After reading your 7 signs of toxic relationships I realised I have one with my in-laws. I decided to move out this year until my MIL got diagnosed with stage 1 colon cancer. What do I do? Stay or walk out? My husband is a very supportive person to the extent he was ready to provide a separate place for us but with this new development I can’t even muster the courage to ask him. It’s not my primary duty to look after his mother, he has sisters and they are around to help; so do I move out for my children because it is getting really chaotic with so many people around? I am scared too that my in laws will now label me as selfish to walk out at this point of time.
- 1 Background
- 2 Amna’s Answer
- 2.1 Bad in laws
- 2.2 Am I selfish if I don’t want to live with my in laws?
- 2.3 Abuse
- 2.4 To what extent should we sacrifice for our family?
- 2.5 Should I stay or should I go?
- 2.6 You can’t pour from an empty cup
In your letter, you described in detail how your husband’s father was abusive towards his family and so your husband had a difficult childhood. Because of this, your mother in law had to raise all the kids on her own. Once your husband started working, she moved the family away and ever since then your husband has been the whole family’s sole breadwinner.
The problem is that your mother in law is very controlling. She takes all of your husband’s salary and has used his money to pay for for everything, including his siblings’ weddings, leaving you with no savings. Your husband has lost his job and you want to start your career to support your family.
You have been catering to your in laws’ every need and it has now become too big of a burden. They don’t really care about you and your children; you feel taken for granted. The house is too crowded and you need space and time for your children and to focus on starting your career.
To start – I know you are struggling with the question of whether or not this is a “real” problem, but I hope you recognise that you have a lot on your plate and you are juggling so many roles: mother, wife, daughter, daughter in law, sister in law, manager (of the home), educator (of your children), etc. It’s a lot for one person to handle and it looks like you’ve been doing a good job of it. I can see you are a strong and resilient person just by reading the story you sent me.
Let me be clear: this is not all in your head.
If there’s anything you can take away from my post, it is this: you are being gaslighted. Gaslighting is a classic sign of a toxic relationship and unfortunately, I think they have been doing this to you for a long time. Your feelings and your problems are valid. You are not crazy for feeling the way you do.
Bad in laws
Conflicts with in laws are actually quite a universal problem. A research study conducted by Dr Terri Apter of Cambridge University found that 75% of couples had problems with their in laws. The study also found most of the problems were between mothers in law and daughters in law.
One of the reasons for this could be worry about neglect or feelings of jealousy, this article states that “some research suggests that older women are more likely to experience neglect due to poor relationships with their daughters-in-law (see Allendorf, 2015), and mothers-in-law may worry that they will be excluded by their child and his/her new partner”.
Because of the worry of losing their sons, mothers in law tend to treat their daughters in law poorly creating tension in the marriage. Unfortunately, a lot of Muslim men don’t stand up to their mothers resulting in an unhappy marriage, resentment and sometimes divorce. We need to be a lot more sensitive to this, men especially.
Many Muslim women separate from husbands because of these issues, specifically interference and problems with mothers in law. This is a big problem in the Muslim community which is why I mention it and also why I thought this question was so important.
From your description, your husband’s family sounds enmeshed. When you are enmeshed with someone; boundaries are non-existent, the people involved are codependent and there is excessive involvement in each other’s lives. Enmeshment isn’t closeness. When you are in an enmeshed family, you lose emotional identity and autonomy over yourself. It stops you from growing and being able to make decisions independently.
People who are enmeshed cannot separate their feelings and thoughts from those of their family. This article sets out some tell-tale signs of toxic family enmeshment, which may be helpful in understanding your husband’s mindset.
This kind of dynamic is toxic and damaging to everyone involved. If someone in the family disagrees with the others, it is seen as betrayal. It is normal for people to disagree on things, it doesn’t mean they are being ungrateful or trying to cause trouble. Enmeshed people can’t see that.
