If you are having problems dealing with your parents-in-law you are not alone. Research indicates that the mother-in-law/daughter-in-law relationship in particular is often fraught with problems. As a relationship therapist, I frequently see couples who are in conflict regarding this issue. Sometimes mothers do not allow their son the freedom to prioritise the relationship with his wife and children.  Men often fail to communicate their priorities and instead try and appease everyone. Sometimes daughters in law are quick to dismiss the mother in law as out of touch, when in fact if the relationship works well it can be one which benefits all concerned, especially grandchildren.

Here are some tips that can help you navigate this tricky relationship.

1. Seek understanding. Try to see beneath your mother-in-law’s behaviour. What might be driving it? Insecurity, loneliness? Whatever it is, rest assured it is highly unlikely it is about you. This does not mean it is okay for her to treat you badly. What it does mean is that with some awareness of what is going on, you are less likely to take it personally and therefore less likely to get angry.

2. Establish and maintain boundaries. It helps to be very clear in your own mind about what is acceptable to you and what is not (for example what are your expectations about the amount of time you spend with the in-laws?). You and your partner need to talk about this and negotiate. The couple must then present a united front.

3. Protect your Privacy. Problems in your relationship are not up for discussion with the in-laws. Again this is about boundaries. Speak to a trusted friend or counsellor about relationship issues.

4. Be aware of negative bias. Try not to see every comment your mother- in-law makes as a criticism. Sometimes we can feel so anxious, irritated and downright furious with our mother-in-law that we see every comment as a put down. If appropriate actually ask her opinion on something. Whether you take her advice is then up to you but you have at least shown your willingness to consider her feelings.

5. Assert yourself. If your mother in law is overbearing and insists you should do things her way, a phrase to have ready is ‘Yes, that’s one way to do it but I prefer to do it this way.’ Said calmly but firmly and followed by a quick change of subject, this usually does the trick. Remember you may have to do this many times!

6. Name it. Often the most difficult type of put down to deal with is the snide comment, often said with a smile. The one that makes you think to yourself ‘did she really just say that?’ ‘Jennifer’ had spent hours carefully preparing a fabulous meal for a celebratory family dinner. One of the guests complimented Jennifer on the meal. Before Jennifer had a chance to respond, her mother-in-law said loudly, “yes it’s nice to come here and eat something that hasn’t come out of a packet for a change”. Jennifer seethed with anger but was reluctant to say anything in front of their guests. When such comments are made, if possible, say something immediately such as “wow, that sounded like a put down, is that what you intended?” Leave it at that. You have called her on her behaviour whilst giving her the opportunity to explain herself. She may think twice about making such comments in the future.

7. Practice. Being appropriately assertive with your mother-in-law is not easy! Many times it will feel easier to say nothing. Whilst I don’t suggest you challenge every insensitive comment she makes, a few well timed, well executed statements from you can stop you feeling helpless and anxious every time you see her. Being assertive is essential in order to regain your confidence and peace of mind. Try it! It gets easier! If assertiveness is especially difficult for you read up on the subject or do a short course. These are skills that can be learnt.

8. Find an outlet. Whether it be catching up with your girlfriends, going for a brisk walk, seeing a movie, anything that enables you to let off steam and focus on something else. Do not let this relationship dominate your thoughts or affect how you feel about yourself. Focus on your goals and what brings you happiness.

9. Find acceptance. Sometimes the best you can do is accept that you will never be able to have a healthy relationship with your mother-in-law. Despite all your best efforts, sometimes it is not achievable. If in-law issues are a source of ongoing conflict with your partner, see a counsellor. Tackling this very common issue as a couple rather than a problem that is yours alone, can make a huge difference.

10. Express Gratitude. If you have a great relationship with your mother-in-law, be thankful! Mothers-in-law can offer invaluable support and wisdom.

