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Discussion Starter · #1 ·
Hello fellow INFJs! I could really use some help.

I have this posted on the ESFJ forum as well.
I am having troubles with my ESFJ mother-in-law and need to set some boundaries soon. :rolleyes:

I want to start by saying that I never set out to wage war with my MIL. I actually wasn't aware that she didn't like me until my husband (then boyfriend) told me that she was calling me cruel names and spreading rumors about me to our circle of friends. OUCH! The logic behind it was that she liked me until her son decided it was serious, then she felt threatened.

Many years have passed, and I now know all about my husband's emotionally and physically abusive childhood. No need to get into the details, but the important part is that nothing she has done to my husband or myself has ever been acknowledged or apologized for, yet she still tries to control and manipulate us both on the rare occasions that we see her.

I have typed her as an ESFJ, and she is definitely of the unhealthy variety. My husband, who is still dealing with his deep-seated coping mechanisms, usually regresses when he is around her and sort of acts like a teenager again, letting her think her manipulations are working instead of facing her head-on and calling her out on her inappropriate tactics... which is an issue all its own.

As an INFJ, I truly hate conflict. But more than conflict, I hate deceit. And more than deceit, I hate when people feel that they have the right to abuse and use the people who are dearest to me, especially my husband.

It drives me insane when she and the rest of the family pretend everything is perfect. And then when I notice her inevitably attempting to control and manipulate, I usually lose control and start my self-defeating slew of rude sarcastic comments. She will usually then play the "unaware" card or the "victim" card, which consists of the silent treatment and then occasionally lashing back at me in a "woe is me" tone, especially when she knows my husband can hear her.

I know I am terribly out of line in my sarcastic reactions and would really like to end this cycle that gets us nowhere.

I am horrified of what will happen when we have kids if we don't get some boundaries set soon. I would appreciate any help you have to give. I know that I cannot change her and I am not aiming to be two peas in a pod; so how can I change my own behaviors and perspectives to help this relationship?

Have any of you been in a similar situation? How did you handle it and what did you learn?

Thank you!
 

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Forgive the reference, but the MIL reminds me of Cersei from Game of Thrones (believed to be an ESFJ)


She's certainly of the alpha female variety, often controlling, cunning, and manipulative. Whether you cater to her or not, she will always exert her status over you in the form of what you described, or simply condescending undertones. Alternatively, you can try to unseat her (fire vs fire), but in the case of this character and likely your MIL, most have ended up dead trying to do so.

In terms of your specific situation, I'd be curious as to what your husband could do. While you mentioned that he essentially regresses around her, he is also the one that has informed you that she was describing you in cruder terms. What did he essentially do in these circumstances or future sarcastic remarks? If he does anything other than defend you, then he really needs to look in the mirror. To be honest with you, I believe he needs to be the one setting boundaries -- not you. It's all about zero tolerance. If she can't respect it when he tells her to stop, then you both should walk out of her life (more often she'll smarten up immediately or when those future grand children come into play).
 

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Discussion Starter · #4 ·
I appreciate references, though I was not initially familiar with Game of Thrones. I googled some Cersei footage and you are definitely on the right track! Always trying to push something without actually saying it...

I think you are both right about my husband stepping up in these situations. He definitely shoots her down when she says something ridiculous, which she is prone to doing, but it is his less overt tendencies that give way to her control. He is aware of it and says it is quite frustrating and difficult to stop. His regressing is probably similar to my sarcastic defense mechanisms kicking in, especially because they don't happen often enough for us to get a good feel for how to control them!

The zero tolerance concept would be my ideal too. That is what is so difficult about this situation, I would have normally doorslammed such a person long long ago and been on with my life. Having to deal with people who don't value authenticity is not something I tolerate very well.

As far as the grand-kids are concerned, it would indeed be in her best interest to start respecting those lines in the sand.
 

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Well this is all very normal first of all. I've personally never experienced this with my MIL but I consider myself one of the lucky ones which is why it's a shame that she passed away so early on in our marriage.

I agree with what others have said. If you get tempted to say something just leave the room as that will only make things worse. And perhaps it would be best for him to do the same (just leave) if he feels uncomfortable or that she has crossed a line. I'm not an expert on boundaries though. May be helpful to read a book on the subject to sort it out. Good luck!
 

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Discussion Starter · #6 ·
Yes, I have read a book on boundaries and do read up on it from time to time on the interweb. Part of the issue is that when given feedback, she will either take it personally rather than constructively or just choose not to take it at all.