When an enmeshed person introduces an outsider into the family (for example, by marriage) and there are issues, they may think the outsider is the problem and not their family. Even if their family is being abusive. They will expect their spouses to accept abusive behaviour and they prioritise their enmeshed family over their spouse.
Culture vs religion
Religious and cultural expectations and beliefs make these family conflicts even deeper. Islamically, a wife has the right to ask for her own separate house. Yes, sometimes it is necessary to fulfil a son’s duty to his parents, but it does not have to be the default position. In my research for this post, I found this fatwa from Egypt’s Dar Al-Ifta on serving parents in law and how to treat daughters in law in Islam. Daughters in law are required to treat their in laws with kindness and respect, but not more than that. If anyone tries to tell you living with your in laws is a religious obligation, they are wrong.
Now, I’m not saying joint families are bad. They are not. Studies have shown that living in a joint family has a lot of mental health benefits. It can work very well and many people prefer it. When family dynamics are healthy and everyone gets along well, it can be a great way to live, raise a family and to save money.
Am I selfish if I don’t want to live with my in laws?
We have to recognise that living in a joint family is hard. Living with anyone outside your family is hard, full stop. Especially if you’ve only lived with your own family your whole life. One day you not only move in with a new person, but also his family. From my point of view, that is a tall order for anyone. You have to navigate newly married life, get used to living without your family, deal with losing your privacy and you also have to adjust to in laws and their lifestyle.
It is not selfish to want to live separately from your in laws. People get very sensitive about this, but this mentality needs to change. This will sound strange to people outside of this type of culture: but it is very normal to not live with your in laws! Both ways of living are fine, depending on the needs of each person. A wife has a right to privacy and a peaceful environment for their children to grow up in. It is also important for the growth of the marriage, independence is helpful.
I have seen that it is very common for in laws (especially in South Asian communities) to exploit their daughters in law and treat them as free labour. That is not correct, you have your own children that you need to tend to. You can’t do this currently because of the demand on your time and energy by your in laws.
Effects on Children
Apart from your own wellbeing and maintaining your marriage, you noted this is having an effect on your children. I am not sure what the actual living arrangements are in your in laws’ house but overcrowding in a house can negatively affect a child’s wellbeing. It creates stress in the home. Especially with coronavirus limiting people’s ability to go out and get space, your concern for your children’s wellbeing is legitimate. This is something your husband needs to seriously consider too.
A lot of people will tell you to sacrifice. They will say it is your duty as a wife to care for your husband’s mother. But it sounds like there are plenty people to care for her. Even if you do move out to your parents’ house, I assume you will still be able to see your in laws regularly? Your letter wasn’t clear about where your family lives. If you would be leaving her all on her own, I could understand people calling you selfish. But from what you have written, I can’t see how you are being selfish.
From all the facts you sent me, it sounds like your mother in law has been guilting you and your husband into catering to her every need. In my personal experience, this emotional manipulation is a common dynamic in certain cultures (my culture included) with parents and their children. This behaviour causes so much harm which often stays with the individuals for the rest of their lives. Interestingly, this study in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry explains:
Indian ethos of maintaining “family harmony” and absolute “obedience to elderly” are often used to suppress the younger members. The resentment, however, passive and silent it may be, simmers, and in the absence of harmonious resolution often manifests as psychiatric disorders.
In Muslim families, we are often expected to submit to our parents and elders, unquestioningly. It is our Islamic duty. In my childhood, whenever I or my brother misbehaved, my parents would quote the following Quranic verse without fail:
And your Lord has decreed that you worship not except Him, and to parents, good treatment. Whether one or both of them reach old age [while] with you, say not to them [so much as], “uff,” and do not repel them but speak to them a noble word. (17:23)
I’m sure a lot of you can relate! Respecting your elders and parents is a really important value and something I love about my culture and religion. However, this duty is often exploited and used as a stick to beat younger family members with. This is when it becomes unhealthy and damaging.
