The mother-in-law has always had a bad rap in marriage lore. Tales of competition and meddling make us all a little hesitant when we start to consider blending families with a marriage.
But, like many fairy-tale villains, perhaps the mother-in-law is just misunderstood.
We all know motherhood is a sacred position, so it's natural for any woman to inwardly and sometimes (to our chagrin) outwardly express some fear about losing her son to another woman. But rather than let this dynamic get the better of us, it's best to acknowledge the shift that comes with marriage and be open about how you want your relationship with your mother-in-law to unfold.
Acclaimed family dynamics researcher and psychologist Terri Apter has written numerous books on the topic of mother-in-law relations, and she offered this advice in a piece for the Daily Mail: "A mother-in-law is more likely to respect boundaries if she is reassured that she will continue to be a respected and important part of the family, and that you will make an effort to include her in your family's life."
It seems like a pretty foolproof plan, but as any newlywed (or veteran wife) will tell you, keeping your marriage and your MIL happy can sometimes be challenging. But when trying to establish a relationship with your MIL, the best place to start is respect. Once you have a well-established foundation of mutual respect, the rest comes much easier.
Here are 5 surprisingly simple ways get your relationship with your mother-in-law on the right track and, ultimately, win her heart.
01. Be prepared to give up special time with your family.
OK, so maybe this one isn't so easy. In fact, this is probably going to be the hardest part of building a good relationship with your MIL. You're going to think of one hundred really good reasons you should spend Christmas with your family this year (and every year yet to come), but marriage calls you to put all of that aside. Neither family can get both of you all the time.
Planning and clarity will help manage expectations about family time. Sit down with your soon-to-be husband and plan out the year in special holidays and events. Which holidays will you spend with whom? What days are especially important for your husband to be with family and vice versa? Then send both moms an email letting them know the plan. A reasonable MIL will appreciate this intentional approach to divvying up family time fairly and you can avoid any last-minute freak outs due to unvoiced expectations.
02. Encourage family time.
Once you have gotten over the hurdle of sharing special holidays, orchestrating family time is a natural and easy next step! Don't wait for your new mom to invite you over, be the first to arrange family gatherings, and urge your husband to call his mom a little more often too. Pretty soon your MIL will not feel that you're taking her son away but rather that you're encouraging more time with the family.
But family bonding can be difficult if every time you're around your MIL she tries to assert her dominance with her son, your now-husband. This is where so many MIL horror stories come from. To be proactive about this, Apter advises that you "remind your husband to show you affection and acknowledge your authority in the presence of his mother."
Ultimately a lot of the mother-in-law, daughter-in-law symbiosis requires your husband to play middle man, literally. With a little forethought he can easily make sure his behavior acknowledges and respects both of the lead women in his life, therefore, making your interactions with her less stressful.
03. Go with the flow.
One of the biggest frustrations many of us have with our in-laws is that they don't do things the way our family does them. It's tempting to want to come into our husbands family and start a revolution, make a few chances, and point out a few inefficiencies perhaps. But the best thing you can do for your relationship with your mother-in-law is to go with the flow. At least at first.
Your MIL has likely worked hard to establish a family culture, traditions, and an M.O. so to speak. Rather than trying to disrupt the status quo, make an effort to fit into their lives. The effort you make to learn the ropes and assimilate will not go unnoticed!
04. Go ahead and gush.
Beware of sarcasm and playful criticism, especially when you are trying to get on your mother-in-law's good side. Truth be told, even the lightest of critiques can get old quickly, and, while your husband may be able to take it, his mom might not like it very much at all. Rather than being the ringleader of the pointed jokes, when you're with his family make an extra effort to be his biggest cheerleader.
Laugh along with the playful jabs his siblings take, but make it clear that you are always on his side. For your part, rather than complaining about your husband's messy habits and frustrating quirks (even if it's all in good fun), take every opportunity to tell your MIL what a great guy your husband is. Obviously you don't want to get too carried away with your gushing, but she will always warm to hearing that her son is appreciated and loved.
05. Set clear boundaries.
Tension between the new Mrs. and the mom is most often caused by a lack of clear boundaries in the relationship. While some mother-in-laws have a good sense of where her influence is welcome and where it is not, others might need a little bit of coaching.
Apter offers this advice: "If your mother-in-law is interfering, don't put off talking to her about it. It is much better to start out by setting limits so bad habits don't become ingrained."
As soon as you can (ideally before you are even married), you and your husband should discuss boundaries in your relationship. Decide what you want your relationship with your parents to look like and how you would like them involved in your marriage. Will your MIL have a key to the place? How will you and your husband respond to unsolicited advice (or commands)? How do you foresee your parents involvement with any children you might have? They key here is to become a united team with the same rule book.
When boundaries are being encroached on, preserve your relationship with your man's mom by letting your husband lovingly make your relationship boundaries clear. In addition to setting boundaries, find ways to include your mother-in-law in your marriage. If you ask her for advice where appropriate and include her in important moments, she is less likely to venture across relationship lines.
Photo Credit: Nirav Patel