An example of it 'not computing' would be:

We are going on a picnic while on a trip with the extended family and when I arrive to the car she asks loudly in front of everyone if I remembered to bring sunscreen. I try hard not to roll my eyes as I tell her, "Yes, I did remember the sunscreen," to which she says, "...Because I brought an extra bottle for you just in case!"

It's sort of like talking to a brick wall...except much louder and more dramatic.

Do any of you know how best to communicate clearly to an ESFJ like this? I think we all agree it would be best if my husband did the firm boundary laying, but the upkeep needs to be done by us both.

Her nonsensical approach, almost acting like she didn't hear you, is in my opinion, a (rather child-like) manipulation tool. She can get away with a lot more if you think she just didn't hear or understand you, and she knows it. It is a lot like not fighting fair... I dub it: "unfair conversing" :)
 

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An example of it 'not computing' would be:

We are going on a picnic while on a trip with the extended family and when I arrive to the car she asks loudly in front of everyone if I remembered to bring sunscreen. I try hard not to roll my eyes as I tell her, "Yes, I did remember the sunscreen," to which she says, "...Because I brought an extra bottle for you just in case!"

It's sort of like talking to a brick wall...except much louder and more dramatic.

Do any of you know how best to communicate clearly to an ESFJ like this? I think we all agree it would be best if my husband did the firm boundary laying, but the upkeep needs to be done by us both.

Her nonsensical approach, almost acting like she didn't hear you, is in my opinion, a (rather child-like) manipulation tool. She can get away with a lot more if you think she just didn't hear or understand you, and she knows it. It is a lot like not fighting fair... I dub it: "unfair conversing" :)
Any possibility of treating her like a one would treat an obviously difficult customer at, say (from my frame of reference), a public library? There's this professional role thing that I would do in those situations, basically be very bland, have no ego involved at all, have my barriers up very strong, and have my internal task focus be to maintain the boundaries in a quiet but firm no-nonsense kind of way.

So for example, with the sunscreen example. You know she's playing a game etc etc. But on the face of it, she brought an extra bottle of sunscreen. If I was dealing with her as a difficult customer, I would simply blandly thank her for bringing extra, possibly say something in a genuinely friendly but clearly bland and disconnected way about how it's nice when people are thoughtful and do stuff like that or make some sort of bland mildly self-deprecating joke about me and sunscreen or bringing extra stuff (no matter what, though: no sarcasm, no ego, no harm to yourself allowed, just straight up and "dealing with a difficult customer" mode), then change the subject.

Though as I write this, I can't help but remember the evil mother of a woman I was involved with for a time. That woman (her mother) was passive aggressively toxic. I remember one time we had this whole underground tug of war where she asked me a question about the library services (at a social gathering) and I was doing my best to pretend she was just a difficult customer and she would not let it go. I did fine with the bland professionalism at the time but I had a pretty intense freakout session about 45 minutes later as I was driving home and processing the true toxicity of the experience.

So ... um ... I don't know if I'm helping here :)
 

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I've been with an ESFJ for about 10 years now. The number one thing is to always make sure you show sincere appreciation for the things they do. For example, the extra sunscreen thing, the best thing would be to say something, "Oh, that was a good idea! I almost forgot mine, actually, so it was good you brought one just in case!"

They feel like they go above and beyond the call of duty for others, and expect to be recognized and appreciated for it. Believe me, I get tons of under-the-breath mutter from mine about how she always does everything for everybody and nobody cares and everyone just sits on their butts all day expecting her to be their personal maid, etc. despite the fact that I have changed every diaper that day, took out the trash, prepared breakfast and dinner, washed all the dishes, and vacuumed... she picked up some toys and brushed the kids' teeth. To be fair though, I'm gone all day on weekdays for work, so she does do a LOT.

ESFJ's are giant balls of emotions. If they're stressed, they get irate and snippy. If they are conflicted, they can erupt into tears. If they're excited, they get silly and antsy.

My ESFJ thinks my parents (HER in-laws) hate her despite the fact that they think she's great, simply because they appear to be more interested in the grandkids than her. "They only care about our kids, they don't care about me! I know they must hate me because they think I stole you from them!" (Sometimes I think she's delusional... I left home on my own.)

