My Mother-In-Law is Very Controlling

Reader’s Question

My mother-in-law is very controlling. She is always afraid that her son would get out of her control. We have been married for 3 years. When we got engaged and start planning the wedding she wanted things to be in her way and would convince my husband that it had to be done in that way. She is so manipulative. My husband grow up in that environment and doesn’t understand what he is surrounded with. He was working in the family business and he was with her all day long. When he would come home she would start calling again. I have been living 3 years of hell.

Finally I moved out of the little town where she and her husband live. Even out of town she would call 3-6 times a day. She makes him feel that he needs to go and see her, or she finds different reasons to be in touch with him. Every fight that we have is because of his mother. He can’t stand up to her, because she acts very upset and will cut things back from him or start ignoring him.

I feel that I am in the middle of a circle and need to get out of there ASAP. I just can’t imagine spending the rest of my life like this. PLEASE HELP. I am a very successful person and very independent and can’t imagine that a mother would treat her son in his late 20’s this way.

Psychologist’s Reply

This is very likely not an ordinary mother-in-law you’re dealing with, but a personality disorder. Her behavior is in the clinical direction of a Histrionic Personality (HP). Individuals with this personality are “queens of drama” and demand not only control of those around them, but to be the center of attention. Your wedding was a perfect example of how a Histrionic Personality must somehow make it her wedding as well. They are highly manipulative, vengeful, controlling, deceptive, and demanding. When their control of those around them is threatened (guess who threatens her control of her son?), they can be very aggressive and theatrical. If they feel they are losing control, they often use guilt, obligation, and even subtle imtimidation. They have a tremendous sense of entitlement — feeling entitled to not only control others, but entitled to attention, praise, affection, and worship. They are highly offended when they are not the center of attention/focus and will often use a variety of manipulations such as faked illness, “spells”, vague threats, and punishment to get what they want.

Sadly, the phrase “It’s all about Me” sums up their approach to life. They are so preoccupied with having their demands and attention that they show little concern for how their behavior ruins the lives of those around them. It doesn’t bother her that your marital fights are related to her behavior…she doesn’t care as long as she is receiving attention.

Personality Disorders (see my introduction to personality disorders in relationships, available on this website) make up about nine percent of the adult population. They are often our co-workers, neighbors or even closer to us — our siblings, spouse, parents, or in-laws. They are very difficult to manage as you’ve discovered. Histrionic Personalities are especially difficult to manage as they are often very socially skilled and calculating — at the same time being very emotionally expressive yet shallow. When they shower us with love and affection, we typically need to check for a knife in our back.

Your husband and father-in-law have lived with this behavior for years. They may even feel it’s “normal” as they are being told everyone else is wrong. Your husband is probably being told that you are controlling and jealous — during one of her 6 calls per day.

The best option is a team approach with the cooperation of your husband. He needs to recognize not only Mom’s behavior, but how it will damage your marriage. Once he understands the need to protect the marriage, you can develop a marital team strategy to manage her behavior and intrusiveness. It’s like recognizing that your boss or neighbor is highly unusual — you develop a team strategy. My article on Personality Disorders outlines some strategies that are helpful.

Remember that your mother-in-law has emotional investment in her priorities and is not actually invested in your marriage. It won’t bother her if your marriage fails due to her behavior. It doesn’t bother her that her son is upset or distressed about her behavior. It won’t bother her that her son may lose his wife due to her demands and manipulations. With this understanding, You and then your husband must develop a strategy that manages her behavior. As a Personality Disorder, her personality and behavior will not change over time. Your marital team strategy must be a permanent strategy and approach.

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