Should I Sever All Ties with My Toxic Mother-In-Law?

Reader’s Question

Recently, my husband and I visited my my husband’s parents and told them that because of unexplained infertility, we were going to adopt a child. My mother-in-law flew off the handle. She lost a baby 45 years ago, and when we tried to reason with her, she wouldn’t listen and challenged us to walk a mile in her moccasins before criticizing her. My husband and father-in-law tried to calm her, but she was acting like a child. The conversation was meant to be about our decision to adopt but somehow became centered around her and her issues. My husband and I were doing our best to make the conversation loving and intimate, but it ended up with my mother-in-law blowing up, running out the door, and driving off (but not so far that she couldn’t be seen).

My mother-in-law appears to have a personality disorder or Bipolar Disorder, and the relationship between us appears increasingly toxic. She is often explosive and won’t listen to anyone. She also treats her non-biological grandchildren terribly. So, I really don’t think she will want anything to do with our adopted children. It’s frequently upsetting to be with her. If I let my guard down, she attacks. She sent me a birthday card that was cruel to me and complained that I don’t care about her son. My husband spoke with his father about the birthday card but said nothing, and in the past everyone has just placated her.

I have tried for 8 years but I just can’t do this anymore. I am being treated for anxiety now, and this is just too much for me to endure. Do I have the right to tell my husband that I just don’t want to be around his parents anymore? He really hates his mother and wants only a superficial relationship with his father. I support him in whatever he decides, but I just want to sever ties. Do you think this relationship is toxic, and should I keep my distance?

Psychologist’s Reply

Of course it’s not possible to make an accurate assessment of your situation remotely and without direct knowledge or observation. But there are definitely some issues to consider here. First, you have not only the right but the responsibility to set boundaries and limits for yourself and for your own mental health. You and your husband have made a commitment and the development of your relationship should be your primary concern, especially now that you are considering raising children.

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The issues and behaviors your in-laws are struggling with are and need to remain their own. You and your husband will have plenty of your own issues to deal with. So set your limits and boundaries. You might not need to sever all ties. But you might have to stand firm about the kinds of situations you’ll allow yourself to be subjected to. You don’t have to broadcast this either. Just do it. It’s interesting that you mentioned that even after all the years of knowing and dealing with the kind of situation you describe, you got caught up in trying to reason and putting yourself in a position where you indicate you experienced grief and abuse. In fact, you say that it was your mother-in-law who took the “time-out” from the encounter (even if it was only a means of protest or a superficial act of attention-seeking). Rather than focus unnecessary attention on her, renew a commitment to yourself to set your own limits and boundaries. You probably won’t be able to completely shut these people out of your life. They’re part of your extended family. In any relationship, you have a great deal of power over how you respond and what limits and boundaries you enforce. Relationships necessarily involve two people. You have power over one.

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