Setting Boundaries with In-Laws and Relatives

An extended African American family of two parents, two grandparents, and two kids sit on a couch enjoying each other's company. Setting boundaries with in-laws is important.
Dr. Bill Maier addresses the issue of in-law relationships, drawing boundaries, and help for when a family member drops in uninvitedly.

How Do We Establish Boundaries With a Controlling Relative?

Dear Dr. Bill: I am 34 years old and have three children. My mother has always interfered in my life. I don’t enjoy her visits and I often find myself making excuses for her not to come. What happens is that my mom comes to “observe” how our family is doing, and she totally undermines the authority my husband and I have with our own children. After her visits, my mom will call with very critical comments about my husband and everything we’re doing wrong. I disagree with what she says, and feel very hurt and angry by her comments. The problem is that my children love their grandma and still want to see her regularly. I don’t know how to explain the problem to them. Please help.

Dr. Bill Replies:

Unfortunately, the people who are the closest to us have the most potential to hurt us. It sounds like your mom has been criticizing you and attempting to control you for years, and you have just about had it. My guess is that if we took a close look at your mom’s own life story, there are reasons why she is so negative and controlling. Perhaps she was emotionally abused as a child, or she has experienced deep pain and disappointment in her life. As her daughter, it might be helpful for you to gain some insight into your mother’s past, in order to develop some empathy and understanding for her.

But even though there may be valid reasons for her difficult disposition, she has no right to treat you with such disrespect. It’s high time for you to start setting down firm boundaries in your relationship with her. This isn’t going to be easy, and will involve a lot of strength and courage on your part. You will need every bit of your husband’s support and encouragement.

Have a Sit-Down with Your Mom

I suggest you sit down with your mom when both of you are in a good mood, and discuss with her how things are going to be different in your relationship from this point forward. Let her know that you love her and appreciate her love for your children, but that her constant criticism of you hurts you deeply and that you are no longer going to accept it. Explain that unless she can make a genuine effort to change her attitude and behavior, she will no longer be welcome in your home. Given what you’ve told me, I’m guessing that your mother may react in anger, or she may play the martyr role and attempt to make you feel guilty for your words. Stand your ground and refuse to be manipulated.

A Deeper Discussion

As far as your children’s access to their grandmother, that’s a difficult decision that you and your husband are going to need to discuss thoroughly. While your kids may love their grandma, is it truly in their best interest to be spending a great amount of time with a woman who is so controlling and demeaning? As your kids get older, I think we can both predict that her criticism and negativity will begin to affect their self-esteem.

Unless your mother is willing to admit her faults and make some significant changes in her life, I believe you may want to consider limiting the number and length of her visits. Perhaps her desire to see her grandchildren will motivate her to examine her attitude and her behavior.

Let me recommend an excellent book on this topic which I think you will find very helpful. It’s titled Boundaries: When to Say “Yes,” When to Say “No,” To Take Control of Your Own Life. The book is written by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend, two Christian psychologists who I greatly respect, and who have been guests on this program in the past.

How Do We Stop In-Laws From Dropping In Uninvited?

Dear Dr. Bill: My husband and I have been married for seven months and we currently rent our home from my mother-in-law who lives within driving distance of us. The problem is that she comes over all the time without calling first — even though we’ve asked her to call first. My brother-in-law does the same thing. What should we say to our family about this situation without offending them, yet giving us the space we need?

Dr. Bill Replies:

Ah yes, the old “uninvited relatives dropping by” scenario!

You’re in a rather unique situation because you are renting your home from your relatives. If they are giving you a great deal on the rent, that further complicates things.

You didn’t mention in your e-mail why they come by. Is it to do maintenance on the house, do yard work, or get tools out of the garage? Because they are the landlords and you are the renters, they certainly have a right to do those things, provided they give you a reasonable amount of advance notice. On the other hand, if they are simply dropping in unexpectedly to chat or hang out, that needs to be addressed differently. And because we’re talking about your in-laws, your husband is the one who needs to bring it up.

A Good-Natured, Non-Defensive Family Discussion

Hopefully, this can be solved with a good-natured, non-defensive family discussion. I suggest your husband start the conversation by telling his mom and brother how much you love them and appreciate the opportunity to rent their home. But he should explain that as newlyweds, you are trying to establish your new life together, and as such, you need a certain amount of privacy. Let them know that they are always welcome to come by, but that you would prefer it if they would let you know ahead of time.

If they react defensively or in anger, then there are some deeper boundary issues going on that may not be so easy to address. If that’s the case, or if they continue to drop by unannounced even after you make your wishes known, then you’ve got a decision to make. If you’re renting a great house at a great price, you may decide that it’s worth putting up with their intrusiveness. On the other hand, you may soon decide that living in an apartment on the other side of town is looking better and better.

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