This column is part of Advice Week, Slate’s celebration of all things advice. Few topics come up as often in our advice columns as dealing with an out-of-control in-law. So we’ve rounded up some of our favorite questions from through the years for you below.
My future mother-in-law would like to wear her wedding dress to our wedding. I’m less concerned about the dress and more concerned about what this says about our future relationship. She is a very kind, considerate person, and I am certain that she knows this is not a very nice thing to do. What could her possible motivations be and what should I do about it? I’m inclined to let her wear whatever she wants, as it doesn’t bother me as much as maybe something else would. Should I pick my battles, as they say? Or will not saying something make me seem like a pushover?
—Wedding Dress? Me Too!
It’s not that this is a not-nice thing to do. It’s that it’s a deranged thing to do. No one—no one—is going to be confused about who the bride will be. But the more literary-minded of your guests will wonder how Miss Havisham got an invitation to your wedding. I often advise that in the matter of in-law problems, the blood relation has first go at addressing this issue. Your fiancé should tell his mother he’s heard about her plan. He can say that she’s a grown woman and of course can wear whatever she likes, but that he’s worried she will embarrass herself by showing up to his wedding in her old wedding gown. Then if she decides to wear some puff-sleeved, high-necked horror from another era, just smile and tell her how happy you are to see her.—Emily Yoffe
From: Help! My Future Mother-in-Law Wants to Wear Her Wedding Dress to My Wedding. (May 19, 2015)
Dear Care and Feeding,
I’ve been with my husband for nearly 14 years. When we first got engaged, my mother-in-law, “Barbara,” told me to my face that she’d been having a hard time accepting that her son was marrying me.
Things have never gotten better. She constantly makes offhand comments about my weight and appearance. She’s told me that she does not like my parents and that they never make her feel welcome. When visiting, she rifles through my bathroom drawers and uses things I consider personal (hairbrush, toothbrush). She goes through cupboards and takes unopened food items home with her. Barbara has also pulled these stunts with my sister-in-law. She’s taken food, clothes, and even pictures off the wall. She barges in and sits in the bathroom while my sister-in-law finishes showering. This behavior is ridiculous to me.
My husband and I recently had a baby. Because she lives far away, Barbara doesn’t get to see us often and announced she will be coming once a month to stay with us so she can bond with our daughter. Our place is small, and we only have two bedrooms. We’ve suggested in the past that she stay in a hotel, but she is too cheap and finds that suggestion offensive. Her visiting for an extended weekend once a month sounds dreadful. While I want my daughter to have a relationship with her grandmother, I do not like the idea of spending time with someone who is so disrespectful and rude to me. During our last visit I ended up in tears.
My anxiety is through the roof when I spend time with this woman. My husband is no help. He is not good at communicating and normally brushes it off, downplaying her behavior. I’ve tried on many occasions to get to know Barbara and be accommodating but she changes her attitude from fine to appalling with the flip of a switch. What do I do? Is there any way to prevent this from turning into a nightmare?
—Save Me From My Toxic MIL
Dear Save Me,
Your mother-in-law uses your … toothbrush? This behavior is not ridiculous only to you. Curious as I am about your deranged mother-in-law, I wonder more about your husband and how he could possibly downplay the behavior you describe.
I understand that it can be difficult for us to confront our parents, but it is clear that this is your husband’s responsibility. Please talk to him directly; if you think that’s an impossible task, perhaps together you should see a therapist or religious adviser with the intent of handling this problem.
The behavior you describe feels indefensible, and your husband’s reticence might be because he’s been dealing with it longer—she’s his mother—or because he’s ashamed. But often the birth of a child becomes the inflection point that helps us clarify our relationships with our own parents. So perhaps he can rise to the occasion now.
