Jennifer was embarrassed to admit it.
“I was lucky. I never had to deal with a mother-in-law. She died about three months before I met my husband.” Jennifer paused. “I’m sure I would have liked her, but would she have liked me?”
She shrugged. “I’ll never know. And I’m kind of glad.”
Sarabeth’s mother-in-law was alive and well, and a BIG part of their lives. She expected to be seated at the head of the table at every family get-together. All she had to do was pick up the phone to have Sarabeth’s husband drop everything and come running—a privilege she exercised frequently.
“When I married him, I didn’t realize I was marrying HER,” Sarabeth complained. “She thinks she’s the queen of England or something. If we don’t act like her humble servants, she reminds my husband how much he owes her for the gift of life.”
Psychologist Terri Apter made the same mistake:
She thought she was marrying one person—her husband—not his ENTIRE family.
“Not only did I assume that my parents-in-law would be marginal players in my own life,” she writes in What Do You Want from Me?: Learning to Get Along with In-Laws, “I expected that whatever impact they had would decrease further as we established ourselves as a couple….”
But she was wrong.
When you marry a man, his extended family becomes part of your life. Even though he’s an adult and supposedly free to make his own choices, he’ll always be his mother’s son … and she’ll NEVER let you forget it.
Apter spent 20 years interviewing couples about their in-laws. She discovered that—no matter how much men may joke about their mothers-in-law—it is the relationship between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law that’s most fraught with tension.
She found that 75% of couples had problems with in-laws. While only 15% of men struggled with their mother-in-law, 60% of women did.
So, if your relationship with your mother-in-law can only be described politely as “tense,” welcome to the club!
It’s not all smooth sailing if you adore your mother-in-law, either.
Sociologist Terri Orbuch found that women who got on well with their in-laws after the first year of marriage were 20% more likely to divorce.
(The same wasn’t true for men. They were 20% LESS likely to divorce if they got on well with their in-laws.)
Fathers-in-law don’t evoke such strong emotional reactions, perhaps because their bond with their children is usually less intense than that of the mother.
Mothers are the ones who struggle with empty nest syndrome and letting go. For years, their identity is bound up with their caretaking role. Their children may leave home, but a mother’s love is forever.
Apter, faced with becoming a mother-in-law herself, realized that she was no different. Her first duty was to look after her own child’s interests. She couldn’t help but judge her child’s partners based on their value to her child.
Part of the problem is that the partners a mother would pick for her son are not the same partners her son would pick for himself. So a daughter-in-law is almost never what the mother-in-law envisioned.
Worse yet, something about the relationship brings out the worst in both parties.
As Apter explains:
In the presence of your in-laws, your worst side emerges—a less tolerant, less open, less fun, less kind persona than is consistent with the person you think you really are.”
She found that two-thirds of daughters-in-law frequently saw a jealous kind of maternal love in their mothers-in-law, adding:
In the context of in-laws, many people have a tendency towards bias and resentment that does not emerge in their behavior elsewhere, with a partner, blood family, or friends.”
So your mother-in-law may be a wonderful woman … but you may never see that side of her. And she may never see what your husband finds so wonderful about you.
That’s OKAY. You don’t have to like each other to co-exist together. Becoming bosom buddies could even work against you, as Orbuch’s research showed.
Knowing this, how can daughters-in-law create a more constructive relationship with their mother-in-law?
Relationship-building should start before the marriage, says one study. When a mother-in-law and her future daughter-in-law spend one-on-one time together before the marriage, they’re more likely to have a positive relationship after the marriage.
Let your mother-in-law be the expert in the topic she loves best: her son. Ask her to tell you stories about what he was like as a kid. Ask her about her own love story, too. How did she and her husband meet?
Recognize that the conflict between you is normal and understandable. Your mother-in-law feels—irrationally or not—that she’s been replaced by you in her son’s affections. Every time your husband tells her that he can’t say yes without checking with you first, it stings. Careful communication, reassurance and respect go a long way.
The one word you need to survive your mother-in-law is boundaries. Set clear boundaries on when you and your husband will be available to your mother-in-law, and stick to them.
For Sarabeth, that meant allowing her husband’s mother to rule the roost on family gatherings but not expect her husband to drop everything when she called.
“We told her that we care about her, we want to make sure she can count on us, but our family obligations mean that my husband can’t get away until after the kids’ bedtimes. She tested it on us a couple of times, calling with fake emergencies, but now I think she gets it. Half the time I just think she’s lonely.”
Good boundaries help make expectations more reasonable. It can be awkward to spell out family arrangements, but those conversations make life easier going forward.
Needless to say, your husband must be on board, too. If he’s always siding with his mother over you, the balance of power in your relationship is no longer equal. It’s him and his mother against you—and they’ll always win.
Find win-win solutions. All relationships experience power struggles, where one of you has to be right, making the other wrong. It happens between couples, and it happens between in-laws.
The quickest way through a power struggle is to spot arguments with only one winner and turn them into into win-win solutions.
Can you find a win-win solution with your mother-in-law? Is there a way both of you could be right in your own way?
In-law relationships are tough. Their impact on marriages is undeniable. But, as Dr. Phil says, “If you plan on sticking with your spouse, then you’re also stuck with your in-laws.”