Passive-Aggressive In-Laws: How to Beat Them at Their Own Game

By Dr. Deanna Brann

Do you have a mother-in-law or a daughter-in-law who says she is “fine” or who says nothing at all, but then starts in with obvious pouts; loud, heavy sighs; and those undermining “accidental” oversights? No matter what she says or doesn’t say, her actions are screaming the real truth: She is not happy with you. This is called passive aggressive behavior, and it’s not your imagination–it’s very real!

Dealing with this behavior (passive and unassuming on the surface, but nastily aggressive toward you underneath) can be incredibly difficult, draining, and frustrating. Fortunately, I have some specific strategies for dealing with passive-aggressive mothers-in-law and also with passive-aggressive daughters-in-law–and even with passive-aggressive husbands/sons. So read on to get the tools you need for the results you want.

For Daughters-in-Law Dealing with Passive-Aggressive Mothers-in-Law

Even though it doesn’t feel like it, you really do have an advantage. I tell you this not so you can best your in-law, but so you can feel less helpless and start to see the situation in a different light.

The following two tips work because they allow you to both alter her behavior and feel better in spite of her actions. After all, it takes two to play, so if you change the rules on your mother-in-law, it’s impossible for her to keep up her frustrating behavior.

Here’s how to shake things up:

1. Shift the power from her to you with humor. When she tells you she is “fine” but then goes into drama mode, give a good-natured chuckle or laugh in that inside-joke kind of way that tells her you know exactly what she’s doing, but you’re going to ignore the behavior. This allows you to give her a message loud and clear without outwardly challenging her.

2. Play naïve. Take her at face value. Assume that unless she says something directly, she really is fine with whatever you said or did. After all, she can’t assume you’re a mind reader, right? When she can no longer count on her behavior to get her way, she will be forced to either admit how she feels or to sit back and do nothing about her contrary views.

For Mothers-in-Law Dealing with Passive-Aggressive Daughters-in-Law

Here, you’re probably dealing with either hurtful, stinging comments that are hard to defend against or the malicious subterfuge of the undermining “accidental” oversights. For example, your daughter-in-law may not include you on special family events or she may go into the other room whenever you come by (or never come out of the other room when you show up).

Here’s how to create a more balanced sense of power:

1. Take a few emotional steps back. Realize what she’s doing to you is, for the most part, not personal. She probably behaves this way with everyone she is upset with because she feels she has no power. After all, if she felt confident enough to deal with people directly, she wouldn’t resort to this behavior, right?

2. Be a role model. Instead of slinking away or showing your anger, help her see that having feelings is okay. Help her learn how to express her feelings and get results that are a win-win for both of you.

3. Acknowledge her feelings even when she won’t. If she doesn’t feel it is okay to talk about “bad” feelings, help her see that feelings are just feelings. Stating to her in a calm, compassionate way what you think she’s feeling brings those feelings out into the open.

4. Help her see you really do want to understand. When you show her that she matters enough to listen to her feelings, you start to create a neutral environment, allowing you to build a stronger relationship.

For Mothers and Wives Dealing with Passive-Aggressive Husbands/Sons

Husbands/sons can certainly use passive-aggressive behavior to add fuel to the fire of a stressful mother-in-law/daughter-in-law relationship. They allow things to happen and can even set it up to some degree, yet when it is brought up to them, they act as though they are helpless to change anything.

A typical example is when a mother tries to talk to her son about how her daughter-in-law shuts her out of their family life. His passive-aggressive response is, “What do you want me to say?” or “I don’t know what to say,” which only makes his mother feel more helpless. When the wife tries to talk to her husband about her frustration with what she sees as her mother-in-law’s lack of respect for her and her family, all he says is, “I don’t know what to say to my mom. You know how she can be.” Because the wife is protective of her husband and tired of the drama his mother’s visits seem to create, she decides to handle the situation herself by shunning her mother-in-law–and her husband just goes along for the ride.

The passive-aggressive “helplessness” of the husband/son here is setting up an ugly situation between his wife and his mother. Instead of saying something, he allows the drama and tension to continue. The worst part of this is that both women see him as the victim!

Here’s how to put the responsibility where it belongs:

• Wives, learn to work as a team. Make sure the two of you decide together the best way to handle a difficult in-law situation. Let him know that regardless of who does the talking, the two of you must be together, side-by-side, presenting a united front when addressing his mother about what you’ve decided. If you are the one talking, he needs reflect in his words, body language, and so on that he agrees with and supports you.

• Mothers, learn to get clarity. The next time your son expresses helplessness, ask straight out, “Do you agree with [your daughter-in-law]?” Also, when you discuss something you’re struggling with, such as getting to see the grandkids, talk to your son and his wife together. If he doesn’t give direct answers, point out the discrepancy between his words and his actions.

It’s vital that wives and mothers make sure that the man in the middle is always part of the equation. As helpless as he appears, believe me, he is not! Of course, talk with him from a place of love, compassion, and even confusion instead of a place of anger or frustration. This will prod him toward having more honest and real relationships.

The more you practice these tips, the easier it will get, and the faster your passive-aggressive in-law relationship will turn to one of mutual respect–and who knows, maybe even affection.

Deanna Brann, Ph.D., is a leading expert in the field of mother-in-law/daughter-in-law relationships. She has over 25 years experience as a clinical psychotherapist and ran her own private practice for more than 18 years. Based in Knoxville, TN, Dr. Brann is a sought after speaker, author and seminar leader. She is the two time author of Reluctantly Related: Secrets To Getting Along With Your Mother-in-Law or Daughter-in-Law and Mothers-in-Law and Daughters-in-Law Say the Darndest Things.

4 thoughts on “Passive-Aggressive In-Laws: How to Beat Them at Their Own Game

  1. Hi – I love your topic! I’m also very passionate about this MIL/DIL topic. I’m a new-ish MIL (2 married sons) and a DIL for the past 3 decades (my MIL is alive and well…) Your suggestions for dealing with passive aggressive behaviors are excellent, but probably useful in husband/wife relationships, or mother-daughter, or other relationships which are not nearly as complex as mil and dil. But I’m not sure they work with the mil/dil relationship. When a mil or dil is already at the passive aggressive behavior stage, no amount of switching the dance from the other end is going to work. (at least that has been my experience). But I think being direct and loving is the best advice. “When you speak in roundabout ways, I feel bad…I love you…” And the mil has to be the one to be loving and accepting (as much as she can), because she – as the older and more mature one sets the tone. That’s how I handle it, and so far it works well for me. (Thank God, with my 2 wonderful DIL’s who I try to always look at them with positive eyes.). I tell myself that their marriage and peace comes before my ego. Mind you, I’m not good in other relationships (and didn’t do so well as a DIL – I had a tough time, and still do)> But the MIL thing is easy for me. Just be nice!!! That’s my motto. It’s worked for me. I hope it works for others too…

      • I see your point totally! “Just be nice” is a little too pat for all situations. :) and that was a bit bold of me to say that….But honestly, when someone is being passive aggressive – especially a DIL to her MIL I think (now I’m just suggesting here – as I’m speaking from personal experience being on both sides of the fence, not as a professional like you) wouldn’t it be better for said MIL to step back and think out of the box, “hmmm…what am I doing that is triggering my young(or not so young!) DIL to behave this way?” Rather than “beat her at her own game” of passive aggression, (which may work for “regular” relationships like mother/teenage daughter, husband/wife (sometimes) etc), isn’t it better for the MIL to change her own behavior? :)

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