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How to Deal With Dysfunctional In-Laws

by Liza Blau, studioD

When you married your husband, you promised to love, honor and cherish him, but there was no mention in those wedding vows of how to deal with your dysfunctional in-laws. Dysfunctional behavior can manifest in many different ways. Your in-laws might be manipulative, possessive, controlling, demanding, intrusive, verbally abusive, suffer from substance abuse problems or all of the above. Although their behavior is out of your control, you can draw healthy boundaries so these behaviors don't infiltrate your family.

Discuss the problem with your husband. Give him specific examples of his parents' dysfunctional behavior and explain how it's toxic to the family, including setting a bad example for your toddler. Don't say, "Your parents are driving me crazy" or "Your controlling mother is a real pain in the behind." Stick to the facts without resorting to complaining, name-calling or otherwise insulting his parents, which could put him on the defensive. Instead, say "We can no longer allow your parents to swear around the children" or "Your parents called me a bad mother again and it has to stop."

Confront the in-laws with your spouse to show that you're a united front. Behave as their equals, not intimidated children. Without raising your voices or showing anger, calmly state your concerns and inform them of the ways their dysfunctional behavior is having a negative influence on the family. Be cordial and say "Please stop smoking and cursing around our toddler." Or "If you two are going to fight with each other, please do it in your own home." Let them know you want them to have close relationships with their grandchildren, but dysfunctional behavior will not be permitted.

Set new, healthy boundaries to help block their dysfunctional behavior. Break their pattern of dropping by your home at all hours by telling them to start calling first. Don't answer the door if they ignore your request. If your in-laws become verbally abusive when you don't follow their parenting advice, say "I know you mean well, but I'm still doing it my way." When they buy your toddler a toy even after you asked them not to, insist they take it back to the store. Keep your child away from your in-laws if being around them could cause him emotional or physical harm, and only allow contact by telephone.

Resist your in-laws' attempt to emotionally manipulate you into allowing their dysfunctional behavior, especially after you've set new boundaries. They may become hurt, angry, insulting, accuse you of being unloving or even incapable of proper parenting without their help. Stay calm and say "I'm sorry you're hurt, but this conversation is closed." If they continue arguing and trying to change your mind, keep repeating "My mind's made up." You don't owe them any explanation for your choices or need to defend your parenting decisions.


  • Suggest support groups for your in-laws to help curtail their dysfunctional behavior, such as those for addictions and anger management.

About the Author

Liza Blau received a B.A. in English from Columbia University. Her writing has appeared in fiction anthologies from Penguin Press, W.W. Norton, NYU Press and others. After healing her own life-threatening asthma by switching to a whole, natural foods diet, she founded the NYC Asthma Wellness Center. Blau counsels individuals on healing their own asthma and allergies with dietary and lifestyle changes.

Photo Credits

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