Parents will try to manipulate their children and guilt them for making their own choices, citing the duty to respect parents. But you do not have to submit to people who abuse you. When parents become toxic and abusive towards their children or other members in their family, their behaviour falls within “oppression”. We know that oppression is wrong.
There seems to be a lot of abuse in your husband’s story. The years of trauma will have had an effect on everyone in the family, including your mother in law. This may explain her controlling and manipulative behaviour and the enmeshment, although her behaviour could also have roots in her own childhood traumas. Toxicity and abuse usually have a cyclical, generational history. It’s important that cycle is broken for the sake of your children and their future children.
Your mother in law’s control of the family’s finances can be classed as financial abuse. She has been doing this to the family for so long, they probably don’t know any different and don’t realise that this is a problem.
Financial abuse occurs when a person controls another’s ability to earn, spend and manage their finances. I can’t tell from the details provided, but it sounds like your mother in law has manipulated your husband into handing over full financial control to her. As the breadwinner of the family, it should be up to him to manage the allocation of his money and to do so fairly. You have also been kept in the dark and don’t have any information on how your husband’s money is being spent.
Your letter says he lost his job some time ago, I wonder how he has been able to afford your and your children’s expenses as well as your in laws’ expenses? I know, culturally, discussing finances can be quite taboo. For example in my family, we still don’t know how much my father makes. It is an off-limit topic, and he refuses to discuss it with any of us!
Finances are personal and we do not have to know what our spouses make. I personally think, however, that in a healthy relationship both partners should be able to discuss everything — including finances. Many marriages break up over financial disputes, so I think transparency and sound financial planning go a long way.
It’s probably ok not to know the details if you know your spouse has a high earning job and you have no trouble paying bills, etc. However, if you have doubts over where the money is coming from, have no savings, worry about how the bills will be paid, etc. then your spouse has a duty to share this information with you. Could your husband be hiding something from you? Is he borrowing money? People may tell you to turn a blind eye because your basic needs are being met, but I’ve heard many stories of women living like this then one day waking up to find their husbands deep in debt.
As I explained in my post about toxic relationships, abuse does not have to be physical. Abuse is about maintaining power and control over victims (physically or otherwise). Your mother in law has been trying to control the family by any means necessary. It sounds from your letter like she has been manipulative and has ensured everyone is under her thumb. This is not normal and is not healthy.
The way your in laws reacted to your decision to move out as well is extremely toxic. You are adults and parents; you should be able to make your own decisions without being made to feel guilty. They may not like it, which is fine! But they need to respect your decisions and accept your autonomy. The situation isn’t working right now and as your children are getting older it will be harder to maintain a healthy, nurturing environment in this house. You have given everything to your husband and in laws for 10 years, why should you not try to do something else?
She clearly has suffered a lot at the hands of her husband but that doesn’t mean that she can take advantage of everyone else. It is not wrong to disagree with her and make your own choices (respectfully of course). She probably doesn’t realise the way she is behaving is wrong, but your husband needs to try and see your point of view as well rather than only thinking about his mother’s needs.
To what extent should we sacrifice for our family?
We have a harmful mentality in our cultures that a person has to give up everything for family. Family is extremely important, but it should not be at the expense of your health and wellbeing. Enmeshment is not healthy! What use will you be to your mother in law if you fall sick from stress? How will your children be affected by seeing their mother tired and unhappy all the time? We must strive to strike a balance in life. That balance includes your happiness as well.
You are in a tough spot, Anne. Unfortunately, I think some backlash is inevitable if you decide to leave. This is the case with any toxic relationship. Especially as your mother in law is ill now unfortunately (may Allah grant her shifa), your situation will be harder. I can imagine the family will try to weaponise it and guilt you into staying. It sounds like she will be well taken care of by the other siblings so I don’t see what is wrong with moving out.
If you do decide to stay, it is possible to make it work. It will be hard — you would need to set some boundaries and ensure you carve out time for yourself and kids. You would have to be tough with your in laws, they will not take it well. But something needs to change. You can’t be expected to ignore your needs and tolerate a negative, chaotic environment. It isn’t sustainable and will have serious effects on your marriage and your children.
