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Take My Mother-In-Law: 6 Steps to Good In-Law Relationships

Using psychology to improve relationships with your in-laws

“I love my husband. But his mother…” “Why doesn’t my daughter-in-law like me?” “My brother-in-law ruins every family gathering.” From wedding preparations to holiday celebrations to parenting and childcare, why are in-laws so often nothing but thorns in our sides? Why do so many couples agree with one client who said, “We should have eloped; and then we should never have told my wife’s family where we were going to live”? And is there anything that can be done about these difficult family relationships?

We all know the joke: Take my mother-in-law — please! Unfortunately, everyone suffers in these situations. In most cases there are at least three, and often more, sides to any in-law problem, but for a variety of reasons it is hard for any of the participants to step outside of their own point of view and try to understand what might be going on for any of the other participants. For example, there was Shirley*, who adored her son’s girlfriend and was thrilled that they were getting married. “I thought of her as a second daughter,” she said. “So I was really hurt when she wouldn’t let me participate in any of the wedding plans. Everything changed after that.” Shirley was not only hurt that her daughter-in-law had excluded her from the preparations, but also that her son had not stood up for her. But when we discussed the possibility that there were other perspectives, she could not imagine any. Only her hurt feelings were accessible to her. At the moment, she felt like an innocent victim.

Tracy* was another client who struggled with in-law problems, but in this case it was her father-in-law. “I don’t think he means to be hurtful,” she said, “but he’s so used to always getting his own way — in his business and in his family — that when I don’t want to do something the way his family always has, he’s really mean about it.” When their son was an infant, Tracy’s husband Ben* tried to explain to his father that they were starting their own traditions, including spending some of the holidays with her family, but his father simply started yelling at him. As a result, Ben and his father stopped speaking. Although he said that it was fine, Tracy knew that Ben was deeply bothered by the rift in his relationship with his father; and she felt that “deep down” they both blamed her for it. The tension between Tracy and Ben spread like a ripple from a stone dropped into a pond, with no apparent way to resolve it.

Over the years, I have found that in-law relationships are surprisingly important to a couple’s well-being. This is at least in part because of what object relations therapists have called “part-object” relationships. That is, we live out part of our struggles with one person through interactions with another, who has come to represent a certain part of that other person. (In object relations theory, the term “object” represents other people who are the recipients of some of our strong feelings.) So when a wife does not get along with her mother-in-law, some of the issues may actually be about unrecognized or unacceptable feelings she has towards her own mother, but that she cannot allow herself to express or even to know about in that relationship. And when a mother-in-law has difficulties with her son-in-law, she may actually be responding to similar feelings that she has not allowed herself to put into words, or even know about, towards her daughter!

Because these feelings are often deeply distressing, they are also deeply buried; and trying to get them “out,” either by pointing them out or demanding that the other person acknowledge them, can be the least helpful way of managing them. But recognizing that they might exist, and empathizing with the other person’s pain, can lead to helpful steps for resolving otherwise unresolvable tension.

The following suggestions can help with this process:

1. Accept that your in-laws, with all of their flaws, are part of your life. As Dr. Phil puts it, “If you plan on sticking with your spouse, then you're also stuck with your in-laws.” Complaining that they are the way they are, demanding that they change and/or that your spouse make them change, is going to be about as effective as demanding that your brother stop teasing you or your own mother stop asking you when you are going to color your roots. This doesn’t mean that you actually have to like your in-laws. But it does mean that they are part of your life and that it would be good to find some ways to live in peace with them.

It may be as simple as accepting that your mother-in-law is going to feed your child ice cream, no matter how much you protest. (This was one of the places my own mother-in-law and I came into conflict. Her favorite line was “It won’t hurt him just this one time.” But of course, I knew that we weren’t talking about one time.) There is no good solution to this set-up. If you demand that your child not eat it, you become the mean and restrictive one in your child’s eyes. And you turn ice cream into a “forbidden fruit,” which makes it all the more enticing. And you give your mother-in-law and everyone else who feels like making a big deal out of it fuel for criticizing you as an overprotective, neurotic mother. For sure it’s a way that she has of not respecting you, but perhaps your best response is the high ground. You will come away with more self-respect, and your child will not die or develop high cholesterol or an eating disorder from the ice cream. (If there really is a life-threatening issue going on, and your mother-in-law is flouting a medical necessity, then it’s a very different issue.) Over time, I actually came to agree with my mother-in-law — one time was not going to make a huge difference in the course of my son’s life. And interestingly, since he discovered that he didn’t particularly like ice cream, it turned out to be a positive experience that he got to taste it with her.

