9 Signs You Might Have Toxic In-Laws (& What To Do About It)

Conflict with the in-laws isn't exactly a new concept. You can find in-law jokes going all the way back to Shakespeare and beyond. Today, cracks about the in-laws are a sitcom staple, but trouble with your spouse's parents isn't a laughing matter. In fact, dysfunctional family relationships can have a profound and enduring impact. It can severely affect both your physical and mental health, as noted by BMJ Global Health. And it's not only the warring adults who suffer. Children caught in the middle of the conflict will also pay a price, both physically and emotionally, no matter how you might try to shield them from the stress and strain.


The simple reality is that constant turmoil within the family can rob you and those you love of the good health and peace of mind you deserve. It can severely undermine your relationship with your spouse and even with your children. It can create wounds that last a lifetime. That's why it's so important to take action before family conflict threatens to become a way of life. But how, exactly, do you know when your in-laws have crossed the line from merely annoying to full-out toxic? And what can you do about it? We'll show you the top nine signs that you have toxic in-laws, as well as the best strategies for taking healthy action to protect yourself, your family, and your relationships.

They don't respect your space or your privacy

The first sign that you have toxic in-laws is that they just don't respect your space or your private family time. They just don't recognize your home, or your personal family time, as your own. They'll drop by unexpectedly and uninvited at all hours, no matter your plans, for example. And you will either have to drop what you're doing or were going to do to entertain them, or you'll have to bring them along, even if it's inconvenient or unpleasant. Otherwise, you're just inviting hurt feelings, drama, and emotional blackmail.


It's not only your time that toxic in-laws will try to dominate and control, though–it's also your family's personal space. Toxic in-laws behave as if your home and your family time belong to them. They'll walk right into your house without knocking, let alone without calling first. They'll raid your cabinets and refrigerator. They'll treat your bedrooms, bathrooms, and other intimate spaces as if every item in there was their personal property, rife for their inspection and approval (or lack thereof).

To be sure, some people are just thoughtless, and some families have different rhythms. They may merely be used to a different dynamic in which "personal space" isn't necessarily the custom. The distinction, though, is that toxic in-laws won't allow you to claim your family time and space when you try. They'll walk through a closed door. They'll expect keys to locked ones. And they'll react badly, with anger, guilt, or passive aggression if you don't include them. Everywhere. And in everything. Always.


They're all up in your business

As frustrating as it can be to deal with a toxic in-law always invading your physical spaces or horning in on your private family time, it's even worse when they endeavor to insert themselves in important private matters. When you have a major family decision to make or a personal concern to manage, toxic in-laws won't give you and your spouse the time and space you need to sort things out. Rather, they'll try to force themselves into the commander's seat–and expect you, your spouse, and your children to fall in line.


Whether you're trying to decide where to send your children to school, how to manage their medical care, or some other high-stakes family issue, toxic in-laws won't offer advice. They'll issue edicts. They'll vehemently express their opinions, whether they're asked for or not. And if you go against their counsel, severe conflict and/or relentless criticism almost inevitably follow.

This, ultimately, is another manifestation of the habitual emotional blackmail that is the distinguishing characteristic of a toxic personality. Toxic people will leverage every emotional weapon in their arsenal to get those around them to relent–or else.

They compete with you for your spouse's attention (& affection)

It may seem incredible that you could find yourself fighting with anyone for your spouse's attention and affection, let alone with their parents. That's exactly what often happens, though, with toxic in-laws. You may once have dreamed that your spouse's parents would love and respect you like one of their own. But the sad reality is that toxic in-laws are more likely to treat you more as a rival than as a family member.


They may try to prove that they're "tops" in your spouse's heart and mind. Thus, they'll try to dominate your spouse's time and attention. They may "coincidentally" drop in for a visit every time you've made plans with your spouse. They might disrupt every date night with some sudden emergency. Whether their pattern is a health scare that always seems to clear up just as your spouse arrives or an errand that simply can't wait or that only your spouse can deal with, the end result is that your couple's plans always seem to get shattered.

Even worse, they may create conflict and try to compel your spouse to take a side. They may oppose you, even something as unimportant as where to have dinner, just to see who your spouse will support. For a toxic in-law, each dispute in which your spouse takes their side, no matter how seemingly insignificant, is a victory in their ongoing us vs. them war. It's a power play in which they only "win" if you lose.


They thrive on drama

Toxic people thrive on drama. They live for it. And so they'll take even the smallest Issues and blow them up into a full-fledged crisis. Much in the same way they seek to dominate your spouse's time and attention, to overtake your family time and space, and to force their will into family decisions, they'll use drama to get their way and/or exert their power.