Bottom line is, look at everything she does as though she honestly thinks she's doing someone a favor. If she was worried you might not bring sunscreen, it's because she was worried about you getting burned, not that you would actually forget it like a ditz. Also be aware that ESFJ's have no filter when it comes to their emotions, either physically or verbally. They WILL tell you how they're feeling, in some mannner of words or vocal inflection or body language. Finally be aware that ESFJ's do have a tendancy to use GUILT as a manipulator. Seriously. The guilt trips are INTENSE. So watch out for those. Usually the guilt trips come from the lack of feeling appreciated, and for self-remedy they guilt others into rewarding them some form of appreciation (praise, activities they want, some item of value, etc.). Appreciation derived from their guilting is hollow though, so it's best to be proactive.

Not sure if any of this helps, but I live with one, and they can be huge pains in the butt if you don't do your part (as they see your part to be).
 

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I think you need to discuss this with your husband.

In many ways I feel like he's the one who needs to step up to your mother-in-law
Yep, this. The only real power to change anything lies with your husband. Without his buy-in, anything that you try to change will be ineffective. If he's not willing to step up (and it's really difficult to do this with years of family history), all you can do is grin and bear it.
 

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For this I'd have to say just be upfront and tell her how she is making you feel,
Try and talk it out with her,if you just "leave it",
It'll fester and she'll get oh so much bolder with how she attacks you and just build more resentment,
Whilst if you were to com right up to her and tell her your issues,
Sort them there,
And then let her try and destroy herself(As her actions would then be exposed and more criticized).

Or if it gets better,
At least you'll have some mutual base to work together on a new relationship with! :)
Best of Luck!

And It's what I did with my ESFJ grandmother, Cousin and Friend,We're all happy and dandy again now xD
But you gotta do that hard thing!
 

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Discussion Starter · #11 ·
Thank you for all of the responses! I appreciate you taking the time!

I think there is power in the disconnected customer-service approach. The issue is, as you mentioned, that this mode in and of itself is sort of phony and thus exhausting. She sort of still wins if I take it because she still gets her 'attagirl' for being completely outa line. If she could sense sincerity, I do think this would be effective, but I am not sure she can... I loved how you described it as toxic, I think you are spot on because she has created a situation in which you cannot win. Not fair at all.

She is really desperately attempting to be needed in our lives. Quite interesting actually, because the LAST thing we need in our lives is someone who is constantly trying to push their 'worth' on us in an attempt to gain recognition and control. To me, it also shows a complete disconnect because she somehow is deeply interested in us, yet does not take any time to just know us or listen to us. Often when we get together she spends the entire time sharing multiple stories of when my husband was a child, as if to reestablish her throne. But to me it shows that she just lives in a fantasy and it is quite sad because she will never have a true relationship with us as long as she tries to sort of 'trick' us into it...

Obviously the sunscreen story was a rather benign example of the way she works. The constant barrage of attempts to demonstrate to us how to live our lives is just exhausting. As if we want a life like hers to begin with!


jdstankosky, thank you for sharing your experiences. My husband is also an ENTP and much of the abuse she laid out on him as a child was guilt manipulation. Horrible, confusing, unfair guilt manipulation. When she was overwhelmed she would often pack a suit case and threaten to leave the family. She would mope around and say things like, "You don't love me anymore." I am sure you understand how this type of abuse lead to a brick wall being built around his emotional side. Emotions = being taken advantage of... what a great thing to teach you child, especially all for selfish gain. YUCK!

I really do understand that she is trying to be of use to us, but she really doesn't connect that we do not want or need her help. To further illustrate her disconnect, she bought me a gift for Christmas that was super cheesy and rather worthless in my life. I went home and looked at my husband and said, "I do feel pretty bad about this, but we simply don't want or need this." It was in the Goodwill pile that evening. A couple weeks later I see her link to the item on Facebook and exclaim to the world how awesome it is and how they "Make great gifts!"

I have read that ESFJs in general need to hear feedback and boundaries multiple times before they sink in and that they have a hard time internalizing the new rules if they are not communicated in an upbeat and positive way. Has this been your experience?

Mzansi, thank you for your insight. I feel like a lot of my issue with her is that she is doing things backwards from how I would do them. There are many fundamental issues that need to be addressed, in my opinion, and then we might apologize, and then we could from there start slow and build a nice simple relationship. She instead, has swept everything under a (rather extravagant) rug and just pretends we already have an AMAZING relationship and then tries to give us advice and tell us what to do. I have seen the increased intensity of her 'attacks' as the years drone on. I just don't understand it, does she think she's tricked us into forgetting everything somehow?

I do think utilizing some Fe would do me good with her, but I don't want her to misinterpret it as her nonsense finally working. I also don't want her to think that nothing needs resolving.