I applaud you for wanting your kid to have a relationship with this grandmother, and one solution obvious to me is to have her come but not stay. She might resist, or plead poverty, or just be insulted by the suggestion. But I think you need to insist. It’s my hope your husband can get involved—but if he can’t, you’re not really risking anything as this woman already doesn’t respect you. Rather than give in to a long weekend of round-the-clock anxiety, just say, in no uncertain terms, “Barbara, we’d love to see you all weekend, but you’ll need to stay in a hotel.”—Rumaan Alam
From: My Mother-in-Law Uses My Toothbrush. (Feb. 4, 2020)
My daughter-in-law enjoys knitting and crocheting. For her birthday, my husband and I gave her a generous gift card to a local yarn store, for which she thanked us and seemed very pleased. Imagine my dismay, however, when six months later for our anniversary she gifted us with a lovely bedspread, which she told me she made with yarn purchased from the gift card! I told my son that we’d in effect paid for our own present and that he needs to communicate to his wife how improper and stingy this move was. He refuses, saying that her labor and time were also part of the gift. We haven’t spoken much since except to discuss our grandchildren, and our DIL has been outright cold. I’m considering writing her a letter directly explaining why this was an improper gift and expressing my sadness that her own parents didn’t teach her gift etiquette. My husband wants me to drop the whole thing and pretend like it never happened. Prudie, I don’t like the idea of moving on as if nothing happened.
—The Gift We Gave Ourselves
But nothing did happen. You received a thoughtful gift that cost more time than money. That’s it! If someone gives you a present you don’t like, you smile and say, “Thanks, how thoughtful,” and then stash it in the back of your closet. You don’t ask your kid to complain to the gift-giver via backchannel. It’s fine if you like to give expensive presents—and can afford to do so—but that’s not the only way to show someone that you care. Even if you don’t like knitwear, your daughter-in-law spent countless hours over the course of a half-year working on something very detailed for you, and you say yourself it was a lovely bedspread. Whether she got the yarn with the gift card you gave her or spent her own money is beside the point; you’re acting as if she re-gifted something when that clearly wasn’t the case. Your daughter-in-law’s gift was thoughtful and intricate; yours was financially generous and relatively generic. There would be no reason to compare the two if you hadn’t insisted on doing so in the first place.
You are grown adults with plenty of money; if there’s something you want for yourself, go ahead and buy it—this kind of petty scorekeeping around gift-giving is barely excusable when little children do it. Writing her a letter to express “sadness” that her own parents didn’t teach her proper etiquette would be wildly inappropriate, out of line, and an unnecessary nuclear option. And it’s a guaranteed ticket to make sure you see and hear about your grandchildren way less than you do now. You still have time to salvage this relationship—don’t die on this hill. Let it go, apologize for your churlishness, and take yourself shopping if you want a pricey gift this year.—Danny M. Lavery
From: Help! My Husband Wants Us to Host His Violent and Voyeuristic Brother for the Holidays. (Nov. 22, 2018).
My husband and I live in a large metropolitan city, and we have a roomy house. I like cooking and entertaining, but we have intense jobs; consequently, our time together is very precious to us. My husband’s sister and her family live across the state. Her children have attended school in our city, and we have been happy to be available to them. The problem is my sister-in-law. She announces that she is coming about once a month to visit the kids, get her hair done, or see an old friend. She (and sometimes her husband) stays in our extra bedroom. I cook breakfast and dinner for them. I enjoy their company, but the visits are too frequent and they’re a lot of work for me. In 10 years, the entire acknowledgment of our hospitality is that she took us out to breakfast once. When my husband and I met, his sister regarded his house as a big-city crash pad. My husband agrees that it’s a pain but says that his sister is too dense to take a hint. Otherwise our relationship is delightful and I want to remain on good terms with my husband’s family. What are my options?
Your sister-in-law is not dense, she’s brilliant. She’s gotten a decade of accommodations and meals without even having to supply a bottle of wine. However you approach changing this deal, it’s bound to provoke outrage (“But I’ve been mooching off you for years!”). Here are your choices:
Goodbye Ritz, Hello Motel 6. Could you stand having her return to crashing in the bedroom and letting go of all the hostess duties? Give her a key to the house, tell her you’re too busy these days to cook for a group, and suggest she bring her own groceries if she plans to eat in.
We’re Fully Booked. The next time she tells you she’s coming, you tell her this is not a good time for guests. Ask that she give you some notice for a future visit, and if it fits with your schedule, you’d be happy to have her.
