Confronting a Disrespectful and Controlling Mother-in-Law

Exasperated woman looking into camera
How should I respond to my spouse’s mother when she disapproves of my parenting style and speaks to me disrespectfully in front of my husband and our children? I’ve put up with this for years, but I’ve reached my limit.


Marriage brings a change of allegiance,” writes Gary Chapman. “Before marriage, one’s allegiance is to parents; after marriage, allegiance shifts to one’s mate.”

That’s true whether someone follows Christ or not. But Christians know it’s a fundamental truth. Genesis 2:24 says that “a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (ESV). Jesus repeats this command in Matthew 19:4-6 and Mark 10:6-8.

In this context, to become one flesh — to leave and cleave — means that when a couple marries, they are supposed to create a new family unit. And that new family is distinct and separate from their families of origin. What’s more, they have to give this new family priority over the old one. If they can’t do that — or if they’re not allowed to —  their marriage will be painful instead of a success story.

With that as background, it’s clear that your mother-in-law doesn’t have a right to treat you with disrespect. According to the Bible, your husband is responsible to defend you and your children. If he’s afraid to or doesn’t want to rock the boat, we encourage you to talk to him about it.

First, you and your husband decide what boundaries you’ll set

Let him know that you have some important things to discuss away from the kids, and make a date. Lovingly and patiently share your feelings about your mother-in-law’s attacks and criticism.

Explain that it’s time for both of you to set some firm boundaries with her. Point out that you can’t do this alone and that you’re counting on his support. (Because this is your mother-in-law and not your mother, you and your husband must agree about what to do.)

Then, you and your husband need to talk with your mother-in-law

The three of you should sit down together. Let her know that things are going to be different in your relationship from this point forward.

Your husband should take the lead in the conversation. He should tell his mother that her constant ridicule of you hurts him deeply — and that he won’t accept it any longer. He should be clear that unless she makes a sincere effort to change her attitude and behavior, she won’t be welcome in your home.

Given her track record, your mother-in-law likely will react in anger. She might play the martyr to try to make you and your husband feel guilty for confronting her. But stand your ground. Refuse to be manipulated. Boundaries produce power in love.

And unless your mother-in-law is prepared to admit her faults and make some significant changes, you may also want to consider limiting her access to your children. (We don’t know all the details, but it can’t possibly be in their best interest to spend much time with a woman who’s so mean.) Maybe her desire to see her grandchildren will motivate her to check her actions and attitudes.

When you need more help

If your husband can’t or won’t back you up, ask for help from an experienced family therapist. Not sure where to start? Call us for a free over-the-phone consultation.

Our licensed or pastoral counselors would welcome the chance to hear your story and talk with you in more detail. They can also suggest referrals to qualified counselors and Christian therapists in your area.

In the meantime, dig into the resources below.

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