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.