Airing the Laundry. Deliver a direct message, preferably from your husband. He tells her that having company so frequently is taxing for you and she can’t come every month. He also says since you have cooked so many lovely meals for her over the years, the next time she does come, she needs to start reciprocating. Dinner at a restaurant would be a good place to start.—Emily Yoffe
From: He’s Just a Jealous Guy. (June 15, 2006)
Second-time, sleep-deprived new mom here. About a month ago, I burned part of my body on a too-hot water bottle in bed that caused a painful 2-inch blister and now scab. Recently, embarrassingly, I picked at the scab (bad habit dating back to childhood) and needed to re-bandage it.
My mother-in-law, a former nurse, saw the bandage and asked what happened. I said, “Oh, that happened a while ago,” and changed the subject. Today, she saw the uncovered injury and again asked what happened. I said, “Oh, nothing, I burned it.” And she started talking triumphantly about how she KNEW it was a burn because of her years as a wound care nurse. I grumpily said, “I don’t want to talk about it.” I was embarrassed that I had re-injured it and also that I hadn’t covered it with clothing (after the previous comment) but she had shown up at our door that morning unannounced.
After she left, my husband was angry with me for speaking to her so “gruffly.” He didn’t agree with me that she had no business commenting on my body. What the hell? I lost my temper and yelled that just because you were once a nurse doesn’t give you the right to make observations about other people’s bodies. This after a few days of my father-in-law joking that our baby girl was gaining too much weight and getting too heavy with every ounce of formula we fed her.
Am I right to think they should both lay off commenting on female bodies?! (Anybody!) I wish I had calmly said to her, “I’d appreciate it if you didn’t comment on my body.” I also wish I had calmly shared my feelings with my husband rather than yell. I don’t really want to talk to her about it—I’m hoping she got the hint even though I didn’t handle it ideally. But what can I do about this fight with my husband? For what it’s worth, he is also sleep-deprived and definitely pulls his weight with the kids and the household, so that’s not an issue.
—Fed Up With Body Comments
Dear Fed Up,
I see these two kinds of body comments as very different and think your anger at your mother-in-law was misdirected, and that your father-in-law is weird, gross, and inappropriate for joking about your infant daughter gaining too much weight (and I think that would be the case regardless of her gender). But it’s not generally considered to be out of bounds to check on a loved one who is visibly wounded and bandaged. If you don’t want anyone to say anything about your body—if no questions or concerns are welcome even if you show up with crutches or a neck brace—you need to make that clear in advance, because it’s a bit unusual. So do that, whenever you feel up to it.
In the meantime, tell your husband you wish you’d shared your feelings rather than yelling. And just as important, tell him that this is a hard time and you need more support—and possibly even a check-in with your doctor about postpartum depression, just to be on the safe side. I hear you when you say he pulls his weight, but if you are injuring yourself, feeling shame about it, re-injuring yourself, and breaking down over relatively harmless comments, it could be a sign that sleep deprivation and hormonal changes are taking a bigger toll on you than you realize. And whether your mood is hormone-related or not, I can’t imagine you enjoy feeling undone over a stray mother-in-law remark. That’s no way to live, and having some tactics to navigate conflicts like this could make your life happier.—Jenée Desmond-Harris
From: Help! I’m So Furious at My In-Laws for Commenting on My and My Baby’s Bodies. (Jan. 19, 2022)
My mother-in-law hates me and makes no bones about it when she and I are alone. My husband doesn’t believe me, and she even gloats about that. We have to attend family functions at her home about once a month. (It used to be more frequent, but after I put my foot down, my husband agreed that monthly would be sufficient.) The problem is that after each visit, I wind up with a bad case of diarrhea; my husband does not. I don’t know if the other in-laws are affected, because if I asked, it would get back to her. I suspect that my mother-in-law is putting something in my food or drink. Last time, I barely made it home before being struck down. Now I am considering getting some “adult undergarments” to make sure I don’t ruin the car’s upholstery on the ride home from her place. Do you have any other advice?
