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“The Mother-in-law/Daughter-in-law Relationship: Competitive or Complementary?”

May 25, 2018

“The Mother-in-law/Daughter-in-law Relationship: Competitive or Complementary?” by Kathleen Vestal Logan, MS, MA

“Mom, Amy wants to know why you’re mad at her.” Tom raised the subject when he and his mother, Judy, were alone in the car. 

“I’m not mad at her!” Judy protested. But his question startled her into reflecting on her behavior. Now, fourteen years later at age 62, she says, “Initially, I was thrilled when Tom married Amy, but unconsciously, my behavior changed. He transferred his allegiance to her and I didn’t expect that.  I felt like I was being replaced. I became defensive and withdrew emotionally. But when he asked that question, I saw that I couldn’t make him choose between me and Amy. I knew I would lose.” For her, it was a competitive relationship.

   A woman’s relationship with a daughter-in-law is unique. Why? Jackie, 64, believes, “Our daughters are in our own image. We’re more critical of a daughter-in-law because she has different values and raises our grandkids differently. And we want our sons well-taken-care-of.”

 Jane, 55, discovered, “I’m ‘the other woman’ to my daughter-in-law.” From her viewpoint, newly-married Katy, 23, observes, “The mother-in-law has always been the central woman in his life. She might see me as a threat.” 

Kathy, 57, sees gender differences, too, because, “Guys tend to let the girls handle relationships.” Deanna, 32, also discovered, “My husband can do no wrong in his mother’s eyes.”

  Most daughters-in-law desire a good relationship with their mothers-in-law. Beth, 51, recalls, “I wanted a close relationship.  Because my own mother was not very nurturing, a confidante would have been helpful to me.” Deanna wants “support and friendship, to be part of his family.” Marcia, 60, says wistfully, “I envied friends who had great relationships with their mothers-in-law,” and Barb, 56, adds, “Any kind of relationship would have been welcome if it was healthy and positive.”

Mothers-in-law, too, generally want a good relationship. If it isn’t, her possible loss is concrete, ranging from tension to total alienation. Distance, whether physical or emotional, can separate a mother from her son for various reasons. Diane, 62, is estranged from her son and heartbroken. “His wife doesn’t encourage him to have a relationship.  She doesn’t want any competition.” 

  Special circumstances can intensify the situation, too. Sandy’s only child, for example, was killed five years ago in a car crash. At age 51, she worries, “My greatest fear is that my daughter-in-law will keep my grandkids from me. They’re my only link to my son.”

Although Jane ‘walks on eggshells’ to have good relations with her daughter-in-law, she says, “I choose to take responsibility for the relationship with her because I see that my life is better if I do.”

Set and honor appropriate boundaries. 

The key to success in any relationship is to set boundaries, both physical and personal. Privacy is important. Don’t, for example, let yourself in their home without permission. ‘Helpful advice’ may not be well-received, either, unless you are asked for it. “When my mother-in-law made suggestions when we first married,” Jennifer, 28, recalls, “I’d get defensive.”

 For Beth, this issue was the deal breaker: “This was the most intrusive element in our marriage. Even though I could tell my mother-in-law what I wanted and needed, she ignored me.”  As a result, she and her husband moved out of state because, “My mother-in-law is completely self-centered and does not respect our boundaries. Now I see her infrequently, so I can cope.” 

And what’s more private than intimate decisions? “I wish she’d quit pestering me to have a baby,” admits Jennifer. “I’m just not ready.”

Cultivate a separate relationship with your daughter-in-law. 

While you’ve known your son his entire life, you’re starting a new relationship with someone else’s daughter that can only grow with time and nurturing.

  To do that, it’s important to find common ground and shared interests—other than your son. Be genuinely interested in your daughter-in-law’s life and activities. Young Katy, for example, wants “a friend, someone I can relate to woman-to-woman.”

Be respectful. 

Your daughter-in-law comes from her own background—not better or worse, just different. You have an opportunity to acknowledge and value these differences, and therefore her. New traditions and styles of family living all come into play. Recognizing the challenge this entails, one woman half-joked, “I have actually prayed that my son will marry an orphan!”

Jennifer says, “I come from a different family system with different values. I want and need my mother-in-law to respect that. The trouble comes when she expects me to be more like her.”

“If there is trouble,” Jane says, “fight fair.  Be respectful.  Hurtful words cannot be taken back.” Try to be tolerant and accepting. Overlook minor issues. Maybe there are interesting and fun things you can learn or do together. Appreciate the strong connection your daughter-in-law may have to her own mother and family; your two families are not competitors. Over time, the young couple will sort through their different backgrounds, eventually forming the foundation for their own family.

Be inclusive. 

Your daughter-in-law is a member of your family now, so treat her appropriately. Being inclusive can require sensitivity. Janet’s approach, for example, is considerate: “If my daughter-in-law answers the phone when I call my son, I make a point not to ask for him until she offers. I let her talk until she’s ready. I try to be as thoughtful of her as I am of him.”

Change your role and expectations. 

You are - and always will be - your son’s mother; you are not a rival for his affection.  However, and as it should be, you must accept the fact that the #1 woman in your son’s life now is his wife. Adapt to this change in your role. Judy remembers that, at first, “We were fighting over my son because I felt like I was being replaced. ‘Love’ was making me hurt them. When it dawned on me, I knew I had to change.” 

Support your son and daughter-in-law as they build their own marital relationship. 

They are adults now who can and need to make their own decisions.  Their life works for them and they will make changes as they need to. Will they make mistakes?  Absolutely – but that’s how we all learn and grow. Jennifer admits, “We’re still trying to figure ourselves out.” Jane is determined: “I will not undermine her. I will relate to them as a couple.” 

“Don’t interfere,” Kathy advises. “Don’t take sides if they have a disagreement.  If both ask your input, try to determine what each really wants and if they have discussed it with each other. Other issues may really be the problem. If they do things that concern me, I keep my mouth shut. Otherwise, I’d be tearing down instead of helping to build bonds.” For Janet, “I have to let things go or it can become a control issue which can make things worse.” 

If you have something negative to say about your daughter-in-law—don’t. It will only reflect badly on you. Remember: You love your son, your son loves his wife; therefore, you need to try to love her, too. Focus on the positive qualities for which he married her. Also, if you let your son speak negatively to you about your daughter-in-law, chances are he will later regret it, feel guilty and disloyal, and live in fear you may let it slip. Establish early on that he may vent, but you won't take sides; chances are that is all he wants to do anyway—vent.

Nurture yourself as a woman. 

As a mother, be aware that your son’s marriage can be a pivotal point in your life.  For Judy, her only child’s marriage was a time of great change. “He was a man now who would create his own life. But for me, it was a feeling of loss.  I grieved.” Looking back, she suggests that women acknowledge this grief and their changing role. Having no spouse intensified her loss, but sharing the experience with her friends eventually proved therapeutic.

Your life can no longer focus totally on your son; you need balance. Be engaged in other activities, whether through work or as a volunteer. Be active, and you’ll also be interesting. 

If you are a wife, nourish your own marriage. This is your priority, just as your son’s marriage is his.

  Remember: you are participating in the spiritual cycle of life, so embrace it. Celebrate that you enabled your son grow into manhood—strong enough to leave home, caring enough to love, and capable enough to create his own family. 

Conclusion

The mother-in-law/daughter-in-law relationship can be competitive or complementary; you get to choose.  To realize its potential, take the initiative. Use your skills, experience, and maturity to grow into your new role. Judy finally did and rejoices, “I love, and am loved.  I found ways to support their relationship. Now I’m in the middle of everything and welcomed.”