This is a revised republishing of a vintage and super popular post I did years ago. I’m bringing it out of the vault today revamped and hopefully a bit more robust in the ways it can help you if you’re facing this difficult situation.
You’ve probably seen her type. Outwardly, she’s as sacrificial and sweet as Mother Theresa, but inwardly, she can be as judgmental and downright mean as Mommy Dearest.
I sure hope your mother-in-law does NOT resemble this roller-coaster extreme!
In my experience, my mother-in-law only resembles the positive side of this dichotomy. 🙂
And I sure hope this negative stereotype doesn’t capture how my daughter-in-law views me!
But what if this sounds eerily similar to your experience?
3 “Martyr” MIL Red Flags …
1. Manipulates you with guilt, trying to get you to do things her way—her “right” or “better” way.
One woman told me recently that she and her husband were planning a trip to the Bahamas for their anniversary. She was really excited about it until her mother-in-law (MIL) said, “Well, we never went on frivolous and far-away trips like that when our children were small!”
There typically is a pebble (or boulder) of judgment inserted in every guilt-induced statement a true martyr mother-in-law makes.
2. Her feelings easily and often get hurt over how you’ve treated her.
If your MIL is a true “martyr,” she won’t complain openly about this. That might blow her cover as the “martyr” she wants to be seen as!
Instead, she’ll withdraw, not speak to you &/or your husband, whine, mope or even “turn on the waterworks” when you fail to give her the respect that she feels she deserves.
She is, after all, the most maligned person in the whole family! 😉
3. Secretly complains about you to your husband, her son, trying to turn him against you.
If she’s taking outward efforts to enlist your husband’s sympathies, then she’s moved to a very destructive level of boundary violation.
Most likely this means the situation has gone on for far too long and your “husband” has in some way encouraged her to continue. Though he might not even recognize it as such.
3 Ways to Improve How You Relate to Your “Martyr” MIL
1. Give her the acknowledgment that she’s seeking.
Maybe you’re thinking, Are you kidding me? Give her the satisfaction that she’s right? Never!
I’m not saying you must agree with her. Still, you can acknowledge the part that is true, without having to agree with all of her logic.
For example, the woman I mentioned above whose MIL criticized the trip she was taking could say …
“Mom, I know that you and dad never took those kinds of trips, and that must have been hard on you. But Kyle and I want to celebrate our marriage with this trip and believe our kids will be happy that we’ve strengthened our marriage by getting away together.”
Let’s say her MIL continued to counter—“Well, I don’t think they’ll be happy about it one bit. I think your children will feel neglected.”
She could again follow the rule of acknowledging the truth without agreeing in total. For example …
“You may be right, mom. They may feel sad when we leave, but they’re probably going to have so much fun staying with you and dad that, I bet, they’ll quickly recover. In fact, I’m really excited that they are getting this chance to spend undivided time with you both, while we’re away.”
Can you see how this might disarm the MIL, as well as give her the acknowledgment she’s longing for?
By doing it this way, you acknowledge that her concerns are legitimate, all the while not backing down on or apologizing for your decision. Your confidence and clarity will surely win at least a slice of her respect, even if she doesn’t yet admit it to you!
Remember, if you truly have a mother-in-law who’s acting like a martyr, she probably is doing this out of insecurity. So, affirming the important place she holds in your family can ease her defenses and strengthen her trust in you.
2. Present a united front with your husband.
Another way to neutralize a martyr MIL’s tactics is to encourage your husband to be the spokesperson for the two of you whenever possible.
He could respectfully remind his mother of your united front using phrases like—“we decided …” and “our belief is …” This could, in time, evoke respect for you because she loves, trusts, and respects her son.
However, if you have a martyr mother-in-law, your husband likely has also been in an unhealthy relational pattern with her for some time. If so, he may resist joining you in this effort. He may even feel as if you’re dreaming up the whole problem!
If so, it might be time to seek the help of a counselor who can guide you in boundary-setting on your own. In the meantime, here’s a boundary-setting article that might help with that.
But if your husband is in agreement with this new approach, remember this will take lots of time and consistency. You and your husband must present the united front over and over and over again while your MIL develops a new attitude. By keeping this “front” in place, you essentially compel her to change her ways, not accepting her manipulations any longer.
3. Pray for your mother-in-law daily.
This can be your most potent of the three ways to win your MIL’s respect and bring healing to the relationship.
Consider the example of Simon Peter bringing Jesus to heal his mother-in-law in Luke 4:38-39. Although his MIL had a physical fever, your martyr MIL could be just as sick in an emotional and relational sense.
Ask Jesus to bring healing to her heart, to calm her insecurities, and to deepen her respect and bond with you. If you do this on a consistent basis, I can guarantee you two things will happen.
- God will work on softening her heart—even if you don’t see the outward evidence of it.
- Your heart will soften toward her.
That may be the way God wants to change her—by changing the way you view and respond to her.
For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ. But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. 2 Corinthians 4-6-7
What are some of the difficulties you’ve had with your mother-in-law?
What are some of the fears you have in trying some of these strategies with your MIL?
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