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.