In many families, the mother-in-law is jokingly referred to as the “monster-in-law.” Yet, the strain that parents-in-law can put on a couple’s relationship is no laughing matter. It can, in fact, ultimately destroy a relationship.
According to the parenting website Netmums, one in four daughters-in-law (DIL) despise their mother-in-law (MIL), finding her “controlling.” The site’s poll of about 2,000 women found that the DILs’ resentment stemmed from the MIL thinking that she was the authority on parenting and parenting skills. A classic example of this was the MIL undermining the DIL in front of her husband and children.
Other complaints included being made to feel not good enough for their partner, or that the MIL was rude or bitchy. Over one-third described their MIL as “judgmental” or “interfering.”
Not surprisingly, nearly one-quarter of poll participants described their relationship with their MIL as “bad” or “terrible.” One in 10 moves were reported as an attempt to get farther away from a MIL. In some cases, the stress of the in-law situation led to marital collapse.
Needless to say, the MIL/DIL relationship is most stressful for the DIL. If your in-law situation is causing you anguish, then learning how to manage your feelings and the situation is critical in taking care of your wellbeing, and, ultimately, that of your family’s.
FIRST, SIT WITH THE SELF
Before you can take on your parents-in-law, especially your MIL, you need to give yourself a time out (and on more than one occasion) to evaluate the situation and develop a game plan that’s right for you. Find a quiet space, free of distractions, where you can note everything that has taken place to date.
Allow yourself to process the list, mulling and fuming over it—getting all feelings out—until you can revisit it with a calmer frame of mind. This will enable you to constructively take on the situation, coming from a more rationale versus emotional space, in moving forward.
Consider where your MIL is coming from.
With or without empathy or sympathy, try to see your MIL’s side of the story and how her behavior may be a symptom of larger issues she has with herself and her relationship with her son—and not you. In some cases, his mother’s hostility towards you is an act of frustration over being disconnected from him. If this is the case, this is something that your husband needs to work on with his mother.
While challenging, try to be objective as you evaluate the situation. Honestly ask yourself if she has a valid opinion about matters. Consider if her actions and words are coming from a place of love, and if this needs to be acknowledged in managing her. Consider, too, if she’s struggling with feelings of having been dethroned as the family’s powerful matriarch, and if there are ways you can still make her feel important and needed in her own way.
Ask yourself what role you’re playing in this situation and its maintenance.
There are situations where a person has done nothing to cause the relationship with in-laws to become strained. Yet there are also situations where the DIL is doing, or not doing, something that is causing the in-laws to treat her the way they are (whether or not it’s warranted).
So think back to how you’ve been engaging your in-laws and honestly ask yourself if a third party could possibly find fault with that. Are you a total victim in this scenario or do you do or say things to instigate a negative response? If so, consider how you can change the way you’re handling the situation, or reacting to it, as not to invite any antagonism.
Don’t have any expectations.
Buddhist or not, we can all learn from Buddhism’s belief that expectations lead to suffering. Don’t allow yourself to suffer any more. Let go of expectations around how things should supposedly be when it comes to family relationships. Don’t want what you can’t have.
Instead, be realistic about the situation, including any nonnegotiable circumstances. You’re not going to be close, given what has transpired, and maybe that’s for the better. Instead of trying to live out some Hallmark holiday card, contemplate how you can work with the way things are. For example, is a coolish relationship possible?
Be okay with not having in-law approval.
You don’t need anyone’s approval to live your life the way you want to. Don’t drive yourself crazy trying to get the thumb’s up from your in-laws. Not having a care in the world as to what they think about you will be incredibly freeing and empowering!
Trust your instincts.
If your intuition is sounding the alarm, then listen to it. It’s there to take care of you, as Camilla, a 35-year-old consultant, learned, “The first time I met my mother-in-law I found her warm and beautiful. But when she hugged me good-bye at the end of that evening, something went off in me indicating that this wasn’t a good person. Sadly, my instincts weren’t wrong.”
