How to Avoid Emotional Landmines With Your Mother-in-Law
Son Caught Between Two Extremes
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You couldn't wait to meet the other woman in
your fiancé's life. Visions of outings at the mall, gossiping over coffee and
sharing each others clothes danced in your head. How could the woman who raised
your brilliant beau not be a kindred spirit? If you are reading this article chances are things did not go according to your pre-nuptial fantasies.
Perhaps your thoughts have taken a darker turn these days. Maybe you've
considered changing your cell number, or buying real estate in Costa Rica.
If mother/daughter relationship is often fraught with drama, it is not surprising that the mother-in-law/daughter-in-law dynamic can be even more difficult. Why is it so hard to relate to the woman who raised the man in your life? How can you relate to this woman who comes from a generation so entirely unlike your own? And how do you avoid toxicity in your relationship with this woman who is, for all intents and purposes, your second mom?
Walking in a minefield could be easier than navigating the emotional terrain with a mother-in-law, but it is better to think optimistically. So in that spirit, here are a few ways to ease the frustration of this often awkward relationship:
Realize That Some Tension is Normal
When you first married it might have come as a shock to realize just how different you and your spouse were raised-even if you come from similar racial and social groups. When you married these differences were likely amplified and the friction between your beliefs and his beliefs might have been very unsettling.
The same holds true for your relationship with your mother-in-law. A little tension because of differences in background and belief is quite normal and nothing to berate yourself (or them) about. You and your in-laws will naturally see things differently. This can be a benefit in the long run as you both expand and grow in your relationship to one another.
Make Sure You and Dear Husband Are United
Even if your hubby is a mama's boy when he married you his allegiance should have changed to you. There is nothing more demoralizing for a wife than to have her husband choose his mommy over her. It is also difficult for the husband when his wife puts him in the middle of a spat with his mother.
What to do?
Communication with your husband about this topic, before and after marriage, is crucial. If at all possible try to communicate directly with your mother-in-law instead of using your husband as a go between. Refrain from being unduly negative but let your husband know if you feel he is freezing you out and has an unhealthy attachment to his mother. Only by being united as a couple can you deal with in-law issues effectively. If after you talk to him you notice that your husband is still very immature about his mother a visit to a couple’s therapist might be in order.
Give Up Being Right
Something to keep in mind when dealing with your mother-in-law is that she has a lot of emotion and expectation invested in her son. She nursed him and kissed his boo boos and counseled him in his teen years. She was there for most of his "firsts" and, psychological cliché though it is, was the first woman in his life. That, coupled with her life experience, might make her seem a bit bossy at times. She might want to tell you how her little "sweetums" likes his eggs or the best way to make a bed or dress your baby. Instead of interpreting her advice as a veiled criticism, even if it is, take a deep breath and thank her for her efforts. Choose to see her assertions and advice as well meaning by thanking her for her opinion. This does not mean you must or should agree to her advice. Remember: Everyone likes a dose of appreciation now and then.
If you want her to listen to you it might be wise to let
her know that you can also listen to her. Sometimes all a person wants is some validation that they still matter, which can be especially difficult for a mother who has entered the empty nest phase of life.
Kindly Delineate Boundaries
If you don't establish healthy boundaries in your relationship with your mother-in-law she may never realize certain things she does are inappropriate. As a couple you and your husband should decide how you want to integrate your mother-in-law into your lives. Communicating your needs with your mother-in-law can be done in a kindly manner; feathers may be ruffled but things will often straighten out in the end. Allowing for a healthy give and take is essential in order to foster good communication and the possibility of future friendship.
An example of bad boundaries: Your mother-in-law decides to rearrange your house when you are gone and she is babysitting. In order to stop such behavior in the future you need to let her know, in a nice way, that you would prefer it if she would check with you first before she tidies up your food cabinets or moves your sofa. Good boundaries are formed when both families have mutual respect and consideration and, most importantly, ask how the other party feels about things before they do them.
Parents who consider their children extensions of themselves or think they "own" their children have a very difficult time giving their adult kids the space to individuate and create boundaries. If this is the case in your situation try to have a firm but loving talk about your expectations for the relationship. Tell your mother-in-law how you love and respect her, but make it clear that there are certain things you and your spouse will and will not tolerate.
A good book on the subject of boundaries is Martha Beveridge's Loving Your Partner Without Losing Yourself.
Consider Her Feelings
It is easy to look at the world through the narrowness of our own opinions and prejudices but when we do this it makes it harder to understand the other perspective. Sometimes the best way to bridge the gap between you and your mother-in-law is to consider her feelings. Don't talk negatively about her son to her. Don't gossip about the family with her. Be kind and considerate. Be gracious and grateful when she gives you a present or tries to connect with you. How would you feel if you were in her shoes? Empathy is a two way street and you might be amazed how different your relationship can be if you focus on her feelings and thoughts instead of your own.
Try To Bond through Similar Interests
It might seem like you and your dear mother-in-law have absolutely zilch in common. She prides herself on having been a homemaker whereas you are climbing the corporate ladder. Keep asking questions and in time there is sure to be something you have in common-even if it is only the man you both share. Ask her to show you baby pictures of your husband or tell stories from the past. Be prepared to listen and learn from her experience. And when you find something in common try to spend time together pursuing your shared interest, whether it is a girl’s day at the spa or a day riding horseback in the country. Outings to the park or zoo with the grandchildren can be also being a great way to bond with your mother-in-law.
If She Is Toxic Get outside Support
Most mother-in-law tension is normal and, with mutual respect and care, can be replaced with friendship and mutual respect. Caveat: There are some mothers-in-law who are pathologically controlling, bullying and show no respect of you or your husband's boundaries. Such mothers-in-law can go as far as to try to destroy your marriage or hurt your children. If your mother-in-law is interfering with your marriage in a negative way, and devalues you as an individual, it is important to get some outside support and perspective. She may have a personality issue such as Narcissistic Personality Disorder or suffer from another psychological issue. There are several resources on the web that explore the unhealthy mother-in-law relationship. One site, maintained by Dr. Terri Apter, is called Mother-In-Law Stories (www.motherinlawstories.com). If you are having issues with your mother-in-law it helps to share your story with others who are going through similar issues.
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