087 How To Support Your Spouse with a Toxic Family

087 Marriage: How To Support Your Spouse With a Toxic Family


“How To Support Your Spouse…” series

Welcome to Relationship Helpers! We are in our third week of “How To Support a Spouse…” Each week we are taking a look at a different mental health or relational issue that causes spouses to struggle in their marriage. 

We’ve already examined what you can do for a spouse with PTSD and how you can support a spouse with anxiety or OCD.  This week we are going to focus on what to do if your spouse comes from a toxic family.

Toxic In-Laws!

In episode 068, we discuss what to do if you are dating someone whose family is toxic.  Be sure to check out that episode as well because we highlight some red flags that are areas of concern. 

As marriage therapists, Vincent and Laura often encounter couples who do not know how to deal with their in-laws. 

What does “toxic” actually mean?

Toxic is an umbrella term that is used to describe someone who may be codependent or lack boundaries.  They may be emotionally abusive or have an addiction. 

Signs of a Toxic Relationship

1.) Excessive Communication—If your spouse’s family calls them on a daily basis (with some exceptions), there is a strong likelihood that they are toxic. Parents, siblings, etc. need friendships outside of their relationship with your significant other.  They may be getting the emotional support they need from your spouse rather than friends. 

Do your in-laws yell at your spouse?

2.) Emotional Abuse—Does your spouse’s parents put him down? 

3.) Enabling—Does your spouses’s parents make life too easy for him?  Do they prevent your spouse from being responsible for themselves?  If so, they are sending the message that your spouse is incapable of providing for himself. 

4.) Conditional love—Does your spouse only feel loved when they perform a certain way for his parents?  Does your spouse’s parents only seem happy when they are getting something from your spouse?   

5.) Too Needy—Do the parents/siblings have to be bailed out by your spouse? 

Is there a family member who spends too much money?

6.) Alcoholism/Substance Abuse/Other Addictions—Finances are a common point of contention in marriage.  Does your spouse have a family member who asks for money? Is your spouse bank-rolling a family member’s addiction? Addictions take all shapes and sizes from workaholism to gaming to gambling to shopping. 

7.) Anger Management Issues—Does your spouse have a family member that rages? Or does he come from a family that does not have productive conflict? 

8.) Excessive Guilt—Find yourselves being sent on guilt trips by his family?

5 Things You Can Do To Help Your Spouse That Comes From a Toxic Family

1.) Give a Gentle Observations

When you talk about your spouse’s family, avoid saying harsh “you” statements. Don’t be accusatory. Your spouse has decades of experience with their family and may be sensitive to your comments.  They could be enmeshed in the toxicity.

You may be able to insert your observation subtly when you are doing daily routines together.

They may be in a lot of denial.  You will have to gently navigate them through it. Use “I” statements such as “I’ve noticed that…”

Proceed with your observations with caution, as we are more likely to see failings of others rather than our own.  In other words, we may see problems in our spouse’s family before we see problems in our own.  Much like what Jesus was saying about the speck and the log in Matthew 7: 3-5.

2.) Discuss Healthy Boundaries

Once you have made the gentle observations, its time to figure out what you’re going to do to about it. This means creating boundaries for yourself, for each individual, and for your marriage.  If you have children, you are going to want boundaries that protect them from inappropriate behavior.  

Maybe visits should be limited.

One boundary may be how often you visit with family or if you even visit them at all. A question to consider may be where should you visit them.  Would neutral territory, such as a restaurant or a park be a safer choice? 

For the family where alcoholism is an issue, it may be healthier to meet away from the family home so that the alcoholic does not have easy access to alcohol. This may mean going to a park. Alcoholics often have built in defenses where they hide their alcohol at home.

When a spouse has needy parents, meeting them away from their home can shift the power differential, leaving them less likely to be able to guilt you about something that needs to be done at their home.