It is true that if I could manage to keep the sarcasm at bay I could just grin and bear it, but I want true resolution, or at the very least true conflict! : )
 

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I'm married to an ENTP, too! (Aren't they awesome?) :)
His mother is a very unhealthy ESTJ, and his sister is an ESFJ. So I've got a little touch of experience in some similar ways.

I have a few things that I would tell you, that I wish someone had told me when I was dealing with a lot of the same issues in our family- manipulation, guilt trips, "games," etc...

1. Like someone said already, this is your husbands issue, first and foremost. He MUST set boundaries with his mom, or you will get nowhere. That is absolutely imperative. Now, the thing about that is that you can't control your husband, and I doubt you'd like to! You can only control what you do. But you need to have a heart-to-heart with your hubby and explain to him clearly and logically exactly what is going on, how it affects you and your marriage, and how you'd like to see him help. Don't blow up at him or throw an emotional tantrum...hard as that is when you get talking about stuff like this! Just be honest. Maybe even write it all down.

2. I'd really recommend the book "Boundaries" by Cloud & Townsend, if you haven't read that already. It's a life (and marriage!) saver, especially for people like us that don't like conflict and have a hard time setting clear-cut boundaries for ourselves and our relationships.

3. Do everything in your power to understand your MIL. Read everything you can about ESFJs, and if you're up to it, look into the Enneagram, too. It can give you so much better understanding than Myers-Briggs can about people and their motivations. Keep asking "why??" (Why are you manipulating? Why do you feel like you need to control us? Why are you hurt? Why are you being passive aggressive?) Even if you eventually land on some very unfair answers (Because I'm worried I'll lose my son, because I don't like that you've joined the family, because I'm trying to fulfill my own emotional needs before worrying about yours, etc...), you'll begin to have a more empathetic point of view. If she is really unhealthy, there's likely a reason why. Try to understand her and it will give you just a TINY bit more patience. Or at least a better, more rounded-out view of her crazy. ;)

4. Get on the same page with your husband. I mean it. You have to be together, or you will lose. Lose, lose, lose. Have some really long, deep talks about this, and make sure you both know what you want, what you think, how you feel, and where you want to go. Write down the kind of relationship you want to have with her going forward. Write down what is and isn't acceptable for how you will allow yourself or the other to be treated by her. Write down what your plan of action is when those boundaries are crossed. (i.e. When MIL says something derogatory towards me, I will bluntly and not sarcastically or passive aggressively tell her how hurtful the comment was, and my husband will back me up, and vice versa...etc...) You guys need to be a team. If she knows she can turn one of you against the other, she'll use that to her advantage when things get hard for her.


I am SO sorry that you're dealing with this. I know how straining it is both in your personal life and in your marriage. :(
 

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Discussion Starter · #14 ·
The Ultimate Square Peg, I love your username and do I ever appreciate your insight!

Yes, I adore my ENTP! He is the one for me :)

1. He and I have been discussing this at length lately. I really think he is beginning to see how important this is to me (and my sanity!!) and to himself in many ways.

2. Thank you for the book recommendation, I will get on that!

3. This is the most convicting of your recommendations. I know that she is hurt; after all, hurt people hurt people. It is also becoming more and more apparent to me that she is likely very lonely. She tends to choose low quality friends (easy for an INFJ to say... ;) who use her for her practical caring and the over-the-top admiration she gives, but do not truly respect her. It is also becoming clear to me that she has no concept of healthy boundaries in her life, so she may not be 'doing anything wrong' in her own book. I will try to apply your recommendation of asking "why?" and thinking about how her Enneagram might relate to it all.

I will be praying for more empathy and understanding in this cRaZy situation.

4. I love this advice. I think this is important for follow-through. Actually getting into the nitty-gritty of what should happen when would be invaluable when the time came.

I am curious to know how you set boundaries surrounding your children, if you have any? When I think of having kids, my stomach turns because I know at this rate she is more than capable of buying them gifts we don't approve of, telling them lies about me, and of course pushing her most excellent 'parenting' advice on me, etc, etc.

Thank you for taking the time, it means a lot.
 

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I'm more than happy to help as much as I can! I remember being in shoes very similar to yours ALL to well...and we're still dealing with it off and on!!

