize them, but then their actions don't align. This is a classic example of passive-aggressive behavior.

3. The guilt trips never end.

No matter how much effort you make to spend time with them on holidays or how much you try to include them in your kid's life, toxic mothers-in-laws and fathers-in-laws may make you feel like it's never enough. They'll say whatever they can to make you feel guilty in order to get their way.

"They might say things like, 'If you really cared about us, you'd visit more often,' making you feel guilty for not meeting their expectations," explains Reed.

4. They undermine you in front of your children.

If you notice your in-laws often offer you unsolicited advice—or even go behind your back to make decisions relating to your family without consulting you—that's a solid sign that their behavior has become toxic.

For instance, Reed notes that they might say something like "You're not feeding the kids properly," right in front of your children, which undermines your confidence and authority as a parent.

"Parenting of the grandchildren is a common area for intrusion by in-laws," says Bill Eddy, LCSW, a licensed therapist and co-founder and president of the High Conflict Institute.

For example, they may try to turn your children against you or cut you out of the picture by saying things like, "Your mother/father doesn't understand what you need the way we do," or "Next time, just come to us when you need something rather than your mom/dad."

"Toxic in-laws may try to override any rules you have in place—such as giving your child a phone at the dinner table despite knowing that time is supposed to be screen-free," says Smerling. "This can feel belittling to you and confusing to your children."

5. They stir the pot.

A toxic in-law will find ways to generate drama within your family. According to Reed, they may even try to create tension between you and your partner.

"They might spread rumors, take sides in conflicts, or pit family members against each other," explains Tse. "Stirring up conflict can create a divisive and hostile family environment, leading to lasting emotional damage and stress."

RELATED: I'm a Therapist and These Are 6 Signs Your Sibling Is Toxic.

Dos and Don'ts of Dealing With Toxic In-Laws

mother in law interfering with couple's argument

By this point, you may be thinking: "So, my in-laws are toxic—what now?" The most important thing to remember is that while you may not be able to control your in-laws' behavior, you can control how you react to it, how much time you spend with them, and how you communicate your boundaries.

Below, therapists share some tried-and-true guidance on how to deal with toxic in-laws.

Do: Set firm boundaries with consequences.

On the whole, toxic in-laws hate boundaries. But even though there's no guarantee they'll respect them, that doesn't mean you shouldn't still lay down the law.

"Be clear about what you will and won't tolerate," says Reed.

The key here is to also communicate what the consequences are if they overstep these boundaries.

For example, let's say you set a boundary that they have to call before stopping by. In that case, you can let them know that you won't be able to let them in the house if they drop by unannounced.

Do: Get on the same page as your partner.

It's super important to present a united front when dealing with toxic in-laws. If they know you and your partner are on the same page, then they won't be able to come between you and pit you against each other, says Eddy.

More specifically, you and your spouse may want to discuss what kind of behavior is and isn't acceptable around your children, how often you'd like to see them, and how you'd like to handle situations where they disrespect your boundaries.

"Make sure you and your partner support each other and agree on how to handle situations," says Reed. "Teamwork is key in dealing with toxic in-laws."

Don't: Get sucked into no-win arguments.

"Try not to get pulled into fights," says Reed. "It's okay to walk away from the confrontation and conversations that are no longer productive."

If you notice that your in-law is unable to listen to what you're saying, you're being put on the defensive, or you're being forced to repeat yourself over and over, it might be time to end the conversation.

"Arguments that escalate tension can reinforce toxic dynamics," adds Tse.

Do: Consider seeking professional support.

Remember: you don't have to navigate your relationship with toxic in-laws alone. If their behavior is affecting your mental health, your relationship, or your family life, consider finding a therapist who specializes in problematic family dynamics.

"A therapist can provide you with strategies to handle difficult in-laws and help you maintain your well-being," says Reed.

It can be especially helpful to work with a therapist if you ever decide to transition toward limited contact—or no contact—with your in-laws.

Mother disciplining her daughter with grandmother there

Don't: Stoop to their level.

A toxic in-law may say things that are triggering in order to goad you into a response that justifies their behavior. Don't fall for it, says Smerling—it'll only make things worse.

"Try not to match their hostility in emails or text messages," adds Eddy. "Take the high road and stay calm. You can use responses that are brief, informative, friendly, and firm. This keeps the conversation focused on problem-solving rather than blaming and defending."

When in doubt, he says you can fall back on matter-of-fact responses like "I see it differently, so I guess we'll just have to agree to disagree."

"Remember, their toxic behavior is about them, not about you," Eddy tells Best Life. "When you don't overreact emotionally, toxic people often get bored and look for someone else to bother."

Do: Lead with empathy and appreciation.

Speaking of taking the high road, Eddy recommends looking for opportunities to give your in-laws empathy, attention, and respect.

"From time to time, find something you appreciate about them and regularly say so," he says.

According to Eddy, this tactic can actually be super disarming. It can be especially helpful for diffusing tension if you're trying to encourage your kids' relationship with their grandparents.

Don't: Internalize their negativity.

"Whatever you do, don't take their negative comments to heart or let them affect your self-esteem," says Tse. "Remember that their opinions do not define your value."

RELATED: 4 Signs Your Parent Is Gaslighting You, Therapist Says.


Happy multiethnic multi-generational family enjoying Christmas time together. People love concept.

Unfortunately, you don't have a say in who your in-laws are or how they behave. And if you inherited toxic in-laws, you may find yourself battling constant guilt trips, criticism, undermining, and boundary stomping. The good news? You don't have to tolerate their toxic behavior–or let it affect your ability to have a healthy, happy family life.

Clearly communicating what you will and won't tolerate, as well as the consequences if your in-laws don't respect these boundaries, can be a crucial first step. It's also a good idea to have ongoing discussions with your partner about your in-laws' behavior and make sure you're both on the same page about what's acceptable and how to respond when they overstep.

Dealing with toxic in-laws can be extremely challenging, so above all, remember to show yourself patience and compassion as you navigate these relationships.

Finally, it's important to have a rock-solid support system in place—whether that consists of friends, family members, your spouse, and/or a therapist—who you can turn to for guidance and emotional validation.

Rebecca Strong
Rebecca Strong is a Boston-based freelance health/wellness, lifestyle, and travel writer. Read more
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