—Running for the Hills
In the great old Cary Grant movie Suspicion, director Alfred Hitchcock has a scene in which possible murderer Grant is bringing a glass of milk to his wife, played by Joan Fontaine, and no beverage has ever looked so malign. Just as Fontaine wasn’t sure if she was being poisoned, you aren’t either. It’s possible you’ve entered a Pavlovian cycle in which when you eat your mother-in-law’s food your digestive tract automatically goes into overdrive, or that there is some ingredient she regularly uses which just doesn’t agree with you. It’s also possible she’s trying to harm you. I’ve been reading a fascinating book, The Poisoner’s Handbook, about poisoners in the early 20th century—it was a popular way to off someone—and the new forensic scientists who exposed them. Peek at your mother-in-law’s Kindle to see if she’s downloaded this. The next time you go for dinner at her house, after the food is served but before you begin eating, you and your husband should agree to swap plates and cups. If you mother-in-law screams to her son, “Don’t eat that!” case closed, Sherlock. Of course, this would require your husband to take your concerns seriously. It’s alarming to think your mother-in-law might be deliberately sickening you. Equally distressing is the fact that your husband does not believe you when you describe her malicious behavior. You need to tell your husband that after becoming repeatedly ill at your in-law’s house, you have become afraid for your health. Tell him you are also afraid for your marriage because he apparently believes you are a liar—which you are not—when it comes to his mother. Say that he needs to take seriously the fact that she says ugly things when you and she are alone, and you are not going to stand for it anymore. If that doesn’t result in his attention and concern, then you may need to move to your mother’s.—Emily Yoffe
From: Help! My Mother-in-Law Might Be Poisoning Me. (March 8, 2012).
Dear Care and Feeding,
My MIL lives several states away, so we see her just a few times a year. My 10-year-old daughter is her one and only grandchild. Of course, when she comes to town, I don’t want to block access to my daughter, but it has always made me uneasy that her time with all my in-laws has to be alone, something my husband shrugs off. My husband and I are pushed far to the side of all time when they are in town. When she came up several years ago a few weeks prior to Christmas, MIL had my daughter for the weekend and threw a “Christmas Morning” with my daughter and her other son. My husband and I were not invited. I explained to my husband I wasn’t OK with this for several reasons, including but not limited to: I want to see what she gets, and take pictures, and am not OK with being out of the picture.
I thought we were on the same page, but when MIL came in a few weeks prior to my daughter’s birthday, she gave her all of her birthday gifts in private, despite the fact that I was throwing a family dinner for everyone at the end of the weekend. Husband says it’s no big deal, but he also went and cleaned the chicken coop the minute his mom showed up for the dinner, so I’m thinking he’s out of touch on the issue too. Am I crazy, or is this weird?
—This Seems Wrong
Dear This Seems Wrong,
This is absolutely weird, and it ends today. Your MIL can get stuffed. Tell your wuss of a chicken coop–hiding husband to get in gear and back you up, you’re tired of being treated like the nanny when his mother comes to town.
That “Christmas Morning” shit she pulled? Not on my watch.
From now on, you go where your daughter goes, you act pleasantly bemused when your mother-in-law tries to reinstate the old rules, and if she asks why things have changed you can say, “Oh, they just grow up so fast, I want to be there for every minute,” ideally while staring her dead in the face and channeling Charles Bronson.
I insist you email me about developments in this situation.—Nicole Cliffe
From: When My Mother-in-Law Visits, She Insists on Keeping Our Daughter Apart From Us. (March 22, 2019)
I recently got engaged to my wonderful fiancé. Immediately after announcing the engagement to our families, my future sister-in-law sat me down for a serious chat. She says she is currently saving up for breast implants and doesn’t want us to marry until she gets them done. She told me she wants to have one family wedding album where she looks perfect and will be heartbroken if I got married against her wishes. The trouble is, my fiancé says we should hold off the wedding for this reason, too. He knows his sister will cause so much trouble and doesn’t want to deal with the family drama. He thinks since we live together there is no hurry for marriage, anyway. I know how much he detests conflict and it’s true we are pretty much living as a married couple, but I feel like this is so wrong to postpone the wedding. He says the other option is to pay for his sister’s breast implant ourselves! Am I crazy for marrying into this family?