I am curious to know how you set boundaries surrounding your children, if you have any? When I think of having kids, my stomach turns because I know at this rate she is more than capable of buying them gifts we don't approve of, telling them lies about me, and of course pushing her most excellent 'parenting' advice on me, etc, etc.
We actually just had our first baby- she's three months old- and we are having to reestablish boundaries with his mom...and let me tell you, we are really on the end of our rope with her!! Thank the Lord, we are having an easier time with his sister, because she had been a huge problem up until the baby was born.
Right now, we're figuring out how to communicate our boundaries with our family and our daughter to his parents. We are facing the same issues you're foreseeing, and trying to stop them before they start! Right now, we're dealing with her "claiming" our girl as hers with strange statements about how she deserves to see her more often and whining if we don't come over "enough."

We're trying to establish that our children will be ours, not theirs (hers) by association. What we say goes with our kids, and that applies to whoever is watching them, too. And if she doesn't like the rules and won't follow them, she won't be watching her granddaughter. At this point, we haven't communicated that. We're waiting. But I haven't allowed her to babysit, whereas I have let my own mom. She's showed that she isn't good at understanding our daughter's cues, and I find that our daughter is very uncomfortable and nervous around her (she's really loud and high-energy, and our daughter is sensitive).
In the future, we plan to set very clear cut rules for them and spell it out so that there isn't room for misunderstanding. They won't be allowed to give them food that we aren't giving our children. They will have to adhere to the kids' schedules. They will not speak to our kids harshly, call them names (even jokingly), "parent" them without our consent, talk badly about us to them, etc...
And if they do those things, they won't see the kids. I'm perfectly willing to stick to that- I don't want bad influences in our kids' lives, and if they don't "play by the rules," so to speak, she won't get the grandkids she SO dearly wants.
I know that sounds harsh. I think it is, actually. But I am so sensitive to my daughter's needs, and I don't want her to be pushed around. We are her only advocates, and it's our role to speak up for her until she can speak up for herself. So until then, I'll be protecting her with everything I have, mentally, physically and emotionally. And hopefully I can teach her to one day be able to do so for herself.

But I'll tell you what...it is SO HARD to enforce boundaries when you don't like conflict!!! Because in order to enforce a boundary, sometimes you have to say "NO." And sometimes you can't be nice or passive about it. I'm definitely working on that. My husband is much better than I am in that area. :)
 
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Im sorry! but ,
Am I the only one who thought this title didn't sound quite right ?
 
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jdstankosky, thank you for sharing your experiences. My husband is also an ENTP and much of the abuse she laid out on him as a child was guilt manipulation. Horrible, confusing, unfair guilt manipulation. When she was overwhelmed she would often pack a suit case and threaten to leave the family. She would mope around and say things like, "You don't love me anymore." I am sure you understand how this type of abuse lead to a brick wall being built around his emotional side. Emotions = being taken advantage of... what a great thing to teach you child, especially all for selfish gain. YUCK!
My mother is an ISFJ. If your hubby is anything like me, he prolly doesn't want to confront her because it's just SO much easier to ignore her and her antics? I'd assume that's more likely than building up emotional walls, but I don't know his past. I ignore my parents calls/texts like it's the hip thing to do. Drives my wife nuts.

I'm sure it drives my parents nuts too. Pfff, eff 'em.

My wife has been known to threaten to leave on occasion as well, in my house. She'll say things like, "You don't really care about us. All you care about is _______(whatever). I can't take this anymore," Etc. then like an hour later she's back to normal.

My mother never really took me seriously about how much I hated living at home until I just did something about it one day and LEFT. Never went back. I heard she cried for like 3 or 4 days and then like "snapped" out of it once she finally realized and accepted it. I don't know how much more "direct" I could have been about it. Perhaps being direct with your MIL like everyone is saying is indeed the best thing to do until it sinks in.
 

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Discussion Starter · #20 ·
TheUltimateSquarePeg, Wow, thank you giving me a heads up! Sorry you are going through it all right now. My husband and I are bracing ourselves. Yikes!

jdstankosky, Hahaha, yes, he has ignored her to the (glorious) point of her no longer attempting to communicate with him....But when she sees him in person, it's back to being the mother of a 5 year old...

I agree that it is a decision to ignore her because it is SO much easier. He kind of thinks I'm crazy for wanting to DEAL with it. The way I see it though, is that once boundaries have been clearly stated, if they continue to cross them we can seriously be done and not feel bad about it at all.

Yep, my husband also left in a similar way and just let her sort it out on her own. Yeah, direct is hard with her because of some of what I've previously explained, but it might be the only option pretty soon here.

Thanks for all of the feedback!! We will be seeing them soon... no sarcastic comments... no sarcastic comments... no sarcastic comments...
 
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