What You And Your Mother-In-Law
Have In Common (It’s Not Your Spouse)
Building a successful relationship with your mother-in-law takes honesty, communication and understanding.
The mother-in-law has become a mythic figure, the butt of prime time comedy and often the source of real complexity for many women. Yet with some openness and communication, the relationship between a woman and her mother-in-law need not be negative.
“The overall challenge is trying to figure out how both women fit into the family dynamic and in relationship to the [spouse],” says Deanna Brann, a Tennessee psychologist and author of Reluctantly Related: Secrets to Getting Along With Your Mother-in-Law or Daughter-in-Law.
The most important way a woman can set the ground for a healthy relationship with her mother-in-law, Brann explains, is to develop and foster a connection independent of her partner.
“If you only view this woman as ‘my [spouse’s] mom’ then you really aren’t creating any kind of personal relationship. Find out what they’re interested in, talk to them about what they like, get to know them personally.”
Often, a mother-in-law and her daughter-in-law also come from different generations, so there’s a need for patience and understanding as these two women get to know one another.
“A woman can try to view her mother-in-law through the same lens as her own mother,” Brann explains.
One of the most common difficulties for mothers-in-law can be seeing their grown children as adults. By extension, they often lump their child’s wife into the equation of “kid” and assume an authority over a daughter-in-law that hasn’t been earned.
“The biggest thing a mother-in-law can do is to view her son [or daughter] and their wife as adult people. She needs to let go on an emotional level,” says Brann.
A need to let go can also manifest in a mother-in-law’s attempts to parent her own grandchildren, or offer unwelcome parenting criticisms, Brann says. “Mothers-in-law need to let their adult kids raise their children their own way. Nobody wants to feel intruded upon.”
Brann breaks down mothers-in-law into four types in her book, with two being the most common. The “Off the Wall Wanda” is a mother-in-law “Who wants what she wants and will never apologize because she feels like she is still in the mother role.” With this type, she recommends setting strong boundaries and being very specific about what is and what is not acceptable.
The other more common type is the “Mothering Margaret”— one who means well but often comes across as nosy or judgmental in her attempts to help, in which case, Brann suggests, honest communication around feelings works best.
Dayna Bennett Davis, a California mother of two, has learned to pre-empt her own such mother-in-law’s attempts to be helpful and do things around Davis’s house, which used to make Davis feel inadequate or judged.
“Now I give her things to do, like organizing my silverware drawer, or cleaning out a closet, since she likes to stay busy and helpful,” Davis says.
More importantly, Davis has learned to realize that her mother-in-law’s habits are not personal. “Having an understanding of how your mother-in-law operates is helpful to know what are going to be triggers for you.”
Sarah Richter of Tampa, Fla. admits the third of her three daughters-in-law benefitted most from the lessons she learned with the first two.
“There really is only one challenge: To remain somewhere between a mother and a friend while keeping a respectful distance,” she says.
Though the primary work of relationship building is incumbent upon the two women, the role of partner/child can’t be overlooked.
“A [spouse] needs to realize that their wife is expecting loyalty to her first,” says LJ Myers, a California author, therapist and mother-in-law.
“[Being] a daughter-in-law is another relationship that requires work. You don’t just marry the [person], you marry their family,” says *Thea, a psychologist and daughter-in-law. She recommends that the spouse aid in helping both women to understand each other’s histories. “If we don’t learn from our history, it is bound to be repeated.”
Ultimately, to form a civil relationship, and at best, a close connection, Brann says all parties will benefit from the following skills: “Build a relationship, set boundaries, communicate, and respect and appreciate the other person’s position in the family.”
Jordan Rosenfeld is author of seven books. Her articles and essays have appeared widely in such publications as Alternet, DAME, GOOD magazine, Ozy, The New York Times, mental_floss, Pacific Standard, the Rumpus, Salon, The Washington Post and more. Follow her on Twitter @jordanrosenfeld.