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Healthy Boundaries With Your In-Laws

Q: My mother-in-law really has my husband under her thumb. How can I get her to back off without hurting either of their feelings?

A: We have heard this often in the counseling room, and often it’s a situation where the husband is caring for a mother who has been widowed or divorced. These husbands are trying to be there for mom. So every time the wife brings this up, he feels threatened and angry because he’s just trying to do what he feels is right. The problem is, sometimes mom can be a bit overbearing. She may call at all hours and expect her son to come right over to do whatever. She may expect him to do all the yard work—not taking into account that he has his own yard work to do. There are plenty of ways that the controlling nature of a parent can play out. Sometimes it is a wife who is controlled by her mother.

We would offer a few suggestions to stop having your marriage controlled by one of your parents. There may be other siblings who can help—and there may not be. In either case, your spouse needs to do some maturing when it comes to setting boundaries, but it won’t happen overnight.

For example, it would not be wise for a husband to just go pull the plug on spending time or connecting to his mom. It’s a process. If there are siblings, encourage your husband to start with the one or two siblings to whom he’s closest and who also may be inclined to help and share the burden in an honoring way. Even if they live far away, there are ways that they can help. One sibling can make a call to the kid down the street to mow the lawn and send him a check once a month so that your husband is not burdened with weekly lawn care. Someone else can be sure to check in on mom by phone or e-mail every few days. That takes some of the emotional burden off of your husband.

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He needs to help his siblings understand that he is trying to get his marriage and family off to a healthy start—and that helping mom all the time is making it difficult. Discuss how other siblings can pick up some of the responsibility.

You don’t want to dishonor your husband for seeking to honor his mother, so you need to make sure he understands that. Instead, you want him to set healthy boundaries.

*For more practical marriage advice, check out The Great Marriage Q&A Book. It’s available in our online bookstore!