You love your partner — but feel less enthusiastic about your overbearing mother-in-law.
You don’t hate her; it’s just that she’s always around, or always offering problematic advice, or always butting in where she doesn’t belong.
Basically, she’s the human embodiment of nosey, overbearing, passive-aggressive judgment.
So today, we’re looking at setting boundaries with in-laws.
Why is it a good idea?
What parameters make sense?
And how should you go about doing it?
Let’s dive in.
What Are Healthy Boundaries with Your In-Laws?
When should you establish boundaries with in-laws? Every couple has a unique set of circumstances, and what’s good for the goose may not be so hot for the gander.
Generally speaking, though, there are five categories where it’s wise to establish perimeters.
- Parenting: As a parent, you have every right to raise your children in the best way you see fit, as long as it’s not detrimental to your kid’s physical or emotional health. Grandparents may try to add their two cents about everything from milk temperature to dating rules and everything in between.
If their advice doesn’t gnaw at your nerves, smile, nod, and just ignore their counsel if it doesn’t gel with your vision. But if you’re on the verge of pulling out your last hair, have a chat about parenting boundaries.
- Visitation: Of course, you want your children to have relationships with their grandparents — but your mother-in-law doesn’t need to be at your house all the time. Sure, big family dinners once a week are not unreasonable and normal in many cultures.
But if in-laws are driving distances every five days to spend time with you and your children, it may be prudent to talk and work out a more reasonable visitation schedule.
- Vacations: Do your parents need to come on every vacation? Sure, it may have been helpful when you had infants. But if they never stop and take over all vacation operations, things may have gone too far.
We’re not suggesting you never holiday with your family. But it crosses the line when it becomes a domineering situation.
- Holidays: We all love to tell ourselves that holidays are a time of fun and joy. But every adult with a family knows they can be equally as stressful. Traveling logistics and issues related to spending equal time with all the grandparents can cause conflicts.
- Medical: Yes, if your child is choking and your in-law is standing next to them, the adult should perform the Heimlich Maneuver.
Otherwise, grandparents don’t need to be involved in the day-to-day health decisions about your kids — like picking doctors and passing judgment about medication.
List of Boundaries for Mother-In-Law: 19 You Should Consider Establishing
We’ve discussed common parental boundaries. Now let’s examine some specifics.
1. Romantic Relationships Are Off Limits
Your mother-in-law doesn’t need to be on the inside of your marriage or relationship. Broad strokes are fine.
Butting into highly personal things is not. The role of your spouse’s mom is to provide support when summoned.
2. Side Taking Isn’t Expressed Publicly
There are always two vantage points to every story, and the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle.
But even if you take a “side” in a family squabble, there’s no need to express it around children or other relatives. In-laws should try to keep their noses out of drama.
3. Visitation Is a Privilege, Not a Right
Are you a grandparent? Do you show up at your children’s homes unannounced? Or, do you announce yourself…every single weekend? Be honest.
Are your kids humoring you, or would they rather have a weekend that doesn’t involve hosting duties?
A mother-in-law may think she is there to help and swear her only goal is to make your life easier.
But it takes resources and emotional energy to have mom-in-law loitering around your space every weekend. People need to recharge on days off, not play perpetual host.
4. Finances Are (Mostly) Personal
Yes, when you become a parent, you take financial responsibility for your offspring until they’re – well, let’s be honest, forever.
Plenty of families help out with down payments for homes. Or maybe you know of a performing stock that you share with your siblings and cousins. That’s all fine.
But beyond that, in-laws shouldn’t be directing and critiquing their adult children’s financial choices — especially if the money isn’t theirs.
5. Don’t Conflate Favors and Bribes
Does your mother-in-law try to bribe you? She’ll pay for X if you allow her Y? It’s a classic move, and it always blows up at some point.
If someone in your family is heading down this path, nip it in the bud. Playing tit for tat with family members has a terrible track record.
6. Passive Aggression Is Unwelcome
Life is complicated enough. The last thing you need is to play the passive-aggressive game with your in-law. You don’t have time to read other peoples’ minds and deal with their pettiness.
A no-passive-aggressive rule isn’t a terrible idea. Problems and hurt feelings are easier to solve when you can be direct with people.
7. House Rules Must Be Followed
All of you must follow house rules. Whether at your house or her place. The person who pays the bills gets to make the rules for the space.
8. Abuse Won’t Be Tolerated
Some parents come from a different time — when hitting kids was perfectly normal. Mental health sensitivity is also a new concept for many people over 45.
So make it clear that implementing “old-fashioned” punishments is a non-negotiable no for your spouse’s mom.
9. Calling and Texting Guidelines May Be a Good Idea
One of the most important mother-in-law boundaries is the texting, calling, and messaging hours.
Sometimes, they forget you have a life, too, and expect you to drop everything when they send a message and focus on their questions and needs.
Explain that you lead a busy life and can’t always get back to people immediately.
