By Dr. Deanna Brann, Clinical Psychotherapist
Your son is getting married (or he’s seriously settling down)! You’ve met your future daughter-in-law a few times, but you realize you do not know her all that well. You feel you get along with her; you find her to be pleasant as well as nice, and yet, you also find yourself feeling somewhat tentative around her. You probably need to consider how to be a good mother-in-law.
Then you start to wonder, Is this normal? Is there something I should be doing (or not doing)? Does she feel the same way? You then find yourself believing (hoping) that eventually you will shift away from this tentative feeling and into a rhythm with her that is comfortable for both of you.
Mothers-in-law face a difficult and often confusing challenge, particularly with daughters-in-law. You struggle to try to figure out where you fit into this new “family plan.” He’s my son so does that make her like a daughter? What do I want our relationship to look like? How do I interact with her? Can I be completely myself with her?
No one has an instruction guide on what a mother-in-law is supposed to do or say to make her relationship with her new daughter-in-law a comfortable one. No one talks about how to make this relationship work between two virtual strangers. And because of this both the mother-in-law and the daughter-in-law often fumble and stumble while they figure out how to make this unique relationship work for them both.
When my son married many years ago I was, what I considered anyway, a “young” mother-in-law. I was in my 40’s. I felt privileged to not only have my daughter-in-law as part of our family, but I also felt privileged to be part of their new family.
I had always been close to my son, and now I felt wonderful that I also had a closeness with my daughter-in-law. And maybe because of this, I did not put much thought into what being a mother-in-law entailed. I assumed it would be an evolving process that I would “grow into.”
In hindsight, I realize I was a bit naïve about the mother-in-law/daughter-in-law relationship. This relationship doesn’t “just happen,” nor does it always flow comfortably and easily. The mother-in-law/daughter-in-law relationship is a unique relationship that relies on a delicate balance of appreciation, respect, and patience.
Although it took me some time to understand this, I was eventually able to smooth out the bumps and wrinkles that had cropped up between my daughter-in-law and me. Between the two of us, we created a relationship that fits well for the two of us—one of which we have been proud.
Getting off on the right foot with your daughter-in-law helps both you and your daughter-in-law build a strong, solid foundation for the years to come. It also allows your son and his bride to focus on what is most important to them—the two of them.
Here are some tips to help you start this new journey into the world of in-law relationships (tips that will help you come from a place of knowledge, openness and willingness)
1. Get to know your daughter-in-law for who she is
Develop a relationship with her that is independent of your son. Get to know what she likes, dislikes, her hobbies, and so on. What do you have in common; what are your differences? How can you work with the differences so that you do not allow them to hold you back in building your relationship with her?
2. The more you cultivate this relationship the easier it will be for both of you to be who you are when you are together.
It creates a deeper level of involvement than just “She’s my son’s wife or my daughter-in-law.” or “She’s my husband’s mom; my mother-in-law.” This does not mean you have to be best friends or another mother to her. It is about creating a real relationship. One that is based on a solid foundation.
3. Identify what your expectations are for this relationship
Keep in mind when you think about expectations, you need to base them on who your daughter-in-law is, not who you wish she was, or who you hope she will become. Not all daughters-in-law are the same, nor are they exactly as we might like them to be. Having realistic expectations is key to creating a healthy, comfortable relationship with her. She’s never going to be your new best friend or like your own children.
4. Be willing to look at your own behavior
As difficult as this may be, doing so will go a long way to resolving the issues and concerns that come up between the two of you. Everyone plays a role in how our interactions play out. It is your responsibility to empower yourself. Looking at what or how you may be able to do some things differently to make things better is the first step in going from feeling like a victim to feeling empowered.
5. Do not focus on who is right and who is wrong
All relationships experience misunderstandings, miscommunications or disagreements. Often these difficulties arise due to our different perspectives of a situation. How you handle these times are what makes the difference between a good relationship and a difficult one. Focus on the bigger picture. Her perspective is as valid to her as yours is to you. What is more important – Having a relationship with your son, grandchildren, and daughter-in-law or being right?
6. Accept that your relationship with your son is changing
Letting go of your son happens on many levels. The privileges you once had as his mother are no longer applicable. Your son is a man and a husband. Your son is a man and a husband. He’s not a little boy anymore. He must create his own family, his own way. Trust that you have taught him well and that he will make the decisions and choices for himself that work best for him. You are still a part of your son’s life, but in a very different way. Allow him to show you how and where you fit.
7. Understand you did not gain a daughter when your son married
Your daughter-in-law is coming into this relationship with you as a woman in her own right. Respect that her own family dynamics, personal history, and life experiences have played a role in who she is today. Give her a chance to show you this person and be open to any differences between you. She’s never going to be your new best friend or like your own children.
8. Remember your son loves this woman
There is a reason why he chose her to marry. Yes, your understanding of her will be based on the interactions between the two of you. However, if you take time to learn his reasons for choosing her and then incorporate them into your opinion of her, you will gain a better understanding and more rounded view of who she is.
9. Encourage and respect clear boundaries
You do not have rights over your son or his new relationship and family unit. Aspiring to be a great mother-in-law is going to help you develop how you fit in this family. But you need to appreciate their boundaries, especially with their own young children, their parenting style and ground rules. Finding common ground where possible is great, but ultimately you need to respect their rules for their family and their own lives. That doesn’t mean you can’t be flexible if they need you to be, but it has to be their lead, if you’re to avoid being perceived as a difficult mother-in-law in the long term.
10. Avoid unsolicited advice
Unsolicited advice is rarely welcome, even from an otherwise perfect mother-in-law, so avoid it when you can. Don’t try to give it to your son as a way to get your views across to your daughter-in-law. That’s the path to being a toxic mother in law and no way to treat your adult children with whom you now need to have a different relationship. Your son is not a little boy anymore. You probably shouldn’t even do it with your own daughter! Everyone prefers to ask for advice not just be given it.
By using these tips you can make this transition easier for you and for her and stay moving in the right direction. It just takes a bit of forethought and reflection on how to fit the pieces of this new expanded family puzzle together. You are on a new path, a new journey and the power to create what you want, and to be a great mother in law, for a long time to come, is just beginning.
Deanna Brann, Ph.D. has over 30 years experience in the mental health field as a clinical psychotherapist specializing in communication skills, family and interpersonal relationships, and conflict resolution. As both a mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, her personal experiences led her to research the subject. Her first book, Reluctantly Related, began the discussion of examining and bettering the MIL/DIL relationship and is followed by her newest book, Reluctantly Related Revisited. Brann holds a Bachelor of Science in Psychology, a Master of Science in Clinical Psychology, and a Ph.D. in Psychobiological Anthropology. Connect with Dr. Brann at www.drdeannabrann.com and on Facebook or Twitter.
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Last Updated on July 24, 2023 by Editorial Staff