Oh, the agony.
Ladies, being a daughter-in-law is no easy task. And as there stands little advice on the subject of difficult mothers-in-law and how to deal with them, many of us have succumbed to the notion that it is what it is. That it’s something to be tolerated and accepted.
There have been numerous movies made about it—even for the comparable relationship of son-in-law to father-in-law, Meet the Parents was a hit. Most likely because people can identify. But sometimes, for most of us, the reality of it isn’t humorous—it’s challenging.
But what if I told you that by understanding boundaries, roles, and the "why are they like that" question we all have, then you might possibly begin to accept your mother-in-law AND have a good relationship with her.
Why do I make such a bold statement? Well, because I had THAT mother-in-law. You know, the one that has an opinion about and sticks her nose in everything kind of mother-in-law. The one that tells you how many things you're doing wrong yet neglects to tell you what you're doing right.
The one that makes you feel inadequate, incapable, and definitely not good enough for their precious little son.
Yes, a lot of us have THAT mother-in-law.
But guess what? I no longer have THAT mother-in-law. Not because I "got rid of her" or anything morbid like that, but because I came at it from a completely different perspective. In short, I put myself in her shoes, set boundaries, and threw a LOT of grace, forgiveness, and understanding in the mix.
You know, all the things that are SUPER easy to extend to others. Ha. Yeah. Right.
I wrote an article about the beautiful bond that a mother has with her son in this article here. I know this bond because I have two sons myself.
And as I come from a place of first-hand experience of what that's like to try and let go of your son, I know many of you don't have a son, so you might have a more difficult time understanding from that perspective.
So what I'm going to do is use my understanding to better explain where mothers-in-law are coming from, so that YOU can better understand them, and therefore know how to better handle them, and put boundaries in place without ruining relationships. Does that sound helpful?
Let me give you a little background on my mother-in-law.
She is Austrian, (like legit, but they live in Germany) has four sons, one of them being obviously my husband, and the other three are also all married.
If you don't know much about Austrians, they are known to be stubborn AF and VERY independent. She would tell you that herself.
The first day I met her she grabbed my arm, which is full of tattoos, brought it closer to her face and said with a grimace, "hmph." Talk about a first impression.
She speaks broken English, which helped me have some grace for her before I learned German myself. When she said something poisonous, I couldn't take it too seriously when it's presented in such a quirky accent.
OH LAWD, please never ever let her see this article. I doubt she will...the other day her mind was blown at the fact that she can order things off the internet.
Back to the story.
Because of that first initial experience I had with my mother-in-law, I was scarred. I didn't speak up when she decided to decorate our entire first apartment. I didn't speak up when she took hurtful jabs at my person. I just stood by and watched as my husband put her opinion before mine, and let her become an unwelcome (from me) part of our relationship. She was intimidating.
The reason I'm explaining this to you is because I want you to all know that I get it. I've been there, and it SUCKS.
But guess what? I adore my mother in law today. We no longer live in Germany, but I miss her. I still talk to her on the phone, and we are at a great place. But it didn't happen overnight, and not all mothers-in-law are the same. A lot of change took part on her end, which I’m so grateful for.
There are some who will never change. So let me give you some advice, and this can be applied to those who someday want a relationship, and to those who would never dream of it.
You CAN achieve a good relationship that is tolerable, and you CAN prevent your mother-in-law from ruining your marriage, or overstepping boundaries.
Steps to improve your relationship with your mother-in-law
Let's talk about setting good boundaries.
After I woke up to what was happening in our relationship, I addressed it with my husband. I said, "Hey if you want me as your wife, I need you to put me on a pedestal, and not your mom. I need for you to understand that I am the most important relationship in your life, and your mom has now taken on a new role."
He got that, but it took some time. It took moments when he had to stand up to his mother and tell her to back off, and it took grace and patience from me. It even took moments that I had to address her myself.
We all had to understand that relationships were changing and that it was OKAY. That it was the natural order of things.
2. Put yourself in her shoes
If you’re experiencing unhealthy interactions with your mother-in-law, it’s most likely that she was never really able to let her son go. I talk more about that in the article I linked to above.
If she hasn’t appropriately let go of her son, then she is unable to treat you are a new and vital addition to the family. It’s possible she feels intimidated and threatened by you.
So when I can put myself in her shoes, I can better understand why she was that way.
Her relationship with her boys is a close one. She basically raised them by herself, as her husband worked endlessly to provide for their family. I have TONS of respect for that, as I struggle to keep my sanity with just two boys.
Not only that, she worked part-time in the midst of it. She was a rockstar mom and still is.
Just as I needed her to start recognizing that I was good for her son, I also needed to respect how she took care of her son his entire life.
There were times I needed to let go of my pride and allow her to give me advice about doing laundry the way Germans do. There were times I needed her to show me how to cook, even though I knew how to cook. Get my drift?
I know that sounds like I am stroking her ego, but since I realized she would probably never change in that, I was able to have grace where grace was needed.
But when boundaries are being crossed, that's where you have to put your foot down and stand up for yourself.
It took me a while to do that. But now that I have, she respects me for it, and we have a good relationship. There were times when it needed to be rehashed and dealt with, but all in all...we good.
3. Have grace, patience, and understanding
Recognize that all of these things will take time. It took a few years for my relationship with my mother-in-law to change. For some it could take longer. For some it could be never.
But what's important is that you are okay with the relationship, whether it's amicable or difficult, and that your boundaries are set in place for the benefit of your immediate family—you, your husband, and your children.
As far as what those boundaries are, I would suggest seeing a counselor to discuss how to go about that. You shouldn't have to do it on your own. Include your husband if he’s willing, which brings me to the next step.
This article by Hope in Affliction about setting boundaries with families, is also a great place to start.
4. explain to your husband how you feel
Another element in all of this is explaining to your husband how his mother makes you feel. When this was happening, I told him how her constant correction made me feel inadequate. He was shocked. I was shocked that he was shocked. It was all very shocking.
But if your husband is understanding, he will do what's necessary to be there for you. He has to learn how the roles have changed now that you're married.
It’s important to also recognize his difficult place in all of this. In essence, he has become the middle-man—the peacemaker. Do your best to not keep him there. There should be a resolution to all of it so he doesn’t have to carry that burden.
5. Be clear about priorities
It took time for my husband and I to break from the bonds of our childhood family, and direct our attention to our current family, which was him and I, and eventually him, I, and our children.
When we were able to separate ourselves healthily, it benefited our marriage. If your mother-in-law has a hard time understanding that—and I can bet that she will—do what's necessary and discussed with your counselor to deal with it.
Like I said before, your immediate family has first priority. If your mother-in-law is shaking that, then deal with it in a healthy way. Strive for resolve, have grace, but stand up for yourself.
In summary, this mother-in-law/daughter-in-law relationship is a complex one with many different factors. But don't be discouraged. There is hope, and sometimes you have to take the first step if you want things to change. I did, and it was worth it.
All relationships are hard. But it will mean a lot to your husband that your relationship with his mother is good, or at least tolerable. And if you can, and your relationship with her is at a good place, make an effort to spend time together as families. That will be meaningful to your husband, and his mother.