I’ve heard that people want others’ wedding dates moved because of their pending reproductive plans, or because it’s their anniversary which they think should be commemorated like a national holiday. But this is the first time I’ve heard that starting a new life should be put off until someone can afford new breasts. I often tell brides to stop making themselves nuts in an attempt to create the “perfect day.” But it’s really something that your sister-in-law thinks the point of your marrying her brother is that she can show off her perfect breasts. I have every confidence that right now she can afford the most jumbo set of falsies. That means that’s when it’s time for the photos her chest is front and center. Your fiancé should be saying, “Yeah, Stacy has always been a handful. The fact that she wants us to delay our wedding until she’s more of a handful is an escalation of the crazy, so let’s just ignore her.” Instead he is actually considering footing the bill for the boobs, which is rather extraordinary. It’s often the case that one family member is so impossible that everyone just gives in to make life easier, but it’s a little concerning that your intended “detests conflict” so much he’s incapable of telling his sister she’s being ridiculous. The advantage of this whole thing happening is that your fiancé wants to postpone your wedding. So that gives you time to explore just how you two will handle this and other inevitable conflicts, which is crucial information you need before you tie the knot.—Emily Yoffe
From: Help! My Fiancé Wants to Delay Our Wedding Until After His Sister’s Boob Job. (Sept. 30, 2013).
Recently my 23-year-old nephew asked if we could talk man to man. He told me he was marrying his college girlfriend. He said that if my wife ever treated her as badly as she has treated his mother and his other aunt, he would not be silent about it as my brothers have been. When I replied with shock, he ran down a list of statements, actions, and other offenses my wife has committed that he has witnessed over the past 15 years. My wife has gossiped to the church leadership about my brothers and sisters-in-law, losing them positions they should have had. She ruined family events with childish demands and outbursts when I was not in the room. He suggested failures in my career could be because of her. He ended by saying his mother and aunt have never once said anything demeaning about my wife in front of him or anyone. He told of a time when he was in high school and a lady from church confronted his mother about a lie my wife had spread that the church lady believed. I have been completely unaware of any of this. I talked to our pastor, my boss, and my brothers. All have told me stories that made me sick to my stomach about how she has flirted with them when I am not around, and the horrible things my wife has done to other women. They all have assumed I knew all about this and have been allowing it to continue. After we talked, our pastor agreed to talk to the other leadership and correct the lies that have tainted my sisters-in-law. My sisters-in-law are caring, compassionate, never judge, and put family above all else. I feel like trash having exposed them to 15 years of torture, and for believing for even one second some of the things my wife has said about them. While I am sick to my stomach and worry that my own children may see this behavior and copy it, I am torn about what do to. Our pastor feels that I should address the congregation and ask forgiveness—our whole family attends the same church. He then wants me and my wife to enter counseling to repair our relationship so we can grow and she maybe can change. I want to grab my kids, hit the door, file for divorce, and then begin repairing the relationship with my family. What do you think?
There’s a contradiction in your story. You say that you have been entirely oblivious to the behavior of the apparent sociopath you’re married to. Then you note you’re sickened that you believed any of the nasty things your wife told you about your sisters-in-law. So I think that while the worst things she did may have been behind your back, you willfully decided long ago not to turn and face them. I have to disagree with your pastor’s suggestion. I don’t think it’s appropriate for you to stand in front of the congregation and say that you’ve come to realize you’re married to the spawn of Satan but that you hope with counseling (and maybe exorcism) she can be remolded into a lovely person. Sure, now that you know about the lies she’s spread, you should continue to do your best to address these and clear them up. I don’t understand the silence of your sisters-in-law. It’s one thing to turn the other cheek, it’s another to let someone claw at it for years without defending oneself. You may fantasize about fleeing with the kids, but it doesn’t work that way. First you have to tell your wife about what you’ve discovered. You’ve made a life and had children with her, and you have to find out directly what she’s been up to. If she starts lying to you, say you’ve always found your pastor to be an honest person, and he has attested to her perfidy. If you do divorce, she is the mother of your children and will continue to be a major figure in their lives—being scum is generally not reason enough to lose custody. I do agree that counseling is called for—for you. Whatever happens to your marriage going forward, you must address the fact that you have somehow sleepwalked through much of your adult life.—Emily Yoffe
From: Help! My Wife Flirts With My Brothers and Trashes My Sisters-in-Law. (May 14, 2015)
Dear Care and Feeding,
As a mother of boys, a daughter-in-law, and a reader of this advice column, I have one question: Do all mothers-in-law suck?
