Navigating Mother-in-law Relationships

When you get married, you not only form a new family of your own, you also come into a new family of in-laws as well. This joining of two families is always cross-cultural, even if you’re from the same place, because every family has its own unique way of life. Whether or not your partner has healthy relationships with his or her family, this blending of the two always comes with some growing pains.

Often, when people say “in-laws” with a negative connotation, the first person they really mean is a mother-in-law. Why? Well, it all comes down to influence.

Dr. John Gottman, a renowned marriage therapist, found that the couples who are most likely to stay together for the long-haul are those who accept influence from each other. And influence doesn’t just happen between marriage partners—other family members have that same power. Especially moms. They’ve been influencing their children since day one, and it’s what they’re supposed to do. They have a vested interest in your well-being. This interest isn’t inherently bad, but it can become overbearing and even damaging when it affects your marriage team.

So what do you do when things are rocky between you and your mother-in-law?

First things first.

The number one goal when it comes to dealing with outside relationships is to protect your marriage team at all costs. At Lasting, we call this the “we.” Every marriage is comprised of two people, but together, your partnership creates a third entity with its own distinct needs. The point at which couples begin to feel tension with their in-laws is the point at which the in-law influence affects their “we” decision-making.

The scenario goes something like this: You and your partner discuss holiday plans early in the fall and decide that you will spend Thanksgiving with your family. You both feel good about your decision. And then your mother-in-law comments that she wants to see you on Thanksgiving and makes some statement that leaves you feeling manipulated or hurt. This is because your mother-in-law’s disapproval is affecting your team decision, perhaps even attempting to change the mind of one of you without the other. Now imagine that after speaking with her, your partner changes his or her mind and decides that you should split your Thanksgiving between both families. How would you feel? Likely hurt by your partner and frustrated with your mother-in-law.

So here’s what we’ve found. Ultimately, when it comes to mothers-in-law and your marriage, you need to be assured of 3 things:

  • First, that your partner will be there for you when he or she’s with their family.

  • Secondly, that they’ll make you feel like the most important person in their life.

  • Third, that they will prioritize you over their family.

These are easier said than done, but we’re committed to providing you and your partner with tools to strengthen your bond while dealing with your in-laws.

So once your marriage team is strong, how can you work on the relationship with your mother-in-law? Here are the 3 things marriage therapist Liz Collizza advises:

1. Listen

Have you ever felt that your mother-in-law’s expectations were unrealistic? We get it. But it’s obvious her opinions are logical to her, even if not to you.

Here’s how to approach them: ask her why she has certain views and listen intently when she answers. Her inner world is just as real and valid to her as yours is to you.

Often, the willingness to listen and make the other person feel heard will validate their inner world while also allowing you the opportunity to gently offer your own perspective. Try this one, and you’ll be surprised how quickly it diffuses tension.

2. Speak Up

Don’t stew in anger for months over an offense—if you do, it’s likely that hurtful behavior will continue because no one knows how it really affects you. Voice your concern. Tell your mom-in-law what’s causing your frustration. Invite her into your inner world and express your concerns with honesty and vulnerability.

If you feel it would help, involve your partner in the conversation as well. Either way, if things are tough, speak up about what’s bothering you, and use this formula: "I feel X when Y happens. I need Z.”

3. Set clear boundaries

Setting boundaries actually increases the strength of your relationship, so don’t be afraid to be bold. This is where using “we” language becomes especially helpful. Two is always stronger than one. Saying, “We won’t be staying the night,” or “We’ll be putting our son in daycare,” offers a stronger statement without opening it to a greater family discussion. Be kind in the way you set these boundaries, but always be firm, letting your parents know that your team decision comes first. Over time, in-laws will learn that too.

Sadly, 42% of men and 45.8% of women feel unsatisfied with the relationship they have with their in-laws, according to our data. That’s almost half of married couples working through this tension! But there’s hope.

Lasting, the no. 1 relationship counseling app, offers series on Communication, Expectations, and even In-Laws specifically, so you can build the bond with your mother-in-law that others will want to emulate. Download Lasting today to get started, and remember, the number one goal when dealing with outside influence is to keep your marriage team healthy. You’ve got this!


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