A man is torn between two women. One has known and loved him since he was a child, and he owes her his very life, but he has pledged his heart to another. Sounds like a setup for a great movie or romance novel, but this drama is lived out every day in women’s relationships with their mothers-in-law. Can this story possibly have a happy ending?
Despite the stereotype of the “monster-in-law,” the answer seems to be yes: a happy (or at least happier) ending is possible. Judy Goldberg, senior editor of Parents Magazine, and a wonderful panel of featured guests joined The Motherhood to discuss our relationships with our mothers-in-law and how we can make them better.
MIL vs. Mother: Which relationship is harder?
Judy Goldberg posed this thought-provoking question early on. Shell of Things I Can’t Say offered that she sometimes finds it easier to get along with her MIL than her own mom. Kristen Kemp of Barista Kids cited three reasons the relationship between women and their MILs can be so tough: “First, you put two women together who are in love with the same man. Second, you are stuck together for the long haul, no defriending on Facebook allowed. Third, your man probably cares what she thinks, so you have to be careful that you don’t tick them both off.”
Judy observed that it’s possible that “people struggle with MILs because they have this new, but suddenly very intimate relationship to navigate.” Britt of In Pursuit of Happiness added, “I think the in-law relationship is unique because it’s one of the few times when you’re forced to have an intimate relationship with people you didn’t necessarily choose – that’s a big leap for everyone involved!”
What does your MIL want from you? What do you want from her?
Judy asked these questions: “What do you want from your MIL? What do you think she wants from you?” One participant felt that her MIL wanted to have “the same relationship with me as I have with my mother,” and that from her own end, that would just not be possible. Britt and Fadra of All Things Fadra agreed that they were looking for a “second mother” to “fill in gaps” in the relationships with their own moms. Some of the participants had never really considered the questions–and as Joe Jackson famously sang, “You can’t get what you want ’til you know what you want.”
Gossip and Guilt Trips and Grasping, Oh My!
Though several participants and panelists reported great, easy-to-navigate relationships with their MILs, there were, predictably, a number of conflict issues. One MIL needs to talk to her son for at least an hour EVERY day, and gets miffed if a few days go by without a call (or if it’s suggested that a three-week-plus visit is a little too long). Judy said she gets lots of letters about such situations, and emphasized the need to “set super firm limits and stand by them. Even if MIL is angry.”
Tales of overbearing and controlling MILs abounded, from the MIL who rearranges her daughter-in-law’s porch furniture when she’s not home, to the one who schedules medical appointments for her grandkids–WITHOUT their parents’ input. Then there was the flip side–MILs who don’t seem to want to be involved in their grandchildren’s lives, or who make promises to grandchildren and don’t follow through, or who show blatant favoritism to some grandchildren over others–even within the same family.
What’s a daughter-in-law to do?
We may not be able to change the things we don’t love about our MILs, but there are several things we can do to change our own perspective (and maybe to influence their behavior a little bit).
We loved this advice from panelist Meagan of The Happiest Mom: “I think a big part of forging a positive relationship is accepting who your MIL is (which may not always be the same as the person you would like them to be.) She also noted, “…the biggest thing that improved our relationship is realizing that her having an opinion didn’t mean she was dismissing mine or thought me incompetent. SO much of our early tension was due to me being defensive, and perceiving criticism that wasn’t always there.” Britt added, “Screwing up enough times as a mother myself (helped the relationship). You get more compassionate, I think, the more often you fall short of your own ideal.”
Shell recounted how she and her MIL made their way out of negative drama with clear communication and finding their common ground: “She thought I hated her and I thought she hated me… so we both acted that way. We realized that there really was no hatred there. And that we both love my husband and the boys, so that helped.” Shell also advised making an effort to include MIL in special days, to make her feel like part of the family. None of us, including MILs, wants to be on the outside looking in.
Fadra offered, “What helps me… is imagining what I will be like with my future daughter-in-law. My son is my world and I can’t imagine any girl meeting my standards. Yes, I know. That’s wrong!!” Several participants echoed the sentiment that thinking about how they want a future daughter-in-law to treat them reminds them how to treat their MIL. As Joy of Creative Mamma put it, “I now have a new mindset about how to be an MIL in the future!”
All of these things can help, but we have to remember, as one participant put it, “Some relationships are just toxic.” Sometimes, for the health of your marriage or family you really do have to just walk away. The trick is knowing when to walk, and when to try to repair the relationship.
There are days that it may seem tempting not even to try, but it can be so worth it to work on your relationship with your MIL, as Kristen Kemp observed. “Finding peace with your MIL makes life so much easier. As I get older, I am so much more relaxed about the little things she’d say that bothered me. I think I’m learning to live with her quirks. I’m even learning to love her for them.” Judy Goldberg pointed out that your MIL has already done one thing right, saying, “(Y)ou could end up with an amazing relationship with a woman who loves your husband and has helped make him into the amazing person he is. You’ve got to give her props for that!”