If you feel a guilt trip coming on while at their parent’s home, it may be helpful to postpone their requests by saying “We need to leave now, we can come back at _______ time to do __________.”  This way you are not dismissing them, but you are also not giving into their demands immediately. 

3.)  Discussing Healthy Ways of Communicating the Boundaries and Follow-Through 

Once you’ve figured out what boundaries you’d like to have, it’s important to talk about how you will communicate your boundaries. Your talk with your spouse could sound like, “Maybe if we talk this way, if we say this thing, it would be helpful in these situations.” 

It’s important to talk these things out—don’t assume you know exactly what your spouse wants. In the case of over-communication between family and spouse, it will be important to protect your marriage. 

Your mother does NOT need to know everything that is going on in your household.

Some people think that telling their family everything is good, but it actually is NOT. If your spouse’s family wants to talk about your sex life or about your shortcomings, it only serves to blur the lines in your relationship and is not healthy. 

Now that you’ve thought about boundaries and talked them over with your spouse, it’s time to figure out the consequences of someone over-stepping a boundary. Remember, being assertive is a process. It’s not just laying out the boundaries once, and expecting conflict to be over.  It is communicating the boundary over time and following through with the consequences of not heeding it. It’s an ongoing process. 

Guilt Trip Example

Handling guilt trips could sound like this, “Mom, I appreciate that you want to spend time with me, and I enjoy our time together, however, when you continually say that I never come to see you, or lay guilt trips on me, it’s harmful to our relationship.” 

“Next time that you do that, I’m going to mention that it is harmful to our relationship. I know you want us to have a healthy relationship, as well. I feel that’s the best way to address it. I want us to have a good time together.”  (Learn more about handling guilt trips here—“How to Navigate a Guilt Trip.”)

Aggressive Parent Example

When you speak this way, you are aligning with the other person and they are more likely to receive what you are saying well. If you are in a situation where you have a parent who rages, you could say, “Dad, I appreciate it that you have concern for us, however, it is unhealthy and it angers me when you get loud, or start putting me down. Next time that you yell or get aggressive, I’m going to hang up because I don’t want this pattern to continue.”

“I want us to have a healthy relationship.  I want you to know that just because I hang up the phone or walk away, it does not meant I’m walking away from our relationship. I’m doing this because I love you and want to have a good relationship with you. I feel like that’s what you want as well.” 

4.) Allow Your Spouse to Take the Lead In Asserting Boundaries, When Possible

It is healthy for you to set the boundaries with your family and your spouse to set the boundaries with their family.

Allow your spouse to set boundaries with their parents when possible.

You may have to gently encourage your spouse to assert the boundaries. Help them see what they want.

If you’re so different from their family of origin, you may add some different perspective that helps them see that not everyone’s family operates the way yours does, and that’s not a bad thing. They may see that things don’t have to be the way they were. 

5.) Encourage Them to Have Healthy Friendships

Having healthy friendships will allow your spouse to look at their family from a fresh, healthy perspective.  More than likely they will see the difference in how their family operates versus a healthy family. 

They may see that the way their family does things is not the only way. 

Published by

Vincent & Laura Ketchie

Vincent Ketchie, LPC and Laura Ketchie, LPC are the hosts of Relationship Helpers, a podcast where they discuss family issues and interview relationship experts. Vincent and Laura are licensed marriage counselors.

16 thoughts on “087 Marriage: How To Support Your Spouse With a Toxic Family”

  1. Yep. All on point. My husbands family is toxic and fortunately he had put most of these in place before we met, so it really protects me (and him) and loves them.

    1. That is great that he already had strong boundaries with them. Some single people wonder what they need to do to prepare for marriage. In your case, it sounds like he had been preparing for marriage long before he met you.

  2. This is fantastic. Over the years, my spouse has learned to do a lot of these things to help me cope with my family and it has strengthened our marriage so much.

  3. Great encouraging articles but after 26 years of a total narcissistic family experience with my husband’s entire family, [ step sons, siblings, plus their children], I am about to give up and get out.

