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Here’s How to Handle an Overbearing In-Law

We asked an AI robot how to deal with a family member who's creating family discord—and making you miserable

The sad truth is, we're probably a mere few decades away from seeing the storyline of I, Robot play out IRL. But until the android apocalypse, we might as well make the best of artificial intelligence. So here it is: LEVEL's new advice column, We Asked a Bot, the place where your pressing concerns and queries are treated with a tenderness and care befitting of a machine learning algorithm.

Dear Level, 

I have a good life; my marriage is solid and I have a wonderful 8-year-old daughter. My career is going well and I avoid online drama and bulls**t. My problem, to put it simply: My mother-in-law is a massive b-word. I don't say that lightly. I've tried and tried to get on her good side and keep the peace. But the woman is manipulative, bossy, and does everything to micromanage and undermine my household when she visits, which is a lot more often since her husband died a few years ago. She's verbally abusive to me, often in front of my wife and kid, suggesting I should earn more money and spend more time at home (as if those two things go together). She undermines our authority with my daughter, spoiling her and telling her to ignore us when we discipline her. And she's nosy; she asks about our finances and has even asked if our sex life is satisfying. The woman has no boundaries and it's causing tension between me and my wife. My wife agrees that her mother is overstepping, but because she feels that her mom is still grieving the loss of her husband, she's reluctant to ask her to back off. My wife says I need to try harder to get along with MIL, but I'm exhausted and I just don't like her. She's shown again and again that she'll never think I'm good enough for her daughter or her granddaughter. What can I do?

—Seattle Son-in-Law, 

<We asked ChatGPT to answer this query in the style of an older, smart, and empathetic family man of color in his 30s-50s.>

Dear Seattle Son-in-Law,

First, I want to commend you for reaching out and seeking advice on a challenging family situation. It's clear from your words that you care deeply for your wife and your daughter, and you're committed to maintaining a loving and peaceful home.

Dealing with a difficult mother-in-law can indeed be a trying ordeal. Your description paints a vivid picture of the issues you've been facing, and it's evident that you've put in sincere efforts to establish a harmonious relationship. It's important to recognize that, in many families, conflicts like these are not uncommon. Differences in personalities, values, and expectations can lead to tension, especially when there's a sense of competition or over-involvement.

Related: Are You Married to Your Mother?

Considering the context of her recent loss, it's understandable that your wife may be inclined to be more lenient with her mother's behavior. Grief can lead people to act out of character, and her reluctance to confront her mother may stem from a desire to avoid causing additional pain.

Here are some steps you can consider taking:

  • Open and Honest Communication: Initiate a conversation with your wife where you express your concerns and feelings. Make it clear that your intention is not to vilify her mother but to address the issues that are affecting your family. Listen to her perspective as well, and try to find common ground.
  • Set Boundaries: It's essential to establish and communicate boundaries with your mother-in-law, particularly concerning her behavior in your home and around your daughter. Make sure you and your wife are on the same page regarding these boundaries.
  • Seek Professional Help: If communication and boundary-setting prove insufficient, consider involving a family therapist or counselor. They can provide guidance and support for all parties involved, helping to facilitate healthier relationships.
  • Lead by Example: Continue to be the best husband and father you can be. Show your daughter what a respectful, loving relationship looks like and set a positive example for her. Your consistency can help counteract your mother-in-law's influence.
  • Support Your Wife: While your mother-in-law's behavior may be challenging for you, remember that your wife is caught in the middle. Be empathetic and supportive of her feelings and concerns.
  • Take Time for Self-Care: Dealing with a contentious family situation can be emotionally draining. Make sure to take care of yourself, both physically and mentally. Engage in activities that help you unwind and relieve stress.
  • Patience: Remember that relationships often take time to change. It might be a gradual process for your mother-in-law to realize the impact of her actions and for your wife to be more assertive with her.

It's important to approach this situation with empathy, understanding that your mother-in-law may be struggling with her own emotions. However, you also need to protect your family's well-being and ensure that your household remains a positive and loving environment.

Related: Why Isn’t Therapy a Prerequisite For Marriage?

In the end, Seattle Son-in-Law, it's the strength of your relationship with your wife and your commitment to raising your daughter that should guide your actions. I have faith that, with patience, persistence, and open communication, you can navigate these challenges and build a better future for your family.

Warm regards,

<ChatGPT is trying to be very kind here, but it neglects to mention that in some cases, distance might be best. We have plenty of people in our lives who've cut relatives, even close family members, out of their lives for a period of time, and while that can be drastic, it's sometimes necessary when a person is making your home unstable or your life miserable. So that end, we followed up, asking for more specifics about boundaries. Here's what ChatGPT suggested.>

Seattle Son-in-Law should discuss and establish clear boundaries with his wife to help address the issues caused by his mother-in-law's behavior. Here are some boundary suggestions for their consideration:

  • Household Rules: Agree on household rules that apply to everyone, including guests like the mother-in-law. These rules should encompass areas such as respecting each other's space, maintaining a peaceful atmosphere, and adhering to family routines.
  • Visiting Schedule: Set limits on the frequency and duration of visits by the mother-in-law. Decide together how often she can visit and for how long each visit should last to maintain a sense of privacy and reduce the feeling of intrusion.
  • Privacy: Clarify boundaries related to privacy, which can include not discussing personal matters or financial issues in front of the mother-in-law. Encourage open conversations between you and your wife about such topics but away from the presence of your mother-in-law.
  • Parenting Decisions: Reiterate your commitment to making parenting decisions together and maintaining a united front when it comes to discipline. This can help prevent your mother-in-law from undermining your authority with your daughter.
  • Communication: Agree on a plan for addressing concerns and grievances about your mother-in-law's behavior. Encourage open communication between you and your wife so that both of you can voice your feelings without judgment.
  • Handling Conflict: Discuss how you both should handle conflicts or inappropriate behavior when it arises. Decide on a plan for addressing the situation together, and agree on the appropriate time and place to do so.
  • Family Events: Establish a plan for handling family events or gatherings that involve the mother-in-law. Decide in advance how you'll handle potential conflicts or uncomfortable situations at these gatherings.
  • Support: Reassure your wife that you're there to support her emotionally and that you understand her concern about her mother's grief. Encourage her to express her feelings and assure her that you'll work together to find a solution.
  • Professional Help: Discuss the possibility of seeking professional help, such as family therapy, to mediate and facilitate discussions if the situation doesn't improve.

Related: If You Want Your Relationship to Last, Tell Your Moms to Mind Her Business

Remember that these boundaries should be negotiated and agreed upon by both you and your wife. It's important to approach this conversation with empathy, understanding, and a shared commitment to the well-being of your family.

<Again, we're surprised that "cut them out of your life, at least temporarily" is not on the table here. Maybe we're not as evolved as ChatGPT (and perhaps this will be our downfall as humans), but all of these suggestions assume that the MIL should still be around and a continual presence, and maybe that's just not what's best for Seattle Son-in-Law, or his family. Let us know if you disagree, and best of luck to you, SSIL.>

LEVEL consulted ChatGPT 3.5 for the aforementioned text. Need advice, insight, or just want to troll a chatbot? Hit us up with your questions at We'll feed it to the robots and see what it spits back out. (Disclaimer: YMMV!)