Your mother-in-law may mean well, but sometimes it is difficult to get past what feels like an invasion into your marriage. So what can you do?
While out to lunch one day at a restaurant, I couldn’t help overhearing the conversation at the table next to me. There sat three women, each complaining about her mother-in-law. “My husband’s mother started criticizing me at my wedding 20 years ago and she never stopped,” one woman said. “My mother-in-law thinks my husband is her personal handy man—she’ll call at least once a week, insisting he come over right away and do this and that,” said another. “My mother-in-law stops by all the time, expecting us to drop what we’re doing and entertain her,” said the third woman.
How sad, I thought to myself, that these women had such difficult times with their mothers-in-law. Yet I knew they weren’t alone in how they feel. Getting along with your in-laws can be one of the biggest challenges of married life. According to researchers at Utah State University, nearly 60 percent of all marriages suffer from tension with mothers-in-law, normally between the wife and her husband’s mother. Somehow, the stereotype of the nagging, meddling mother-in-law can seem like a normal part of life.
Why so many misunderstandings? Dr. Peter A. Wish, former nationally-syndicated columnist of The Family Experience, says, “Often it’s a matter of mothers not wanting to let go. The mother may not recognize her son as being an adult, and so she continues to treat him like a kid, even after he gets married and has a family of his own.”
Clashes with your mother-in-law may actually intensify as you get older. “A 20-year-old woman may not be very confident about her own opinions, and if she has a mother-in-law who’s been through 40 years of life and she says things ought to be done this way, it’s harder to challenge her,” says Dr. Everett Worthington, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University with a special interest in the role of in-laws. “But by the time a woman is middle-aged, she’s normally a well-established adult who has her own strong opinions and feels more confident to confront her mother-in-law head-on.”
Obviously, in-law clashes are far from ideal. When you and your mother-in-law are on bad terms, the tension takes a big toll. Your spouse and children may feel they are caught in the middle and resent being forced to choose sides. Family get-togethers are strained. Your physical health and spiritual life may suffer.
“Mother-in-law battles can poison family life,” says Dr. Judith Sills, a family counselor in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, with a special interest in the role of in-laws. “It may start out as a feud between you and your mother-in-law, but before you know it, your husband, kids, father-in-law and other relatives are also drawn into the conflict.”
Although it is not necessary to become best friends with your mother-in-law, it is important to be on good terms with her. Romans:12:18 tells us we should live peaceably with everyone, and in-laws are no exception. What follows are five of the most common complaints about mothers-in-law and suggestions for making peace.
She’s always telling me what to do
Ramona addresses a common problem when she says; “I can’t do anything without my mother-in-law second-guessing me. She sees me wearing a white dress and tells me I would look thinner in black. I put a jacket on my child and she insists he needs his winter coat. She notices me using butter in my cooking and gives me a lecture about cholesterol. I’m 37 and she treats me like I’m a child.”
How can you discourage unwanted suggestions without having a big confrontation? One woman I know prepares ahead of time for encounters with her mother-in-law. Prior to an anticipated visit, she mentally reviews the most recent comments that rubbed her the wrong way and thinks about what would be proper responses. “Anticipating the types of remarks my mother-in-law might make and how I could respond shows me where I’m being oversensitive and helps me not overreact when she does say something offensive,” she says.
Even if you don’t appreciate her choice of words, you can still thank your mother-in-law for her concern. Reassure her that you will ask for her input if and when you feel you are at a dead end. You might say, “Mom, I love you and I appreciate your concern. But the best way for us to be close is for you to let me do things my own way.” Make it clear that you still want her to be involved with your family, but it has to be on your terms.
She keeps meddling
Even if you don’t appreciate her choice of words, you can still thank your mother-in-law for her concern.
Phil’s mother-in-law went beyond giving unsolicited advice and actually interfered. “Our two daughters spent the weekend with my mother-in-law while my wife and I went out of town,” he explains. “Grandma has the tendency to spoil our kids, and they already have plenty of toys, so we specifically told her to not buy anything for them that weekend. When we got back Sunday night, the first thing our daughters did was show us the new dollhouse Grandma bought them. I was so mad I could barely speak.”
The best way to handle this type of conflict is to communicate. “You and your spouse should talk to your mother-in-law, as a couple, and make it clear that this is a concern you both have,” Dr. Wish says. Set aside a time and place to talk when both you and your mother-in-law feel relaxed and stress-free. Talk in a neutral setting: at the park, in a restaurant, during a walk around the neighborhood—while you’re doing something enjoyable.
Fight the urge to run down a list of your mother-in-law’s annoying traits. Instead, start with something positive, such as, “Mom, I know you mean well, but it really bothered me when you ignored my instructions for the children.” Go into the talk with an open mind and give your mother-in-law a chance to explain herself. You may be surprised at her reasons for doing what she did.