If you decide to leave, people will call you selfish. I am sure some people reading this will think you are selfish too and will argue with what I’ve written here. But only you know what your family needs and you need to be confident in that. You know yourself and what you can handle. Toxic and abusive people will call you everything under the sun but be strong — opinions are not more important than your wellbeing. You can’t please everyone; from what you’ve written, you don’t seem to be satisfying them now anyway!
Should I stay or should I go?
You have to do what is right for you and your family. If you think that leaving is the correct decision, be logical about it. Be prepared for the conversation. I, of course, always have to advise that the best thing you can do is get marriage counselling. But I understand that this may not be possible for you.
Some practical steps for approaching your husband about this:
- Set out all the reasons for making the move and why it makes sense. How will you all benefit? How is it better than your current situation?
- Can you think of any compromises? This will help your husband to see you are trying.
- Think about any potential arguments your husband could raise against the idea and come up with some logical responses.
- It is an emotional decision but try to separate your emotions. He will not be happy when you bring it up, but don’t get upset or angry when you talk to him — explain it to him clearly and firmly. I find that men don’t respond well to tears and anger.
- Show confidence in yourself and your decision, he needs to see that you have seriously thought about this.
Explain to your husband that you really care about him and his family and you are not trying to be selfish or demanding. Tell him that you are worried about your kids and you can feel the negative effects of this living arrangement both on you and them. You are also worried about your financial situation. He has a duty to consider all these things and ensure his family is happy and healthy. He is required to strike a balance between caring for his in laws and taking care of his family. This situation, as it is, is not healthy or balanced.
After childhood abuse and years and years of manipulation, control and enmeshment it will be hard for your husband to understand and to break the cycle. He would benefit a lot from therapy; to be honest, the whole family needs to visit a family counsellor! It will be tough to convince him about this move, but if this is what you really want then you will need to keep at it and make your needs known.
You mentioned that your husband does listen to you and consider your feelings, which I am really glad to hear. I hope he can eventually understand your point of view because he cares about you and your happiness.
In the end what you are asking for is a better life for yourself and your children — that is not selfish.
You can’t pour from an empty cup
Work on yourself and build your confidence, you will need it to get through this difficult time. Try to think about your situation objectively, outside of the lens of your in laws. Your desires are valid. Wanting to pursue your career is practical. Your husband hasn’t been generating an income, so you would be fully justified in working. As things stand, you can’t pursue your career because of the drain on your time and energy from the demands of your in laws. So it all makes sense (to me anyway!).
Ultimately, this all is for the wellbeing of your kids. If anyone thinks that’s selfish, well, they either are not parents or are not very good parents.
You have your whole life ahead of you. Is it really fair to expect you not to develop yourself and reach your goals? To be a good parent, you need to take care of your wellbeing too. As they say, “you can’t pour from an empty cup”.
Children are very intuitive and can pick up on mood changes and unhappiness. They look to their parents for comfort and strength. Even if the family are going through something difficult, if the parents are stable and are taking it well, the child will too.
You also said you noticed that you are taking out your frustrations on your kids. This could just be the beginning, it may get worse if you don’t address these problems (trust me, I’ve experienced it first-hand). Apart from this, you need to make sure your family is financially stable. Looking at the whole picture as a stranger; to me your reasons for moving out make sense. You are practicing self care by thinking about your wellbeing. As I always say, self care isn’t selfish.
One more thing I wanted to say is that I am proud of you for sending this in and thinking about changing your circumstances. You are brave speaking out and I think you will help a lot of people reading this. It is a really good sign that you are considering your own wellbeing. Many people can’t do that. I hope you are proud of yourself too.
It may not seem like a big step, but to me it looks like a step in the right direction.
“Sometimes the smallest step in the right direction ends up being the biggest step of your life.”– Naeem Calloway
Until next time,