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10. Information Exchange Is Voluntary
You’re not required to tell your mother-in-law everything about your life, whether about work or child care. Information exchange is voluntary.
Don’t push past another person’s limits. If someone closes the door on a topic, respect that.
And remember that it works both ways. You must also respect their privacy.
11. Diets Aren’t an Extended Family Activity
Do you have a perpetual dieter among your family ranks? Or maybe they’re just a health nut who feels the need to comment about everything anyone puts in their mouth. Whichever the case, it’s unbearable and needs to stop.
Keeping these topics off-limits can be a family saver. Remind everyone that health advice changes every ten years anyway.
12. The Kids Always Come First
Yes, you should always make time for self-care. But in the grand scheme of things, the kids always come first.
It’s not acceptable for an attention-craving family member to compete with your kids for the attention of you and your partner. Kids trump grandparents in most cases. That’s just the way it has to be.
If they can’t abide by this rule, limit their interaction with the kids. It may feel harsh, but it’s often necessary.
13. Playing Relatives Off Each Other Isn’t Allowed
Does your mother-in-law try to play people off one another to get what she wants? This behavior crosses a line. It creates excessive drama, and it’s exceptionally immature.
If your mother-in-law is messing around with this game, have a loving but unequivocal chat about quitting while they’re ahead.
If they want something or feel a certain way, they should just be open and honest about it with all involved parties.
14. Talk About Gifting
To save aggravation, grandparents should always clear gift purchases with parents beforehand. It saves a lot of trouble, not the least of which is getting the same thing.
It’s also important for grandparents to stay within the parents’ financial range. Yes, nana and pop-pop may want to spoil the kids with everything they want, regardless of their behavior.
But you’re in charge of making sure your offspring don’t turn into ungrateful brats who can’t appreciate anything. So set limits that fit within a lifestyle you think is appropriate.
15. No Major Secrets
If there’s big news that family members deserve to know, tell everyone. It’s unfair to keep some people in the dark about significant things and not others. Set rules about issues and problems that the family must share no matter what.
Your mother-in-law may think she has the same rights as Queen Elizabeth to be informed first, but that’s not how it works.
16. Travel Rights
One of the rarely discussed mother-in-law boundaries with grandchildren is travel rights. Does your mother-in-law want to take your child on a big trip?
Are you uncomfortable with the idea? Do you think they’re still too young? As the parent, you have the right to say no without feeling guilty.
Moreover, grandparents should always ask before presenting the idea to the child — especially if they’re teenagers.
17. Poisoning Kids’ Minds Is a High Crime
It’s unacceptable for grandma to poison her grandkids’ minds about either of their parents. Even if you are going through the nastiest divorce in the history of separations, it is bad form to use the kids as pawns.
Grandparents who try this must be censured.
18. Gossiping Is Prohibited
Gossip is hurtful, especially from the people who are supposed to love you the most. If your mother-in-law talks trash behind your back and puts your business in the streets, it’s perfectly acceptable to be irate.
Life is stressful enough. The last thing anyone needs are intra-family quislings. Draw a line.
19. Put the Reins on Unsolicited Advice
It’s good to be open to advice from parents – to a degree.
Yes, you want to learn from their mistakes and siphon their wisdom, but you also have a right to raise your child in a suitable way for their generation. That goes for your life too.
If your family member asks for advice, give it. If they don’t, just be there for support.
How to Set Boundaries with In-Laws
If you follow a few guidelines, it’s easy to set boundaries with in-laws.
Sure, there may be some hurt feelings initially, but if you approach the discussion with grace and treat everyone with respect, it’s usually not as bad as you may imagine.
- Keep It Positive: Boundaries are there to make you a closer family, not rip you apart. So keep it positive.
- Talk To Your Spouse First: Before talking to your mother-in-law, clear it with your spouse. After all, it’s their mom. Who knows, they may want to do it themselves. Or maybe there’s a reason she’s been acting difficult lately.
- Be Kind, Gentle, and Respectful: The goal is to be as kind and pleasant as possible when discussing the boundaries with in-laws. Again, this is supposed to help, not hurt.
- Don’t Feel Guilty: Some people feel wracked with guilt when they must ask their parents to take a step back. But you really shouldn’t. At one point, most people, including your parents, go through this parenting rite of passage.
- Have a Conversation: Set up a particular time to have the conservation. Lay everything out, so everyone is clear. If you’re not straightforward, things may get lost in translation and assumption.
- Follow the Rules: If you’re adamant about establishing boundaries, you also need to follow them. Don’t fall into a do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do pattern.
- Be Reasonably Flexible: Sometimes, life doesn’t work out as planned, and we need to adjust on the fly. In emergencies, you must cross boundaries. Use common sense.
Relations with your mother-in-law can be loving and pleasant if you put the proper boundaries in place, allow for reasonable flexibility, and everybody does their best to adhere to the rules.
And remember, there are worse things in life than a family member wanting to spend time with you. Yes, it can be maddening and frustrating, but always try to lead with grace.