She wants constant companionship
One of the most delicate mother-in-law situations is when she wants more companionship from you than you are willing or able to give. “I adore my mother-in-law,” says Amy. “The problem is, she’s retired and lives alone and has lots of free time on her hands. I’ve got two teens, a husband and house to take care of, as well as a full-time job. A few minutes after I’m home from work, she’ll stop over, wanting to sit and chat. But I need to get dinner going, the kids want attention, and I haven’t seen my husband all day. If I tell her I don’t have time to talk, I feel so guilty.”
If your mother-in-law is making too many demands on your time, be honest with her about how you feel. Tell her what you’d like to see in the relationship, and try to establish the right level of involvement for both of you. How often should you get together? Do you want her to call once a week? How much privacy do you need? Can she stop over uninvited? Set clear boundaries you both can agree on.
Frame your words positively. Saying, “We enjoy being with you, however it’s unsettling for us to have you just stop by without calling first,” is better than announcing, “We don’t like it when you come over uninvited.” Tell her that you definitely want to spend time together, but that you need to be able to plan when and how often.
Your mother-in-law may be widowed or suffering from poor health and genuinely needs a lot of your time. Check out your other options. Are there other relatives who could do more to help? Does your mother-in-law have friends she could be calling instead of you? Don’t feel guilty if you can’t fill all your mother-in-law’s needs. Knowing your own limits is a key to giving sincerely.
She competes with me for my husband
Irene sums up the feelings of many women when she says, “I feel like an outsider when I’m around my mother-in-law. Even though my husband and I have been married 15 years, she still treats me as though I’m a threat, someone who wants to take her son away from her. I’m not usually a competitive person, but when I’m with my mother-in-law, I find myself comparing, keeping score and being unsure of my status in the family.”
If your mother-in-law is making too many demands on your time, be honest with her about how you feel.
Unfortunately, there’s a built-in sense of rivalry in every daughter-in-law/mother-in-law relationship. “A woman and her mother-in-law are in a triangular relationship with the same man,” says Dr. Sills. “The daughter-in-law’s gain is frequently the mother-in-law’s loss. And when another woman has caused you a loss, no matter how intellectually understandable it is, it’s hard to take.”
An effective strategy for dealing with competitive feelings is to realize that part of your mother-in-law’s possessiveness is a natural aspect of being a mother. “Your mother-in-law may never stop feeling it’s her job to be a caretaker to your husband,” Dr. Sills says. “Asking her to give up control completely and let you be the only influential woman in your husband’s life is asking the impossible.”
Stop comparing yourself to your mother-in-law. “A common feeling among wives is that she’s not measuring up to her husband’s mother,” says Dr. Wish. “Remind yourself that you are not your mother-in-law. You don’t have to live your life according to her terms. The earlier you establish this as a framework for your marriage, the happier you will be.”
She won’t admit her mistakes
You may have tried talking to your mother-in-law about something she’s done to hurt you and be getting nowhere. That is the situation for Brent. “My mother-in-law is totally oblivious to her faults,” he says. “When I try to tell her about something she did that upset us, she either acts like she doesn’t know what I’m talking about or spends an hour defending her actions. But until she starts apologizing, I don’t care to be around her.”
Even if your mother-in-law can’t see or refuses to acknowledge how she’s hurt you, you still can (and should) forgive her. Forgiveness is not a matter of you insisting your mother-in-law say she’s sorry, but of you letting go of the anger you have for her. Until you bury the past, you will not be able to move on to the future.
Remind yourself that having a good relationship with your mother-in-law is part of having a strong family.
The first step to forgiveness is to try to understand your mother-in-law’s perspective. “You may come to see that she wasn’t being as malicious as you once thought,” Dr. Worthington says. “The second step is to realize that you may not have done the same thing to her but you’ve probably hurt other people. And just as you would like to have forgiveness for the times you’ve hurt others, you should willing to forgive your mother-in-law.”
Although it is never too late to make peace, it will take time to reconcile with your mother-in-law. “You have to rebuild trust, and you don’t just do that by saying ‘I forgive you,’ even if you mean it 100 percent,” Dr. Worthington says. “Whereas forgiveness is granted, trust is earned, and that doesn’t happen overnight.”
While progress may be slow, a healthy relationship can be achieved with your mother-in-law. The more you understand what motivates her when she does things that get on your nerves, the less likely you will be to overreact or turn every little incident into a major one. Remind yourself that having a good relationship with your mother-in-law is part of having a strong family. It may take a lot of patience, love and commitment on your part to have a peaceful relationship with your mother-in-law, but it’s definitely worth the effort.
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