What to Do If Your Partner Has an Overbearing Mother, According to a Psychologist

When you’re a child, it’s important to always mind your mother; when you’re not, it’s important that she knows how to mind her own business. Alas, the overbearing mother trope—found in Hollywood blockbusters (Monster in Law, anyone?), hit shows (ahem, The Goldbergs) and real-life families alike—is around for a reason…and if you’re in a relationship with someone whose mom falls into this category, we probably don’t need to tell you it can be a real b*tch. (The situation, that is.) Fortunately, we tapped a psychologist for advice and found out what to do if your partner has an overbearing mother. Read on for the full scoop.

Meet the Expert

Dr. Sanam Hafeez, PsyD is a NYC-based licensed clinical psychologist, and the founder and Clinical Director of Comprehensive Consultation Psychological Services, P.C. a neuropsychological, developmental and educational center in Manhattan and Queens.

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How to Tell If Your Partner Has an Overbearing Mother

What does an overbearing mother look like, you ask? According to Dr. Hafeez, there’s a good chance the ‘overbearing’ descriptor fits if your partner’s mother does any of the following things…

  • Frequently drops by unannounced or invites herself to stay for extended periods of time
  • Criticizes or judges the spouse (i.e., you) and their choices
  • Tries to control or dictate major decisions in her child’s life, such as how to raise their children, where to live, what career choices to make, etc.
  • Excessively involves herself in her child’s life and wants to be included in every event and decision
  • Ignores or disrespects boundaries set by her child or her child’s spouse
  • Behaves manipulatively and/or tries to create conflict between her child and her child’s spouse
  • Acts possessive or jealous of her child’s spouse or their relationship

…And If So, Why Does it Matter?

If you’re reading this, chances are your partner’s mom checks off at least some of the boxes above and you’re already fairly familiar with how disruptive this type of behavior can be to the healthy functioning of a romantic relationship—namely because overbearing moms tend to create “tension and conflict between partners…[or] cause stress and anxiety for one or both partners,” says Dr. Hafeez. In other words, whether they mean to or not, overbearing mothers have a habit of wreaking havoc and sometimes driving couples apart.

What to Do if Your Partner Has an Overbearing Mother

Overbearing mothers aren’t known to be particularly flexible or understanding, which is why dealing with them can be so difficult. That said, there are some strategies you can employ to gain some ground, or at least minimize disruption to your relationship.

1. Communicate

Not all overbearing mothers realize that there’s anything wrong with their behavior and, in some cases, are oblivious to the negative effect it has on those around them. For this reason, it’s best to just come out and communicate, rather than tiptoeing around the issues: “Be clear and direct with your mother-in-law about your feelings and boundaries,” says Dr. Hafeez, adding that you should “avoid using confrontational language, but be firm and assertive.” Try to do so when you’re feeling cool-headed, and avoid personal attacks at all costs.

2. Set Boundaries

Boundaries are famously difficult to set and maintain in certain situations and with certain people (you know, like overbearing mothers). Be prepared to put in a little extra effort on this front, which means being specific and consistent. Dr. Hafeez advises that you take some time to sit down on your own or with your partner (or first one and then the other) and consider your needs, so you can then “decide on some non-negotiable boundaries and stick to them.” Perhaps you would like to limit the amount of time spent together, the number of visits per month or simply define topics that are off-limits. Bottom line: You need to write the rule book before you can enforce it.

3. Take a Step Back

Has the situation with the overbearing mother in your life started to spiral? If so, Dr. Hafeez recommends “you take a step back from the relationship [with the mother in question] for a period of time,” even if that means avoiding calls and visits until things calm down. Ultimately, if tension is too high, neither you nor your partner will be in a good head space to deal with the issues constructively and steer the relationship in the direction you desire. Take some space so everyone can cool their jets.

4. Involve Your Spouse

This one can either be its own separate action or simply an ongoing component of all the advice above, depending on the situation and your spouse’s own attitude toward the overbearing mother issue. This comes back to communication, so “keep your spouse informed and involved in the situation, [and] make sure you both agree on boundaries and a course of action.” After all, it’s not your mother and probably not a battle you can fight and win alone, either.

5. Seek Support

So, the overbearing mother has really gotten under your skin, to the point that it’s starting to crawl…but your partner thinks his mother is just being loving and sweet. In this scenario, you and your SO have clearly reached an impasse and might need some outside help to understand one another’s perspectives and start seeing eye-to-eye. This is a perfect example of how overbearing mothers can create conflict, but in any situation where there’s a clash between spouses and communication has started to break down, Dr. Hafeez says your best bet is to “seek support from a therapist or a trusted friend who can provide an objective perspective and offer coping strategies.” Roger that.

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