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Do You Have a Mother-in-Law? (or any difficult relatives)

Do you have a mother-in-law?

The kind that doesn’t “wear beige” and has a critical opinion about everything you do or intermittently shares her opinion with you, so you never know when she’ll verbally strike.

  • The kind that boasts about her son being “Father of the Year” even though you’re with the kids 24-7.
  • The kind that treats you like “chopped liver” and ignores you in spite of your attempts to connect with her or regardless of you sending pictures, videos, and other daily updates on her grandchildren.
  • The kind that responds to you, “I didn’t know they take dyed hair?!” when you told her that you’re growing out your hair to donate it to a cancer survivor organization.

If none of these descriptions apply to your mother-in-law and instead you have a GEM who actually wants to have a close, positive, respectful relationship with you, celebrate your good fortune and no further reading is necessary!

For the rest of us… keep on reading for tips to survive and even THRIVE in your relationship with your mother-in-law (or any difficult relative). And of course, feel free to share this blog post with the other most important person in this relationship, your spouse!

Although it’s par for the course to hear a male comedian joke about his difficult mother-in-law (M.I.L.), it’s actually the female spouse who more commonly struggles with this relationship.

If you’re in a same gender couple, either partner can find themselves in this difficult dynamic. So, as you read on, please modify the pronouns to fit your relationship.

The GOOD NEWS IS… THERE IS A SOLUTION according to John Gottman, PhD, renowned researcher on couples, marriage, and divorce. I will also share several other ideas and you can decide which fits best for you.

I became increasing curious about this issue and solutions for it since becoming a new mama five years ago and hearing one story after another from moms who despaired about their visits with their M.I.L. Of course, M.I.L. issues are not “mom specific”, so if you are not a mother and struggling with your relationship with your M.I.L., the ideas for solutions below can apply to you too!

Tip #1 Your spouse must choose YOU over his mother! In other words, man up hubby.

(Per John Gottman, PhD, “Solve Your Solvable Problems” in The 7 Principles for Making Marriage Work)

This Gottman tip will most significantly shift how your M.I.L. treats you.

No longer can your spouse remain “Switzerland” or the battle for his loyalty will rage on. As difficult as this is for husbands/partners who feel strong loyalty (if their parents established a strong hierarchy when they were children) or have an exceptionally close relationship with their mother, this must be done, according to Gottman, if the husband wants his marriage to last!

If your partner has or wishes to have a truly secure, adult to adult relationship with his mother, he can more clearly see how it is possible and developmentally appropriate and healthy for him to shift his loyalty to YOU, his wife/partner.”

​On the other hand, if your partner unconsciously (this is a key word!) has an insecure bond with his mother and fears his mother’s rejection or even abandonment if he chooses you over her, he may need some support- personally or professionally- to choose you as his top priority, as he stands at this crossroads.

Many couples have shared that reading this section in Gottman’s book helped them make the change they wanted to because it provided them with the research that underscored the importance in doing this for the sake of the marriage! This section in this book also provides examples to inform couples of this process and reassure them that even if M.I.L. pushes back (which she likely will), as long as the couple remains a united front, M.I.L. will come around.

If I am sounding overly harsh toward partners caught between their mother and their spouse, trust that I also have genuine empathy for these spouses who feel pulled in two directions by two people they love dearly, and understandably do not want to choose one over the other because they want to avoid hurting both family members.

Unfortunately, the couple therapy experts uniformly say that a spouse must choose his wife/partner as his top priority because, in intimate adult relationships, no one and nothing can come between this primary relationship without the partner on the outside feeling betrayed.  Stan Tatkin, the creator of PACT (Psychobiological Approach to Couples Therapy) includes: children, drug abuse, work, friends, etc. to this “third wheel” list and makes it clear that if “thirds” are not well managed, it will lead to the demise of a marriage.

Beyond spouses placing their partner as their top priority (“I protect the safety and security of my relationship at all costs.”), Tatkin further advises partners to protect one another in public and in private from harmful elements, including themselves”. This means it is the spouse’s responsibility to protect his wife/partner by setting a limit with his mother if she is being harmful to his partner (even if unintentionally!). 

Tip #2 Woman up! The time has come for you to be a BAD daughter-in-law!!!

If you haven’t yet seen the movie, “Bad Moms”, watch it! If you have seen the film, “Bad Moms”, you can understand that when I recommend to be “BAD”, I really mean to have the COURAGE to…

  • be real, be yourself (vs. someone you’re not to endlessly try to win someone’s favor at the expense of being your authentic self)
  • have the confidence and self-worth to trust that anyone who tries to break you down does not have your best interests at heart and is not worth trying to please!
  • be assertive, speak up for what you believe in, set healthy boundaries, & be honest in your communication and actions, etc.

For example, if your M.I.L. disrespects you or disregards your feelings, tell her right away:

“Ouch! That hurt when you said _______.”

If she feigns confusion, repeat to her what she just said to you loud enough for everyone at the table to hear (if she tends to whisper hurtful words to you as some bullies do).

For example~

  • “Did you just say that… (ex.) I should breastfeed my baby in the restaurant bathroom?” 
  • “Did you just say that I should discipline my child differently?”

If she were to have the CHUTZPAH to respond, “YES”, you can still stand your ground by either ignoring her unsolicited advice (if she is likely to battle with you) or letting her know that, “I am happy with the way I am taking care of my children” and then go on being the best mom that you know you are.

She’ll learn to back off when you find your voice and speak in an assertive manner AND when your partner has your back too.

