Does mother-in-law have to be a bad word?
Recently I watched one episode of a reality show called Monster-in-Law. Families tore each other apart with their words and actions.
The show brought in a relationship coach, who started to put the family back together in 30 minutes.
What it would look like when the coach left?
What were the children learning as they watched adults fight, act petty, and hurt each other?
A few years ago in the Q&A time at a conference, I mentioned that I was a new mother-in-law.
That one statement cracked open a well, and one after another young moms stood and shared their stories. They were painful.
The problem with the in-law relationship is that they don’t usually look like Monster-in-Laws.
It’s so much more subtle than that. We aren’t willing to put our family on national TV and air out our dirty laundry, because we want a relationship.
But the struggles are still there.
Maybe your mother-in-law was a great mom, but she’s struggling with her new identity. She nurtured her son for years, and now you are in the way.
Or she always had input into her child’s choices, and now you and your spouse making those decisions together, and yet she’s still giving advice, unaware that it’s unwanted.
Perhaps it’s those tricky boundaries.
You need time alone with your husband.
You don’t want to go to their house every Sunday for dinner.
You and your husband have different ideas of what those boundaries look like. He’s from an open family where they all hang out (like my husband) and you need a quiet Sunday afternoon with your husband and children after a busy week.
Sometimes these very subtle differences can make you or another person in your extended family feel like an outlaw, rather than an in-law.
So, what can we do?
We can pray.
Oh, Suzie, that’s so predictable.
♥ And yet it’s so important. Because rarely is a situation entirely one-sided. We need wisdom. We need insight. We need compassion instead of anger. And when a tricky problem is to be addressed, you want to go in with your heart in the right place.
We can talk with each other.
Sounds so easy, doesn’t it? As a young wife, I swept everything under the rug rather than deal with this.
I thought: Maybe I am in the wrong. Maybe it’s just the way it’s going to be. Maybe if I bring it up we’ll have conflict in our own home, our safe place that I don’t want to disturb.
But the reality is that you are bringing in two families (sometimes more) into the mix. Two ways of doing things. Two ways of relating. Two different cultures.
And sometimes we get all tangled up in those two ways, we fail to realize that we are creating a new way of doing things.
We can bring in a blend of the old — of his and hers — to create what works for us.
Sometimes there’s baggage mixed in there. Yours. His. Theirs. Talking about those things with your spouse may be painful in the beginning, but at least it’s out there in the open where it can be addressed. Maybe that means you’re going to need a little extra help to sort through it, but that’s healthy.
Talking about what works in our own families (without accusations, but with a heart to find what works for you and your family) is foundational.
It eliminates confusion. It helps reduce the moments that your spouse says something like, “I don’t know why you got so angry. We were just doing what we’ve always done in my family.”
What if you are the mother-in-law?
Be flexible, rather than rigid
When I became a mother-in-law to three very different individuals, my role changed. It didn’t disappear, it shifted. Rather than nurturing my children on a day-to-day basis, I became a support and be a nurturer of their family.
Sure, there was a pull to to give advice, because I was always in that role as they grew up.
But as I watched really good moms (who were now mothers-in-law) trying to tell their children how they did it in their day, or demanding that their family conform to the way “we’ve always done it”, or making holidays hard, I had to go back to when I was a young mom, and how this same scenerio made me feel.
When we are inflexible, no matter which side it’s coming from, we become rigid.
Last Thanksgiving my husband and I celebrated alone. If I were rigid, I’d be upset about that day, except it’s just a day. We went to another family member’s house. We watched movies. We hiked.
It was fun.
And by being flexible, it means that family loves to come to our house on holidays, even if that’s a week later.
Please understand, I’m far from a perfect MIL. There’s a learning curve, whether you are just starting as an young in-law, or starting all over again as a MIL. But you grow and learn through your mistakes.
Yes, it’s work, but as I look at my own three beautiful in-law adult children, they are not just my children’s spouses, they are my family.
What if it’s dysfunctional?
If it’s truly a monster-in-law situation, you work toward the healthiest relationship possible that is within your power.
You pull together within your immediate family. You pray. You don’t cover up what’s wrong or allow damaging behavior toward your children or your family go unchecked. That’s when boundaries, which is not punishment but putting mutual guidelines in place to have the healthiest relationship possible, make sense.
Those boundaries might be, “We love you so much, but if you belittle my husband in front of my children, it’s unfortunate, but we’ll have to leave. The door is always open, but that can’t happen.”
That becomes a mutual boundary. It means you don’t down grandma or grandpa (or daughter-in-law or son-in-law) in front of the kids. That you don’t bash her in front of your friends.
You give what you want in return. (That pesky Golden Rule, right?)
And you pray some more.
Because we all need it.
You actually make it seem so easy with your presentation but I
find this topic to be really something that I think
I would never understand. It seems too complex and extremely broad for
me. I’m looking forward for your next post, I will try to get the hang of it!
