How to Handle Toxic In-Laws
Do you have an in-law who is wreaking havoc on your marriage? While this may be a laughing matter on sitcoms, if this affects you, it’s not funny at all.
In fact, issues with in-laws can be a huge source of marital stress.
For years, this was a big problem in my marriage. The toxicity took its toll on me as I endured my in-law’s boiling-over rages, all-caps emails, vitriolic put-downs, and no ownership of past offenses.
When I took the difficulties I was experiencing with my in-law to my counselor, I asked him if he thought the difficulties were serious enough to confront.
The counselor compared the relationship to a viper ready to strike at any given moment, and without warning. Since vipers strike to kill, my counselor recommended that confrontation was not just necessary, but essential for preserving my emotional and mental well-being.
But how? How are we to address difficulty with our in-laws?
My counselor recommended the Matthew 18:15-17 model of confrontation to limit the toxicity. Though this passage applies to handling problems between believers, it also works with nonbelievers. This is how it played out in our situation.
If another believer sins against you, go privately and point out the offense. If the other person listens and confesses it, you have won that person back.
Matthew 18:15 NLT
I first tried to approach this person one-on-one. Since the toxicity was so great, a phone call was the best choice. Email was too easily misconstrued, as were texts. The phone was the safest place to approach my toxic in-law on a direct basis, because the attacks had happened mostly in person, one-on-one. For many wives, this step can be handled between your husband and your in-law.
But if you are unsuccessful, take one or two others with you and go back again, so that everything you say may be confirmed by two or three witnesses.
Matthew 18:16 NLT
When the first approach met denial and confusion, I arranged an in-person meeting that my husband also attended. I prepared at length for this confrontation by using many books for reference and writing out a speech. I sought Christian advice from three trusted friends who gave me feedback on the speech. I ran the speech by my husband and made modifications based on his advice. I also covered the matter in prayer for weeks in advance.
If the person still refuses to listen, take your case to the church.
The face-to-face meeting with my in-law and husband fell flat. It became crystal clear that this person was unwilling to discuss our problems in a logical manner. Since we met a major roadblock at this point, my husband and I decided to forgive and grieve our losses. Due to serious issues I cannot explain here, we were not able to involve church leaders or others in our private matter. But if you are following the Matthew 18 model, you could involve your church leaders or other relatives at this point.
Then if he or she won’t accept the church’s decision, treat that person as a pagan or a corrupt tax collector.
For the past several years, I have had no contact with this in-law. My husband facilitates and usually supervises visits that involve our children. The toxicity has greatly decreased because I’m no longer a scapegoat for the in-law’s abuse. Depending on your situation, if your in-law has been unwilling to reflect and own the difficulties he or she has created in your relationship through your practice of Matthew 18:15-17, you may also need to pray and seek guidance in setting up healthy boundaries. These boundaries will enable you to safeguard your marriage and family.
Most in-law problems can be handled with the first few steps. But if your in-law is truly toxic, you’ll need to go all the way through to the final step. Make sure your husband is on board with you. Cover the matter in prayer and seek wise advice from your pastor, counselor, and several godly friends before ever approaching your in-law. Remember God cares about your mental and emotional health. If your toxic in-law is threatening your well-being, it may be time to confront.
Wife Step: Talk with your husband about your in-law problem. Then decide where, when and how to put the Matthew 18 model in motion.
Sarah Geringer is a speaker, artist and author of Transforming Your Thought Life: Christian Meditation in Focus and three self-published books. She is on the devotional writing teams for Encouragement for Today, A Wife Like Me, Devotable, Hope-Full Living and Woman 2 Woman Ministries. When she’s not reading over 100 books per year, Sarah enjoys painting, baking, gardening and playing the flute. Her daily must-haves are hot tea, dark chocolate, and fresh flowers. She lives in her beloved home state of Missouri with her husband and three children. Sarah writes about finding peace in God’s Word at sarahgeringer.com.