It’s wedding season. Which, for some people, means a dwindling bank account and a refrigerator covered in countless “Save the Dates,” photos that serve as proof of just how much your friends are in love because they haven’t posed so awkwardly since their mother took them to Glamour Shots at the mall when they were ten years old. But in all seriousness, wedding season is a joyous time. Witnessing your friends take the plunge and go all-in on their partner is a truly moving moment.
Something I often forget at weddings (among many things) is the celebration of not just the bride and groom, but of two completely separate families coming together. As many people know, this isn’t always a happily ever after. I’ve heard some nightmare stories about in-laws, especially the mother-in-law relationship. I’ve yet to experience this, but I can imagine it must be a hard one to navigate, especially if you live in close proximity, or are dealing with some difficult dynamics. And hey, what family isn’t?
Nevertheless, in-laws definitely get a bad rap—“Meet The Parents,” anyone? So what does a healthy relationship with a mother-in-law look like? Why does it appear to be challenging to navigate? How can you create boundaries that respectfully separate your relationship with your spouse from your relationship with their parents? And how involved should your spouse be when you’re experiencing conflict with their parents?
Dr. Fran Walfish, Beverly Hills-based family and relationship psychotherapist and author, says relationships with in-laws takes work, for both daughters and sons. In order to preserve and maintain a healthy relationship with your spouse’s family, these are some tangible steps you can take.
Communicate openly and honestly with your spouse about the situation. Get on the same page! If your in-laws sense a split between you and your partner they will triangulate—meaning put themselves in the middle and place a wedge between you and your spouse.
Create reasonable boundaries with your in-laws. You and your spouse must define your expectations and rules for engagement which include frequency and length of visits. Discuss the “what ifs” by role playing situations that may come up at a family dinner or celebration. How will you handle it if there is an explosive moment? Have a plan in place for handling difficult situations and include a getaway exit plan.
Always be respectful, courteous, and kind to your in-laws. If you are displeased and opt to express it directly, then be sure to remain respectful at all times.
Make Family Rituals
Create a meaningful family ritual. Whether it be a weekly Sunday night dinner or a monthly Friday night dinner, implement gathering together on a regular basis with continuity. Keeping it regular gives each family member something to look forward to and anticipate. Make it frequent enough to feel good and not so often that you feel smothered.
Facilitate Healthy Relationships
Remember that your in-laws are your children's grandparents. They love your kids and need to have a reciprocal warm relationship. Be sure to encourage, nurture, and nourish these vital relationships.
Blogger Erin Artfitch runs Blunders in Babyland, a platform that supports new and expecting moms looking for tips to overcome the challenges of early motherhood. Artfitch shared her take with me on how she maintains a healthy relationship with her mother-in-law in the face of conflict and parenting.
“Maintaining a great relationship with your mother-in-law may not be a challenge exclusive to new moms, but I think it definitely gets more difficult after you have a baby. I have personally struggled with this balance time and time again.
Just like us, mother-in-laws want to feel respected and heard. I believe the key to a great relationship with a mother-in-law is direct communication and acknowledgment. I know how tempting it can be to ask your partner to be the messenger and relay conflicting views, boundaries, or other communication. In my experience, indirect communication not only creates a deeper divide between you and your mother-in-law, but it puts your partner in an awkward situation.
When I have an issue with my mother-in-law, I contact her directly. I tell her how I feel before asking for her take on it. Whatever she says next, I acknowledge. This is the second pillar to a good relationship. You don't have to agree with your mother-in-law, but it's essential to acknowledge what she says and genuinely give her opinions some thought.
From what I've seen, toxic mother/daughter-in-law relationships stem from one or both women refusing to respect or acknowledge the other's feelings and using the partner as a middle-man. Hurt feelings turn into anger, which leads to resentment. Soon every little disagreement turns into a major conflict. While you can't change how your mother-in-law reacts to the boundaries you've set into place, you can minimize the negative effects these decisions have on your relationship with her and your partner.”
Clearly, not all relationships with mother-in-laws are a nightmare. I was thankful to learn that many people reported having a relationship with an in-law that was beneficial for them, both personally and for their marriage. While the reports were positive, they were not without the mention of boundaries. Here’s what some other women had to say as well as some interesting insight from a male’s perspective on how to maintain a healthy relationship with a mother-in-law.
“I have a mother/daughter relationship with my mother-in-law. Both of my parents are deceased, so I think of my in-laws as my parents. I have a super close relationship with both. There are some times when I want to complain about my husband to my mother-in-law, but she always defends his behavior. That's something I struggle with. My father-in-law won't defend my husband so I can talk freely. I think mother-in-law relationships have problems because mother-in-laws want what is best for their sons. You, as the wife, have taken their son away from them. Some MILs might treat the wife unfairly because of this. My MIL treats me like a daughter and is very pleasant to be around. I guess I am lucky in that regard.” -Becky Beach, 37 years old, Arlington, Texas
“Sharing too much information is never a good idea with anyone. When it comes to my mother-in-law, there's no reason to worry her with issues the household is dealing with that she likely is unaware of. Consideration is as important as boundaries are, when we stop
and consider that this is the woman who gave birth to the person we love, it should be pretty simple to use good manners as well as discretion regardless of the situation. l'm 53 years old and am very aware of the differing values between generations, one of the biggest mistakes I see my friends, especially the younger generations, make is failure to take the
time to make that important relationship as well as sharing way too much information. If you don't already know your better half has spilled the beans on something that's huge, then a simple rule is to wait.” - Mike, 53 years old, Santa Barbara, California
“I think one way to set boundaries is to remember that your relationship with your mother-in-law is separate from your husband's relationship with his mom. You have to be strong and have your own conversations with your MIL to address issues that might be affecting you and not your husband. On the other hand, there might be times where you need to ask your husband to stand up for you when it comes to something between you and his mom. For example, when my MIL is helping out with our kids and I notice something that doesn't align with our parenting values as a couple, we BOTH need to address that with her.” -Stacy, 34 years old, San Diego, California
“It’s important to allow your husband and his mom to have their time together and not to see this as a threat. Jealousy can sometimes come up between a wife and a mother-in-law due to the desire for attention from the same person. Remember that your husband chose you to marry and to spend your lives together, but he and his mom have a special relationship that also needs tending to.” -Natalia, 35 years old, Naples, Florida
It seems that both marriages and in-law relationships have a honeymoon phase—until you realize they are in your life forever and not just once a year at Thanksgiving. So while not all mother-in-law relationships are a nightmare, they do seem to take a bit more care and work than one might anticipate. In a sense, you’re taking on another parental figure, but this time, you’re an adult, which may sound a little daunting. Like with any good relationship, it takes work, communication, respect, and understanding that at the end of the day, you’re all family...whether you like it or not.