Mother-in-Law is Controlling, Manipulative, and Lazy

Reader’s Question

My mother-in-law is self centered, manipulative, extremely lazy and feels it’s everyone’s responsibility to take care of her…except her own. When I met my husband he still lived with his mother and it seemed as if their roles were reversed, or that he had become a surrogate spouse to his mother. His mother and I got along fine then, but this all changed once we became engaged. Her son cut the apron strings, but she’s still trying desperately to hold on to him. She did not understand our desire for space as newlyweds, she was only concerned with her son and how she would be included in the marriage. She went in and out of depression, tried using guilt, sickness, and helplessness to get her son to revert back to the way it was prior to his getting married…him taking care of HER. She’s even asked to live with us on several occasions! I’ve been married 6 years now and throughout most of it, my mother-in-law’s behavior has been like that of child throwing a temper tantrum screaming “What about me!” Now she’s expressed a desire to build a better and closer relationship with me. I don’t trust her and would like to know how to go about having a relationship with a person like this.

Psychologist’s Reply

You’re describing the characteristics of a Personality Disorder (PD) in your mother-in-law. Personality Disorders (see my introduction to personality disorders on this website) do have the “It’s all about me” theme in their life and their interactions with others. Your situation is actually very common. You’ve upset her ability to control her son and over the past six years, she’s used a variety of strategies and behaviors to regain control…and to regain her position as the center of attention in his life. When you mention that she didn’t understand your desire for space as newlyweds — you’ve missed the point. In an individual with a Personality Disorder, they don’t care about your desire for space, privacy, or distance from in-laws. Adults with normal approaches to situations are often left with the feeling that a person with a Personality Disorder doesn’t understand things like:

  • the legal/personal rights of others,
  • confidentiality,
  • trust/honor/and the truth,
  • criminal behavior, etc.

In truth, the individual with a Personality Disorder understands all those things — they just don’t feel they apply to them and their immediate selfish needs. A PD lives their life on their own agenda — no matter what manipulations, schemes, ploys, and damage to others is involved.

It’s sad, but her desire to build a better relationship with you is probably another strategy. Realizing that her previous strategies have been unsuccessful, we are now approached with Strategy #23. While the approach is different, the goal will be the same, to return the focus of her son and your marriage to her. You have a right to be very cautious and I would recommend it.

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I’d read my article on Personality Disorders. They make up about 9 to 10 percent of the adult population, and it’s not uncommon to have one as a parent, in-law, or friend. The article offers tips on how to handle them, how to protect yourself, and how to avoid common traps and strategies they use in relationships. You’ll find additional information on various strategies they use on my Identifying Losers in Relationships article on this website.

You can have a good marriage, even if a Personality Disorder is part of the family system. However, you’ll need to develop individual and often couple strategies to deal with them. Hopefully, your husband recognizes the situation as well and will cooperate in a marital team approach to managing his mother’s manipulative behavior.

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