Stereotypically, a wife's relationship with her mother-in-law can be tense-even competitive in some cases. There's a good reason for that, says stress-management expert Debbie Mandel author of Addicted to Stress: You have two women who love the same man, albeit in different ways. Add to that the fact that a daughter-in-law may find it difficult to express herself when an issue arises with her mother-in-law, whether out of fear, respect or frustration, and you've got the makings of one stressful family dinner. However, according to Mandel, a healthy relationship can form between the two women. It just takes time--and a lot of mutual respect. So we asked some real-life daughters-in-law to tell us what they feel they can't tell their mothers-in-law, and had experts weigh in on how best to resolve these conflicts so you can both start having a happier family life today.
1. Trust that I know how to raise my children.
The topic of children--how they're raised and disciplined--can quickly become a battleground because it's an emotional topic for everyone. When a mother-in-law makes comments, her daughter-in-law may feel like she's being judged, says Mandel. "Meanwhile, your mother-in-law may feel as though you're doing things differently than she did to undermine her." LeAnn* has diminished this type of intrusion by simply responding to her mother-in-law's suggestions with, "They are fine" or "We raise them differently." She's on the right track, says Mandel. "Daughters-in-law should try to respond neutrally-'That's an interesting point'-rather than negatively, which only fuels the fire." Meanwhile, she says, "A mother-in-law is smart not to offer unsolicited advice. If your daughter-in-law asks how you used to do things, tell her and leave it at that." Photo: Thinkstock
2. Don't come over to our house unannounced.
For years, Anne* and her husband lived just blocks from her in-laws, who were fond of ringing their doorbell on Saturday mornings-without calling first. "It felt so intrusive!" Anne says. "This is the time for the husband to get involved," says Elizabeth Lombardo, PhD, psychologist and author of A Happy You. What sounds shrill coming from you can sound like good advice from their son, as long as it's said politely. "Suggest he try something like, 'Mom, we love seeing you, but Saturday mornings are so crazy with the kids. Next time, call first so we can be sure the gathering is more relaxed.'" Remember, she just wants to see you (and your kids, if you have them), so if you assure her that you also want to spend time with her, perhaps the unannounced knocking will come to a halt. Photo: Michael Blann/Thinkstock
3. Leave religion out of it.
Claire's* in-laws, who are Catholic, openly fret to her and her husband about how they have yet to baptize their son (something they have no intention of doing), which causes uncomfortable feelings all around. Here, both sides have to come to the realization that the question of religion might never be settled. "It may be a core value for the in-laws, so if you reject their religion-especially for your children-they may feel personally attacked," says Mandel. The best you can do is to be firm in your own choices, but also be clear and reassuring that you're raising your children to be good people. Photo: Buccina Studios/Thinkstock
4. Don't pass judgment on my housekeeping.
Margaret* has a mother-in-law who always has to add her two cents about how her daughter-in-law cares for her own home. "My sofa cushions were just fine and did not need to be restuffed!," Margaret notes, as an example of the criticism she's received in the past. Even if the mother-in-law believes she's being helpful, her daughter-in-law may hear: "You're the worst housekeeper ever," says Dr. Lombardo. If your in-laws can't bite their tongues about the state of your home, try not to respond aggressively. A mild, "We're OK with things the way they are" is fine. If the comments are frequent and become aggressive, you may want to follow up with, "I'd appreciate it if you didn't always point these things out." (Hint: This may be more effective coming from your husband!) Photo: Thinkstock
5. Stop comparing me to your son's ex.
On the in-laws' side, this could be an innocent comment (maybe they recently ran into Girlfriend X at the supermarket). It could also reveal something deeper about how they feel about you being married to their son. Of course your in-laws should embrace you in their son's life and let all those old flames die out (or at least stay hidden in dusty photo albums). But what if they do mention a certain woman more than once? "If you're secure in how much your husband loves you, then you should be OK ignoring it," says Mandel. "You can ask, mildly and neutrally, why they keep bringing up his ex," but it's not necessary if you feel good about your relationship. And if it really irritates you or goes on for too long, says Dr. Lombardo, "have your husband pull his parents aside and tell them, nicely, that he's not happy with the comments." They may not realize they are upsetting you, after all. Photo: Thinkstock
6. Don't make me feel bad about being a working mom.
As if working mothers needed any more guilt, a mother-in-law sighing aloud about how your career may be hurting her grandchildren can only make matters worse. If this describes your mother-in-law, "address what you're feeling first," says Dr. Lombardo. "Have you made the choice to work because it's a financial necessity or you feel it's best for you? If so, you should be able to let infrequent comments roll off your back." If it gets onerous, though, try to see it from her point of view: Perhaps she was not all that happy herself being a stay-at-home mom. Maybe she's jealous of the career choices that you've been afforded. Or perhaps she really does think it's not the best choice for your children. Whatever the reason, she needs to be made aware of how you feel. Say something simple, like, "I respect your choices, but these are the ones I've made." Also, recommends Dr. Lombardo, try to "highlight what's good about your situation for your family," such as how independent your children are, or how much you've saved for retirement and college. Photo: Thinkstock
7. Quit treating your son like a child!
"Whenever I go to my in-laws' house, my mother-in-law makes recipes that my husband loved as a kid, like icebox cake. It drives me crazy!" says Anne. Sure, it can be hard for an independent, modern wife to watch her husband being coddled by the woman who raised him. However, unless she's offering to wash and iron his clothes or drive him to work, babying her baby is still allowed--with one major caveat, says Dr. Lombardo: "It has to be at her own house." In your home, she says, waiting on her son constitutes major interference. But if you're talking mild stuff like making favorite recipes (even if your hubby would prefer something more sophisticated), grin and bear it. "Focus on the motivation behind it--she loves her son!" says Dr. Lombardo. Photo: Istock
*Names have been changed.
Article originally appeared on WomansDay.com.
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