Any sign of resistance, even the most minute, triggers either a rampage of rage or a torrent of tears–and sometimes both. You might find yourself going to war over what your child will be for Halloween or where to have your Sunday family dinners. The failure to immediately acquiesce may trigger hours of tantrums, weeks of the silent treatment, or months and years of recriminations and reproaches. But the reality is it's not about a Halloween costume or Sunday dinner at all. It's about control and, for many, the skewed sense of self-validation that control brings.

They have a history of conflict

Toxicity doesn't just happen in a vacuum. It's often a pattern, which means that you are probably not the first person to experience their negative mojo. This isn't to suggest, of course, that every person with a history of bad relationships brought it on themselves. Some people are just unlucky, and some have been subjected to abuse.


The difference, though, is that toxic people don't simply have a history of bad relationships, they often revel in it. They may constantly regale you with stories of arguments and estrangements, stories in which they're always either the victim or the strong and brave "straight shooter" who doesn't take any guff. Another tell-tale sign is that they never seem to have anything positive to say about anyone. If you listen and observe, it's usually pretty easy to see how people move through this world and whether, as a rule, they're spreading light or chaos.

They're super critical

Just as toxic people are negative about pretty much everything and everyone around them, they're also likely to be negative about you. You might find that getting a compliment from them is like pulling teeth. Instead, they seem to take pleasure in criticizing almost everything in your life, from your decor to your clothes and the way you're raising your children.


Once again, this is very much an attempt to exert power and control. It's a way of both explicitly and implicitly showing you–and the world–that they know better and can do better. The implication is simply that you're not going to live up to their standards, which puts them in the position of playing either the victim (of your supposed incompetence), the martyr (patiently enduring your shortcomings), or the corrector (charged with teaching you the "right" way to do things, whether you like it or not).

They make you feel bad about yourself

It's perhaps not surprising that another significant sign that you may have toxic in-laws is that you find your self-confidence shaken. When you're on the receiving end of nothing but criticism and competition, it's hard to feel sure of yourself. As a result, you're likely to feel anxious or depressed, as discussed in Psychology Today. You might approach holidays, family gatherings, or a simple visit with fear and dread. You may experience physical symptoms, from headaches to muscle tension, to nausea, when you are preparing to attend a family event.


You may even find yourself having sleeplessness, shortness of breath, heart palpitations, and other signs of panic as the event approaches. And, when it's over, you may come away feeling more anxious or depressed than ever. This is most assuredly not how family gatherings should feel. To be sure, all families experience some degree of tension from time to time, and holidays inevitably carry a certain amount of stress. But when these feelings are overwhelming and ongoing, it's a flashing red flag that something's wrong.

They undermine you

The competitiveness and disrespect that are so characteristic of toxic in-laws don't just take a toll on your physician and emotional health. Such toxicity can also significantly compromise your relationships with your spouse and even with your children.


Toxic in-laws are unlikely to honor your position in the family and may try to undermine your authority with your spouse or children. They may try to override your decisions or negate your efforts to discipline your kids. Frequently, they'll do this right in front of the children in an attempt to make you look like the mean parent, while they swoop in as the fun and nice grandma or grandpa.

A more subtle but no less destructive pattern of sabotage can occur with your spouse as well. For example, they may encourage your spouse to disregard your needs, feelings, values, or choices, sowing the seeds of conflict with your significant other. This can be yet another example of your in-laws' attempt to jockey for supremacy within the family and, in particular, in the hearts and minds of your spouse and kids. Anyone and anything who threatens their sense of power and control must quickly be put in their place.


They gaslight you

One of the most difficult aspects of dealing with toxic in-laws is managing their passive aggression. Toxic people tend to be great at gaslighting, trying to make you responsible for the effects of their bad behavior. For example, if you confront them about being overly critical, they may turn the tables and blame you for being overly sensitive. The goal, ultimately, is to make you the villain and themselves the victim. So, they're going to try to deny the issue, shift blame, and invalidate your feelings and experiences.


Gaslighting, ultimately, is a tactic to deflect responsibility for bad behavior by casting aspersions on the target of that bad conduct. Toxic people will impugn you as childish, delusional, or hypersensitive if you try to call them out for their behavior. The reality, though, is that anyone who tries to negate, invalidate, or dismiss your feelings is not acting in your best interests. And they're certainly not showing the love, kindness, or compassion to which family members, in particular, are entitled.

How to deal with toxic in-laws

Whether your in-laws check all the boxes for toxicity or only a few, dysfunction within your family relationships isn't something to be ignored. The physical and emotional impacts can be severe and enduring for everyone. And the long-term toll it may take on your family relationships can be devastating.