2. In the same way, you do not have to be a different person just because you have married into their family. You will do better if you can adjust to and adapt to some of their behaviors and traditions, which will inevitably be different from those of your own family; but you can be polite while still preferring your mother’s baked ham and step-father’s lasagna over your mother-in-law’s roast turkey for Christmas dinner. And you don’t have to laugh at your brother-in-law’s dirty jokes any more than you have to approve of your grandfather’s blatant racism.

Of course, this is sometimes why couples fight over their own traditions. Whose family has the better ones? Sometimes we like our own family’s customs; and sometimes we’re happy to break with rigidly held expectations and try something on our own, or borrow something from our spouse’s relatives. What’s crucial is to try to refrain from comparing or putting down whatever rituals we are rejecting.

3. Which leads to one of the three key phrases for managing in-law relationships:

Hurt Feelings. More in-law difficulties arise from intentional or unintentional hurting of feelings than from almost any other factor. The feelings that are hurt are myriad and complicated. It is hard to avoid the injury, since in-laws are notoriously vulnerable to one another, in part because of the part-object relationships I described above. But also because of all of the hopes and longings that go into these newly expanded family situations.

For example, my friend Marie* shared with me, shortly after her son Bob became engaged to Sarah, that her wish had been that she would be as close to Sarah as she had been to Bob. “But that’s not what happened,” Marie said, “and of course, it’s not really what’s supposed to happen.” For years Bob had traditionally come over for Sunday night dinners with his parents; but shortly after telling them of the engagement, when Marie had said, “so we’ll see you on Sunday,” Bob had replied, “Wait. Let me check with Sarah to see if we’re free.” Marie confided in me, “I keep telling myself that this is the way it’s supposed to be; but it’s a jolt; a little sad, anyway.”

Hurt feelings don’t always show themselves directly. Sometimes the pain comes out in anger and criticism. Recognizing that mothers-in-law, fathers-in-law, daughters and sons-in-law, and even brothers and sisters-in-law can be suffering from hurt feelings can help explain some of the irrational anger that emerges in these relationships. It is often easier to respond in a more empathic and productive way if one keeps in mind that even overt nastiness is frequently nothing more than an unthinking response to hurt feelings.

4. Respect is the next key word. What do we have to respect? Everything! But two really important items to keep on the respect agenda are differences and boundaries. In-laws often get into difficulty when they view either of these two factors as a lack of respect. Just as a friend can have differences with us, in-laws are going to be different. We are not the same. No matter how similar a couple’s backgrounds, there are still going to be ways in which their families are different. Sometimes, however, differences are celebrated. And then it becomes important to respect the parents and children who have decided to participate in holidays in different ways. Mark*, for example, was one of two children, and his parents were each only children. When he married Nadine*, he fell in love with her huge extended family and preferred to spend all of his holidays with them. Nadine’s family invited Mark’s parents to join them, but they were overwhelmed by the hubbub that gave Mark such pleasure. Finding a compromise in which Mark and Nadine could enjoy the large family celebrations without neglecting his parents was difficult. But respecting that his parents had a different set of needs than he did allowed them, over time, to develop some new customs that worked for them all.

5. Compromise is the final key word. It is hard, of course, when we feel that we’re in the right and the other is completely wrong, to even think of compromise. But if you try to keep in mind the maxim that there are many different sides to in-law conflicts, it can help you remember that yours is only one perspective. Also, if you try to parse out your own part-objects, you may find that the perspective you’re clinging to is only one of your own possible points of view as well. For instance, my friend Marie, who was so upset because her son said he had to ask his fiancée about whether or not they were free for the traditional Sunday night dinner, told me that she was also, almost at the same time, secretly pleased. “I mean, it meant we had done a good job,” she said with glee. “I wasn’t such a demanding, clinging mother! I could allow him to develop a strong positive relationship with another person!” This was something Marie had had to struggle to do with her own mother, who seemed to resent any man who interfered with their intense closeness. “I don’t want to be like her, but of course, there’s a part of me that really is! And I’m so glad that I’ve been able to manage that need with Bob!” If you look for the various, less obvious parts of yourself that have other points of view than the one you are holding right now, you may find that you, like Marie, can even feel good about some of the things you thought were completely unacceptable about your in-laws!

6. And finally, don’t put your spouse or child in the middle. It may feel like the only solution, but if you criticize your husband’s or wife’s parents or son or daughter’s spouse, you put the other person in the position of having to defend them. Which leaves you back in the very place you started, with the addition of having created a rift between you and your loved one.

Bottom line? You don’t have to like your in-laws, but you do have to live with them. Even if you cut off all contact with them, you will live with them in your internal “object relations” forever. If you can possibly do it, it’s much better to try to work out problematic connections to people in the real world than to be stuck with painful, unresolved ones in your head and your heart.

*names and identifying information changed to protect privacy (and to keep the peace in relationships that are starting to get better!)