We took this much deeper yesterday at Moms Together — http://www.facebook.com/MomsTogether — I hope you’ll check that out. And it’s not easy. Working through conflict. Maintaining healthy relationships, or trying to be healthy when another person isn’t, none of that is easy. Today’s post was looking at the heart of our response, because we really don’t have the power to fix another person, only to take an honest look at our role in it.
Thank you for this wonderful lesson. I often cringe at hearing so many couples speak so negatively of their in-laws. I can’t help but wonder if this could be a problem we could address better in the church… for example, when couples are married we emphasize so emphatically the leaving of the parents to become unified with the spouse, and while this is true, I think it’s often misunderstood. It does not mean that in-laws will no longer be a part of your lives.
Recently my pastor made the statement that as adults, “Honor your father and mother” still rings true. If your own children do not respect you – examine how you treat your own parents (in-laws included). Hmmm…just something to chew on.
My mother-in-law met Jesus 5 1/2 years ago now, and the entire family still misses her daily. I didn’t always feel that way though. I have three children and I can remember with each one during infancy it hurt my feelings so badly that after holding the baby she always gave the baby back to my husband. She never(it seemed anyhow) put the baby in my arms. I thought she saw me as a bad mother! It took time, but slowly I began to see that in her own way she was teaching her son to be a good father. She had full confidence in my mothering abilities – but she knew the importance a father bonding with his child. If only we had communicated that message – misunderstandings and hurt feelings wouldn’t have been necessary.
We definintely need to better pass down the message of communication in families and finding the good in everyone.
Thank you so much for posting this blog. I am in the middle of a tricky situation. Around Thanksgiving my fiance lost his job when the coal mine he worked at closed down. We had both been really good about remaining pure, but when the emotions of being unemployed at Christmas took over, our guards came tumbling down and we allowed sin to enter into our lives. We asked for forgiveness and had stopped by January. We set the wedding date for March 9th of this year. I thought that was all of it, but January 7th I found out I was pregnant. I was so very worried that his mother and father would think less of me. I still wanted them to respect the life we had tried to live prior to messing up. We prayed over it together and sought counsel from our minister who also spent time in prayer with us. We told our parents (in laws) and everyone seems to be pretty excited about it. It’s like God stepped in and made them understanding of the situation, and our heart in making sure they were informed. I haven’t told my grandparents yet, but I’m hopefull it will be a similar result.
Anyway, thank you for the encouraging advice in transitioning from “son’s girlfriend” to “daughter in law”. I’ll try my best to remember as my body changes and hormones go crazy 🙂
This one really hits home. It is the reason that I joined this discussion. My marriage ended because of my mother-in-law. For the duration of my 12 year marriage, I watched her belittle her children-in-law and blame them for shortcomings in her own children (e.g., X is fat because his wife overfeeds him).
My husband started a business that wasn’t successful. We had small children at the time. He was working 70+ hours a week, doing no childcare, and making no or very, very little money. He was making so little that he could not pay his own expenses if we were to separate or divorce. After 5 years of this, I had enough. I asked him to find a job that paid an income. He refused.
Later that year after my in-laws had been in town for our son’s baptism, my husband began a “you don’t do enough for me” campaign. He walked around behind me telling me that he needed more of a “home person” and that I should do more for him. He took me out to dinner at the end of my maternity leave and told me that I could have done more for him on my leave. He yelled at me in front of my family when I forgot my older child’s underwear on a holiday trip. He became extremely verbally abusive constantly saying that I was not doing my share.
When we were in counseling several years later, he told me that his mother had said that I didn’t do enough for him. He was trying to convince the counselor that I needed to do more, and that if I just did more that everything would be ok because our problems were my fault.
We separated soon after, and our divorce was final 18 months later in early 2011.
For a long time I wasn’t angry at my mother-in-law, probably because I was so overwhelmed with the transition that I did not have the energy to think about this. But, she has come to the surface in the past 6 months or so. I know that my ex-husband is to blame for taking on her opinion, but at the same time, had she said something different, we might not be divorced.
Our transition has gone well. My ex-husband has stepped up and become a very supportive and involved father. It is an “perfect” divorce by outside appearances. But still, none of it needed to happen, and it might not have happened if she had chosen to be a supportive instead of destructive influence in her son’s life.
I am dating a wonderful man who loves me and my children. It is time for me to move on with my life, and I need to forgive her in order to move on.
Wow, what a topic!
I am a daughter-in-law and I know first-hand how easy it is to fall into disagreement with an in-law. Not all families outright abuse one another….like you said, sometimes the issues are hidden or unspoken.
Over my 24 years of being married, I’ve experienced some painful moments that strained my marriage and frustrated my emotions. Now that my own kids are young adults….I am finding my own way in the world of possibly being someone’s MIL. I don’t want to be pushy or overbearing. I don’t want to hurt or wound my children or the loves that they’ve picked out for their lives.
I’ve enjoyed being a mother and I really want to enjoy being a mother-in-law too.
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