What To Do if Your Mother-in-Law Is Controlling

The "monster-in-law" is a stock villain in movies, stand-up routines and Reddit forums. She can be a fearsome figure in real life too, whether you're a newlywed or have been married for decades.

Your relationship with your mother-in-law doesn't have to be fraught, though. There are practical ways to manage in-laws with controlling tendencies. Here, therapists explain what you—and your partner—need to do.

Signs of a Controlling Mother-in-Law

Lisa Gordon, a therapist from the Family Institute at Northwestern University in Illinois, told Newsweek: "I would consider a mother-in-law controlling if she exerts her decisions on the couple or their children in ways that negatively impact the couple or children."

A negative impact could be a child's meltdown caused by a mother-in-law delaying dinner past their bedtime, or a daughter-in-law feeling anxious and marginalized, she explained.

A woman pointing at man at table.
An older woman points her finger at a man sitting with a woman at a dining table. A mother-in-law's bad behavior may be caused by her fears of irrelevance. iStock/Getty Images Plus

Heather Lofton, also a therapist at Northwestern's Family Institute and a core faculty member of its marriage and family program, told Newsweek that signs of a controlling mother-in-law include:

Lofton pointed out that this boundary-crossing behavior can also come from "a father-in-law and any other family member."

What Can Cause a Mother-in-Law To Be Controlling?

"The mother-in-law may have a controlling personality or she may amplify her input to soothe her own feelings of insecurity or irrelevance," said Gordon.

It's also worth noting the timing of the controlling behavior, according to Lofton. "For many parents, transitioning their adult children to marriage is a very emotional process. It is inevitable that parent-child dynamics will surface during this transition."

She advised that couples undergo some form of premarital counseling, so both partners can agree boundaries regarding in-laws and other extended family, and feel confident that they will be respected.

How Do I Handle a Controlling Mother-in-Law?

Communication and support are vital, Lofton said. "It is imperative that the newlyweds support each other when navigating a controlling mother-in-law."

This must be a team effort and it is definitely "not the primary responsibility of the spouse who is new to the family system," she added.

A new couple must communicate their boundaries—what they will and will not accept—to all family members.

This process can be challenging. Couples should seek guidance from other family members and can consult a couples and family therapist too, she said.

A couple speaking near a distraught woman.
A woman look distraught while a man and woman have a conversation behind her. Couples should undergo some form of premarital counseling to agree their boundaries regarding in-laws. iStock/Getty Images Plus

Should My Partner Help Manage the Situation?

Lofton said a partner must play the primary role in managing their own mother's controlling behavior. But this work should never be undertaken alone.

"Communication is key and you can start by having the adult child of the mother address their concerns first before moving forward with communicating as a new union," Lofton added.

Ideally, the couple should approach the mother-in-law together to underline that they are a team, according to Gordon.

The couple can then express appreciation for the mother-in-law's contribution but "firmly retain the right to decide what is best for their family," she said.

If you have to tell a mother-in-law "No, you can't" on some issues, Gordon said you should consider giving the green light on other matters to balance things out.

A man's arms pulled by two women.
A man being pulled in opposite directions by two women. Your partner has to play a primary role in managing their own mother's controlling behavior. iStock/Getty Images Plus