Seriously, it is my fear that, no matter what I do, in the very distant future, my relationship with my boys will never be close if they get married. I know there are a few amazing mothers-in-law out there, but the vast majority of them seem to always be tolerated at best.
—Am I Doomed?
Dear Am I Doomed,
I think something very important to remember is that we do not see good mother-in-law relationships in pop culture because good mothers-in-law are dull as dishwater from a comedic perspective. We also do not see good mother-in-law relationships in advice columns because very few people are going to take time out of their day to say: “Dear Abby, I am a woman with a warm relationship with my mother-in-law, who respects my boundaries and has made me feel included and welcome in her family’s life. I hope you are well also.”
I have witnessed numerous functional, positive in-law situations in the wild. What may be helpful for you is to think about what those situations have in common! There are no guarantees in this life—people will experience friction and moments of conflict and misunderstandings and basic incompatibility, regardless of our best intentions. But there are absolutely some things you can do your best to control from your end of the bargain.
Be kind. Be warm. Respect your adult child’s choices. Don’t complain about their partner to them. Don’t complain about their partner to their partner. Don’t wear white (or full black Victorian mourning attire) to the wedding. Don’t keep a spreadsheet of visits to your home versus visits to their partner’s parents’ home. Don’t keep score, period. Try to be open and interested in their lives without being intrusive. If they have children of their own, give them the freedom to raise those children in the way they see fit. Unsolicited advice in marriage or child rearing is rarely wise. Don’t go through their personal possessions when you are in their home. If you return one of their children to them minus two fingers, do not push for future unsupervised visits until they are comfortable with that, which may be never.
Some of these are easier than others, but it’s almost always best to focus on what you can do than spend time worrying about the variables beyond your control. Things may still go pear-shaped, but being able to say “well, I did my best” and actually mean it is very important.
I hope your sons’ partners will all think you’re absolutely darling and also that you do not spook them by being overly concerned that they might not.—Nicole Cliffe
From: Does Becoming a Mother-in-Law Turn You Into a Monster? (June 19, 2020)
A couple of months ago you answered my letter asking for advice regarding a situation involving my hateful mother-in-law, whom I suspected of tainting my food or drink at family functions at her home. You had suggested swapping plates with my husband to see if my mother-in-law would react. However, as you noted, that would have required bringing my husband into my confidence. I did not feel it was wise to do that, because he already didn’t believe that his mother treated me badly. But the next function was at Easter. She provided a traditional prime rib dinner, set up buffet style, and I could see no way that could be problematic. However, when we arrived at her home, the dinner table was set with place cards and in front of each was a ramekin of horseradish sauce and a small pitcher of au jus. When nobody was looking, I switched the ramekin and pitcher between my husband’s place and mine. After my husband and I returned home, he became wracked with diarrhea, but I was not ill at all. In the morning I told him that I had switched the horseradish and au jus. He looked at me with such hatred in his eyes that I knew he had known all along what his mother was up to. His only words were to accuse me of poisoning him! I quickly packed a couple of bags and raced out of there. I have hired a divorce lawyer and I won’t be looking back. Thank you and your commenters for your advice and concern.
—Alive To Tell the Story
I so appreciate your giving us this chilling, stomach-turning update. Thank goodness you got out before your mother-in-law’s condiments turned lethal. When you confer with your divorce attorney, do ask about the possibility of criminal charges. And Readers, on this coming Mother’s Day, if your mother thinks you’re beautiful just the way you are, and your mother-in-law is not trying to kill you, happily lift a glass of (unpoisoned) champagne and celebrate the women in your life.—Emily Yoffe
From: Help! My Mother Keeps Trying To Force Plastic Surgery on Me. (May 10, 2012)
Even More From Advice Week
Dear Prudie: My wife has developed a fear of driving. So much so that she actually sold her car. The thing is that I have to take her everywhere now. I am expected to cancel whatever I am doing or would like to do in order to accommodate her. And when she wants to go out with her friends, I am expected to not only take her but pick her up as well. It is creating a great deal of frustration for me, and I don’t know what to do.