  4. My husband has a toxic/controlling mother & family. This article was very helpful. I’m trying really hard to help him cope with this and see the reality of this family. His mom hates me, so knowing that there are good ways to respond and encourage my husband makes me feel a little better. Plus is helps me feel like we can protect our marriage.

  5. My mother in law is manipulative and abusive with guilt. She was a neglectful parent to her 8 kids and thinks her kids are indebted to take care of her and do things for her. She plays dumb and guilts them and they resent her but can’t escape or deal with the guilt. My husband and sister in law get it worse bc we live close. My father in law has undiagnosed dementia and she’s in denial. She forces him to work and she’s losing her house and expects her kids to fix it and help her in ways that’s unreasonable. She calls all hours of the night to for my husband to fix her car, sometimes in below freezing temperature she she can go back to work. She only calls when she needs something. The more grim things become the more she guilts. I have tried being gentle and talked about healthy boundaries and better relationships and my husband just says he wants them to be normal but can’t stand up to her. When we make any progress he feels guilty, reaches to her, she gives praise she guilts and pulls him back in. I’m at my wits end and not sure how to help him more and not feel guilty. Do you have any other articles or advice for helping spouses set the proper boundaries, deal with the guilt and let their parents fail so they can help them rebuild? Thank you! I don’t know what else to do.

    1. Hi Ashley,
      It sounds like you are in a difficult situation. There is a lot of codependency. The following are a few recommendations:
      1.) We do have a podcast episode on How To Navigate a Guilt Trip.
      2.) I really recommend marriage counseling for both of you or at least individual counseling for whichever one is willing to go. I offer counseling in North Carolina, but am not allowed to counseling out of state. Our website is http://www.ccofmooresville.com. If you are in another state, I recommend you finding a Christian counselor (someone who is a member of the AACC.)
      3.) I recommend you and your husband attending Celebrate Recovery. It is a nation-wide Christian support group for codependency.
      4.) Boundaries, a book by Cloud & Townsend, is very good at explaining appropriate boundaries.

  6. Hey guys I’m not married it happens to be an issue with my boyfriend. If it’s a situation where they’ve attempted to establish boundaries but his dad is so bullheaded he can’t meet in the middle what should happen next? My boyfriend says he can’t stop seeing him because his mom is paying for college and wants him to have a relationship with his dad even though she knows how much he rages. I just don’t know what to do to help he deserves to be happy and not constantly dealing with a time bomb. I just want him to be able to stand up for himself.

    1. Hi, Killian,

      It must be so hard to watch your boyfriend struggle with his father. It’s good that he’s tried to create boundaries with his father even though his father is unwilling to bend. It sounds like his mother enables his father’s anger issues to the point of encouraging her son to continue to have an unhealthy relationship with his explosive father. Unfortunately you can’t make your boyfriend more assertive. You can, however, encourage him to be assertive. It sounds like your boyfriend would benefit from working with a therapist to learn how to cope with his parents dysfunctional behaviors so that he doesn’t get caught up in their toxicity and he can learn how to navigate this delicate path of making it through college without cutting himself out of the family.

  7. My husband family are so toxic. Sometimes I feel like giving up, but he is suck a nice person who does not want to hurt their feelings. His siblings go around and say bad things about me . They say am controlling him when they are the one’s who is manipulative. I honestly stopped talking to them, I only greet them but I stay away. Now that my husband is keeping his boundaries they’re saying that am keeping him away. His family is always in need they always need money and someone is always sick. They don’t like to work most of them love handouts. I don’t want to know that am working and my hard working money has to take care of big people who should be working. Also most of them are so superstitious.

    1. Hi Sammy,

      It sounds like it has been difficult dealing with your husband’s family, but that both of you are working on healthy boundaries with them. A good book on boundaries is called Boundaries by Cloud & Townsend. I highly recommend it.

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