HOW TO ENGAGE YOUR IN-LAWS
Unless your spouse wants nothing to do with his parents, you can’t ignore your in-laws. So anytime you find yourself in their company or needing to talk to them, do the following:
Don’t try to fake a relationship that isn’t there.
Yes, they’re legally your parents-in-law, but are they really family with the way they’re treating you? Don’t refer to your in-laws as “Dad” or “Mother,” as neither is your parent and there is no intimacy or warmth that warrants use of the terms. Too, using these words adds to the power dynamic of these elders being the ones on top. By calling your parents-in-law by their first names, you create a more level playing field.
This needs to be central in your tactics, no matter what you’re communicating. While initial attempts to engage your in-laws should be courteous, the problem with being too polite, for fear of coming across as rude or pushy, is that you don’t establish necessary boundaries. Thus, you aren’t able to communicate how deep the problems are, and how troubled you are by them.
Remember, you’re not necessarily dealing with a person or people who are nice. You don’t need to always play nice in getting your points across.
Avoid stooping to her level.
It is tempting to fight fire with fire, taking digs at your MIL or calling her names or being equally rude. But don’t go there. In having discussions, no matter how heated, stick with the facts. Interact using mindfulness, and in taking the higher road without compromising how you will allow yourself to be treated.
HOW TO STAY IN CONTROL OF YOUR EMOTIONS
Central to managing your in-laws is managing your emotions. Ways to do this, whether during get-togethers or from afar, include the following…
Don’t take criticisms personally.
As Hilary Rodham Clinton put it: “Take criticism seriously, but not personally. If there is truth or merit in the criticism, try to learn from it. Otherwise, let it roll right off you.” In many cases, you’ll realize that your MIL is just being her usual, ugly self and that she, at the end of the day, has to deal with herself and the consequences of her actions.
When she throws dirt your way, have a visualization exercise that allows the statement to, literally, roll off your back. Envision what she just said captured in a water balloon, that then rolls off your shoulders and down your back before smashing on the ground below your feet.
Have a way to deal with your anger.
This might be going for a walk following a difficult interaction, or hitting the pool to blow off some steam, or taking to the golf course for some relaxation. You cannot allow the anger to consume you or else it will destroy you and your marriage. Find your outlets for working through the negative energy on a regular basis.
Find trusted persons to vent to.
Your spouse may not always be in the mood to hear about how awful his mother and parents are. It’s important to turn to good friends and/or support groups in getting some things off of your chest. Your marriage will become even more strained otherwise.
WHEN ALL ELSE FAILS
Practice a ‘healthy selfishness.”
You need to take care of yourself before you can take care of a situation. This involves excusing yourself from family gatherings for some quality “me time”, not answering the phone when you know it’s your MIL or somebody you don’t want to take to, and keeping your distance as a couple to take care of yourselves and your family, in spite of expectations, around times like the holidays. It is only when people practice this kind of “me” and “us” prioritizing that they reach their full potential.
Some in-law situations never get to a better place. As Christina Steinorth stated on yourtango.com: “…just because you’re married, you’re under no obligation to be emotionally abused by toxic people.”
If your MIL was a boyfriend, then friends would tell you to dump him. If your MIL bullied someone, then people would advise the person to keep his distance and set limits. Just because she’s your MIL doesn’t mean that you have to tolerate an abusive relationship.
Limit your in-laws’ involvement in your life.
Piggybacking on the last point, whenever anybody becomes toxic to your marriage or family, then you have every right to roll up the “Welcome” mat and say “Game over.” You, your spouse, and your primary family have the right to a peaceful existence, with the people in your circle - family, friends, and relatives—being those who are a positive and supportive presence.
If you are being disrespected and mistreated, then your in-laws aren’t entitled to any of the special privileges that come with being family. You have every right to draw and maintain strong boundaries in protecting yourself and your marriage. Nobody has the right to make your life miserable, and only you can make sure of that.