But just because you have a history of conflict and chaos with the in-laws doesn't mean that you and your loved ones are doomed to a bad outcome. There is hope. And it begins, very often, with communication. Learning to build healthy communication patterns within the entire family, and with your in-laws especially, is often instrumental to the healing process. In a study published in Current Opinion in Psychology, for example, researchers found that there are two primary patterns of communication that are highly effective for resolving conflicts, including conflicts within families: the oppositional and the cooperative.

Cooperative communication, as the name suggests, involves a collaborative effort to reach a solution or come to a mutual agreement on an issue. Oppositional communication, not surprisingly, is often the more difficult of the two patterns because it involves the direct confrontation of significant problems within the relationship. This requires family members to speak openly, honestly, and, above all, actively and without defensiveness.


Use oppositional communication to build alliances if possible

Critically, the end goal of oppositional communication is not to oppose one another and, therefore, to "win" the argument at the other's expense. Rather, the goal is to confront and oppose the problem through complete, if sometimes uncomfortable, candor. This allows you and your family members to see the problem in a new light and from other perspectives.


You may find, for example, that what you thought was inherent toxicity from your in-laws was, in fact, the offshoot of a history of trauma in their own lives. Hurt people hurt people, after all. But healthy communication can help your in-laws learn to recognize and correct the dysfunctional patterns they've fallen into, perhaps without even realizing it. And, along the way, you may discover that you, too, have slipped into some not-so-healthy habits, potentially hurting your in-laws or contributing to family conflict without even realizing it.

Don't take the bait

Unfortunately, for all your efforts to foster healthy and helpful communication with your in-laws, there's no panacea. Some people are too afraid or unwilling to acknowledge or change their behavior. And, as we've seen, truly toxic people love to create drama. They savor every chance to get a rise out of you if only to prove they're "right" about you.


But it takes two people to make war, so don't give it to them. The more unflappable you are, the less power they will have over you–and your emotions. Without the reward of seeing you upset and reactive, the more likely they are to leave you alone.

There's even a psychological term for this. It's called "extinction," and it refers to the fact that humans will continue a behavior for as long as they get something out of it. Even a negative event, such as a family fight, can be a payoff. When you don't give them the payoff, they're likely to redouble their efforts to incite you, but only for a while. If you remain steadfast and don't give them the negative attention they crave, according to the principle of extinction, the bad behavior will likely soon begin to fade until it becomes "extinct."


Take the high ground, instead

As hard as it can be not to lash out when you feel you're constantly under attack, you must resist, both for your sake and for the sake of your spouse and kids. Don't let your toxic in-laws make you something other, or less, than you are. Maintain your integrity, values, and peace. Be the change you want to see, and never bad-mouth your in-laws in front of your spouse or children. Remember that they're their blood and that means that an attack on your in-laws can feel like an attack on them as well.


You must also never ask your children or spouse to choose between you and them. When you refuse to stoop to your in-laws' toxic standards, it will soon become obvious who's in the right and who's in the wrong. So, do what you need to do to maintain your integrity and your dignity without popping a blood vessel. Silently count to 10. Work a stress ball. Walk away. You can learn to become emotionally detached even if you're physically present when tensions start to rise. Just remember that you can't control others' actions. You can only control how you react in turn.

Practice extreme self-care

Dealing with toxic people is always stressful, but it's especially so when they're your in-laws. And that means that you must prioritize self-care. Take private time each day to do something you love, something self-soothing and self-nurturing. A warm, aromatherapeutic bath, a gentle yoga session, a half hour of meditation or mindfulness journaling–any of these can help you relax, gain a bit of perspective, and restore your peace.


It's also important to ensure your spouse and kids are getting the same kind of nurturing. Plan date nights for you and your honey only. Plan excursions that are just for you, your spouse, and your kids. Focus on creating those precious family memories that will not only solidify the bonds you share with those you love the most but will also ensure your children look back on their childhood with fondness rather than regret.

If the in-laws try to horn it, enforce your family's boundaries–and enlist your spouse to help you. Indeed, your spouse can be an effective mediator because, as their child, your spouse has a history and an influence with the in-laws that you likely don't.

Seek professional help

There are some toxic relationships that just can't be managed without professional help. Sometimes you need an objective third party to provide perspective and a bit of clarity. Family counseling can be a great way to build healthier relationships with your in-laws, as noted by the Mayo Clinic. This can go far in helping your family identify the dysfunctional habits that have emerged. Counseling can help your family cultivate more effective communication patterns, redefine family roles (i.e. no more victims, martyrs, or dictators allowed), and develop a greater understanding of and compassion for one another.


If family counseling is a no-go with the in-laws, then consider individual counseling. According to Healthline, individual counseling can help you nurture your own mental well-being so that you can better attend to your own needs and those of your spouse and children. Importantly, individual counseling can also help you better understand your reactions to your in-laws' toxic behavior and to define responses that are healthier for you, your spouse, your children, and the entire family.