How to Deal With Passive-Aggressive In-Laws

Is there any other kind? (Sorry, sorry, we’ll be nice.) But honestly, how often has your mother-in-law paid you a compliment that somehow feels like criticism? Or your sister-in-law makes a comment that sounds innocent but feels judgmental? Here’s how to handle those jabs—and these often tricky relationships—with grace.

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Photo by Maskot/Getty Images

Classic Scenario: You’re prepping a holiday meal, and your sister-in-law is “keeping you company” in the kitchen. In other words, she’s hovering, wineglass in hand, and commenting on the “unusual” spices you add and the “cute” little paring knife you use to chop the celery. “I’d be lost without my Cuisinart,” she says, while you tediously slice Brussels sprouts into slivers by hand.

What’s Really Happening: Whether it’s the scenario above or your mother-in-law saying, after you mention a promotion at work, “That’s so great—I’m just sorry the hours keep you away from the kids,” the culprit might be insecurity. (Might be. Or the person may simply be mean-spirited, but your reaction is the same.) Perhaps your sister-in-law is unhappy in her job—but very good at cooking!—or your mother-in-law is jealous of your relationship with her son.

How to React: First talk yourself off the cliff. “In the face of a veiled attack, attacking back is a no-win,” says Laura Markham, Ph.D., the author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids. “I like to say, ‘Stop, drop’—and by that I mean any agenda you might have—‘and breathe.’ Try to assume the best, that the person has good intentions, but that you also have no need to defend yourself.” That way, you are less likely to respond sarcastically or defensively. Go for confidence and kindness. “By not continuing the covert attacks, you shift the whole tone of the conversation,” says Markham. Try something like “I’ve been meaning to ask you about that food processor of yours. I’m sure it’s much faster.” Or to your mother-in-law: “I wonder about the hours, too. But right now I feel like this is right for our family.” Then, Markham suggests, you can add something genuinely nice, such as “Maybe you could give me a demonstration sometime” or “You did an amazing job with your kids” before offering a smile. “If you can do that and mean it, you all win,” she says. You’ve maintained your integrity. If you don’t think that you can swallow your bile, change the subject. “Say, ‘Oh, I have to bring the garbage out to the garage,’ then bolt,” says Markham. Or prearrange a signal with your husband so that he can swoop in.