About The Author

Bernadette Keating is a Relationship and Sexuality Counsellor in private practice in Gippsland, Victoria. She has been interested in relationships for as long as she can remember – what it is that makes relationships succeed, what causes them to falter, and the link between healthy relationships and good mental health.  Bernadette is a mother of two and step-mother of three. She loves writing, painting, fun and laughter with friends and learning more about what makes people tick. Bernadette has trained extensively in counselling and couples therapy and recently completed a Masters in Health Science (Sexual Health) through the University of Sydney.

Other posts by this author:

  1. mle00

    March 31, 2014 at 11:45 pm,

    MoM Rewards: mle00 has a diamond MoM rewards level mle00 said:

    Please don’t get me started on this issue

  2. jodie80

    March 16, 2014 at 6:16 pm,

    MoM Rewards: jodie80 has a diamond MoM rewards level jodie80 said:

    my inlaws are ok. my family thats another story lol

  3. jenny9761

    March 13, 2014 at 7:30 pm,

    MoM Rewards: jenny9761 has a diamond MoM rewards level jenny9761 said:

    I am lucky to have great in-laws

  4. March 02, 2014 at 11:27 am,

    MoM Rewards: jadeeeee has a diamond MoM rewards level jadeeeee said:

    Thanks for sharing this interesting read

  5. ana sa

    February 28, 2014 at 10:27 pm,

    MoM Rewards: ana sa has a sapphire MoM rewards level ana sa said:

    i love tip no 5. i do it actually. but all are good. thanks

  6. ljsalomon

    January 23, 2014 at 8:37 pm,

    MoM Rewards: ljsalomon has a diamond MoM rewards level ljsalomon said:

    Interesting read -thanks for sharing

  7. stacey_max

    January 06, 2014 at 2:47 pm,

    MoM Rewards: stacey_max has a diamond MoM rewards level stacey_max said:

    A very interesting read. If only it were that easy sometimes!

  8. misschriss

    January 04, 2014 at 3:09 pm,

    MoM Rewards: misschriss has a diamond MoM rewards level misschriss said:

    An interesting read. I try to not dwell on things too much, but when it involves in-laws it does make it abit harder as it feels more personal for some reason.

  9. December 23, 2013 at 11:33 pm,

    MoM Rewards: kathryn has a diamond MoM rewards level kathryn said:

    I have more problems with my father in law than I do with my mother in law… thankfully my husband has been really supportive and tries to diffuse the situation

  10. meimei

    December 21, 2013 at 12:49 pm,

    MoM Rewards: meimei has a diamond MoM rewards level meimei said:

    Thank you for the advice :)

  11. November 30, 2013 at 7:47 pm,

    MoM Rewards: nicoleandchris2013 has a diamond MoM rewards level nicoleandchris2013 said:

    Thanks for the advice but I would rather stay away from my mother in law

    1. sonja_holness

      December 01, 2013 at 4:23 pm,

      MoM Rewards: sonja_holness has a diamond MoM rewards level sonja_holness said:

      I know how you feel, we cut her out of our lives and have never been happier!

  12. November 28, 2013 at 12:25 am,

    MoM Rewards: memo has a diamond MoM rewards level memo said:

    I had a wonderful MIL, she was happy with her son’s choice,

  13. sonja_holness

    November 20, 2013 at 3:02 pm,

    MoM Rewards: sonja_holness has a diamond MoM rewards level sonja_holness said:

    So glad my MIL lives in another country, though she has still managed to cause issues for us.

  14. November 06, 2013 at 9:12 am,

    MoM Rewards: kathryn has a diamond MoM rewards level kathryn said:

    Mmmm, it is worse when your father-in-law is the problem because I could understand more if it was my mother-in-law making the comments!

  15. November 04, 2013 at 10:53 pm,

    MoM Rewards: lanie76 has a topaz MoM rewards level lanie76 said:

    I live on one side if Australia she lives I’m the other, I always wanted a good relationship with my MIL unfortunately I wasn’t up to her standard, distance is the best!

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