If your M.I.L. only BULLIES you in private, tell your partner that you will no longer spend time alone with her, just as you would PROTECT your children from a bully. NO MORE MRS. NICE GUY! Be a BAD daughter-in-law!

Honestly, you deserve to feel safe and secure in all of your relationships. Therefore, sometimes couples find that they need to set limits, such as:

  • visiting with their parents/in-laws during the day and sleeping in a hotel at night & requesting that their parents/in-laws stay in a hotel as well (when they visit)
  • renting a car to drive separately
  • meeting in public places only (ALL of us tend to behave better in public)
  • leaving a family visit early

It’s a CHOICE (for most of us) to be a VICTIM of your M.I.L. and you deserve better! Instead of choosing inauthentic peacekeeping that resolves nothing, consider mustering the courage to speak directly to your M.I.L. about how you would like your relationship to look differently and what’s at stake for your M.I.L. if she continues to disregard your feelings.

If there are grandchildren involved, you frankly have more leverage. I don’t advocate manipulation. I do encourage parents to set limits though if grandparents undermine you or a M.I.L. is being hurtful toward you. Then, it’s fair game to inform the M.I.L. that she is jeopardizing her relationship with her grandchildren and if she wishes to preserve this relationship, she needs to treat her daughter-in-law (or son-in-law) with the common courtesy we all deserve to be given.

Tip #3 Write a letter or have a heart to heart talk with your M.I.L. about the kind of relationship you want

  • This might facilitate you communicating in the most honest fashion if you are a more articulate writer than speaker or struggle (as many folks do) being direct with someone face to face.
  • One method is the “Love First” letter writing model, which can help you develop a more accurate perspective of your M.I.L. because it requires you to be reflective of your entire relationship with her since you:

1.  Begin the letter stating your purpose (“I want to have a more positive relationship with you.”) and recall some of her positive qualities and your most positive memories of her.

2. Then, you segue into 1-3 of your greatest concerns about your M.I.L. utilizing facts (behaviors or dialogue that could have been recorded by a camera) and “I” statements (versus interpretations or guesses about her motivation). For example, “When you ______, I felt _______”.

3. Conclude the letter with your ideas for how you would like to see your relationship improve or change. If you feel it would be helpful, clarify action steps you’re willing to take or consequences you’re willing to follow through with if she chooses to not honor your requests.

Tip #4 “Let it begin with me” (an Al-Anon slogan)

In your interactions with your M.I.L., lead with an open heart (as difficult as this might sound if you have been repeatedly hurt) and model everything you requested from your mother-in-law. It is possible that your M.I.L. was not aware of her hurtful behavior toward you either due to it being unconscious or her lack of awareness of herself overall.

She also might have felt hurt too by your behavior or lack of relationship-building behavior and thus may have been acting out. Try to keep your relationship vision in the forefront of your mind AND follow through with action steps/consequences/limits you stated in your conversation or letter with your M.I.L. so she knows you mean business!

I have found it to be AMAZING how once we change ourselves, others often change too. As opposed to being in an ineffective stalemate, waiting for others to change and feeling like a helpless victim, once we find our power and change (teach others how to treat us), others often follow suit.

Sometimes people or relationships change in unexpected ways. Sometimes, daughter-in-laws hear the apology they longed for. Other times, they never receive that acknowledgment, but they do experience a change in their M.I.L.’s behavior and finally receive the respect they requested.

Sometimes the change takes a LONG time because it can take a while for the seeds you planted to grow, but usually these M.I.L.’s come around because they realize that in order to have the relationships they want, they have to be flexible.

And of course, there are also some M.I.L. who might never change, but at least you and your spouse did EVERYTHING possible to improve the relationship.

Tip #5 Be a role model for your children by sticking to your boundaries and working on forgiveness.

We’re role models for our children when we demonstrate the courage to do the hard things. It’s a gift to our children when they witness us doing the hard work of expressing and following through with setting boundaries. They learn that it’s possible to be both connected to people we love and protect ourselves from other’s disrespectful behavior. They receive a priceless gift of empowerment to speak their voice in their relationships too.

Modeling forgiveness or the acceptance process is also an invaluable lesson to pass down to our children. We’ve all heard about the benefits of forgiveness. I recently also learned about the advantages of the process of acceptance, such as freeing yourself from the pain of an emotional injury, and letting go of one’s hurt feelings toward an offender in cases when the offender is not willing to engage in the genuine forgiveness process. According to Dr. Janis Abrahms-Spring who wrote How can I forgive you? The courage to forgive and the freedom not to, the process of acceptance can allow FULL healing for individuals!

We must also be open to hearing our M.I.L.’s concerns about us & her wishes for our relationship if we want her to take ours seriously. We too have areas of needed growth. If we choose to focus on the positive qualities in others, we will be able to enjoy our relationships more. And if we tap into our humility by recognizing our shortcomings, we can experience more compassion and empathy for others, which brings us closer to one another, which was our goal in the first place.

As a mother of a 5 year old son, I have already given my future role as an M.I.L. A LOT of thought given the pervasiveness of this issue. Down the road, I hope to REMEMBER what it was like for all of the other moms and women I have heard stories from, in addition to my own experience, so I can create a positive, respectful, and authentic relationship with my son’s future partner.

If you would like help with your relationship with your M.I.L. or mother, contact Lana Isaacson, LCSW, CAC III, Certificate in Marriage and Family Therapy at 720.939.2189, [email protected] or schedule your free consultation or session today at my Lakewood or Wheat Ridge office on my on-line calendar.