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How to Be a Better Mother-In-Law

Audrey is a mom who tries to do things as naturally as possible, whether it be cooking or home remedies.

Being transparent with your DIL will help her trust you and thus become less defensive.

Being transparent with your DIL will help her trust you and thus become less defensive.

How to Be a Good Mother-In-Law

It seems like half of the people I talk to have a poor relationship with their mother-in-law (MIL), and this is even more common with daughters-in-law (DIL) than sons-in-law. Something about the relationship between a woman and her husband's mother just oozes tension and opportunities for hurt feelings and resentment. Indeed, in a poll I published at the end of an article about how DILs can improve their relationship with their MILs, a whopping 86% of respondents reported having a bad relationship with their MIL, and most people commenting were women.

Statistics aside, I think it is sad that there is so much strife within families all around the world. If you are a mother-in-law, I have a few steps you can consider in order to seek peace (and dare I say, a good, strong relationship?) with your daughter-in-law. By the way, I think most of the issues come from the daughter-in-law's end, and I already addressed bad attitudes and wrong communication styles in another article for them. This, however, is an article for you, the MIL. You are a very powerful member of the family who holds the possibility of peace and smooth-functioning in your hands. With this comes great responsibility and self-restraint. Below I will elaborate as to how you can be the best mother-in-law possible.

1. Remember How You Felt

Reflect back on your time as a daughter-in-law. How did you feel? What kinds of unpleasant run-ins and conversations did you have with your own in-laws? If you did not have these kinds of situations or your spouse's parents were deceased at the time of your relationship, think about any other overbearing, intrusive, or critical family members that you had that would hurt your feelings or frustrate you at times. Think specifically about things they did and said, and how you can avoid repeating those hurts. There is an old adage of unknown origin: hurt people, hurt people. The first hurt is an adjective. The second is a verb. What it means is, that people who have been hurt, tend to pay that hurt forward to others. Recognizing the specific things people did to hurt you will help you remember how you felt, understand the injustice, and use self-restraint to fight against your immediate reaction to pour out that pain on someone else. If your mother-in-law was a confrontational, critical person who always picked at you or found fault, you may naturally (whether wanting to or not) do some fault-finding of your own. By remembering how you felt, you can try harder to not make anyone feel like you did when you were recently married. My MIL is truly an awesome woman, so I have learned this from run-ins with other people rather than from her. Still, from time to time, I will say a quick prayer: "Lord, remind me when I am a (MIL, grandma, sister-in-law, aunt, cousin, boss, project leader, church leader, etc.) to never do ______ (insert behavior)." At other times I will say to myself, "Do not forget how this feels," in order to solidify my reaction to the (usually verbal) lashing and vow to not pay it to someone else.

2. Keep Calm

I feel like many of the problems MILs have with their DILs are due to one or both parties not being able to keep calm in the moment. When I say in the moment, I refer to those crazy, surprise, stressful altercations that spring out of thin air and can occur during any conversation, harmless as it may be. It seems like everything is going good and then suddenly, the tension boils, the blood rises, and things are said that should have been kept in. Mothers-in-law, you are much wiser, mature, and experienced than your DILs. Use that wisdom and maturity to exercise self-restraint. Not everything that comes to your mind should be said. You and your DIL are going to do things very differently, and feathers can easily become ruffled. Consider this example: you bottle-fed all four of your children, but your DIL insists on breastfeeding. One day with you she starts inadvertently slamming the old ways of child-rearing, saying that infant formula from the 80s was full of sugar and set her husband up for a lifetime of glucose issues. She goes on and on about why she does things the way she does, and it seems more and more like she is putting down the ways that worked perfectly fine for you 20-40 years ago. You are tempted to tell her just how much she doesn't know, but should you? How do you suppose that you putting her down will ever work to add positive progress to the relationship? Here is your answer: it never will. Your response should be cool and calm, "Things sure have changed with all the new information available." You will have many opportunities to become upset while talking to her. Biting your tongue and keeping calm will be a huge step in making your relationship better. Inside your head, try to keep calm also, and not get heated up by taking things so personally, which brings me to my next point.

3. Lay Aside All Offense

Your DIL is younger and from a different generation. She was raised by a different family with often different values, rearing, and punishment styles. You may see her as an entitled, selfish brat, or a spoiled, know-it-all. She may always seem defensive or on edge (more on that later). Still, you must rise above any offense you take and be the bigger person--because you are the bigger person emotionally. You have had years more than she has to deal with people's junk. She is younger and less mature, and is unable to correctly express her feelings, desires, and emotions. Show her grace and mercy by laying aside your hurt feelings and rising above them to be a leader in your relationship and an example of humility and mutual respect; an example she will learn from and admire in the future, although possibly not presently. Take this example for instance: You created a family group chat to communicate about your husband's retirement party. Another family member mentioned going shopping for it and you agreed to go. Your daughter-in-law, either getting annoyed by all the dinging messages or for being left out of the shopping trip, leaves the group, and everyone sees it. No doubt, her action was immature and unloving, as well as extremely overly sensitive. You get immediately annoyed, hurt, irritated, and frustrated and think of telling her off or calling your son to ask why she left the group, when all you were trying to do was include her, and all she wants to do is cause problems, and everyone saw it, and what an embarrassment, etc. This is when you need to use your discretion and propriety to look over the offense, breathe deep, and let it go. Ignoring her action and going on with life as usual will help her learn that it is not all about her, she cannot make the waves she desires to make, and that life (and the party) will go on with or without her. Let her make those immature blunders and learn from them. After all, you learned the same way as a twenty-something. Look over every offense you can. If something happens that needs to be addressed, it needs to be done in a respectful and tactful manner. If you cannot keep your cool in person, take time to write out as nicely and controlled as you can exactly what the problem was and how you felt, letting love be the overall attitude of the letter. An example of a good letter would be, "Dear Dawn, I have debated writing this, but my feelings are hurt and I want to restore my relationship with you. When you told your child that I am annoying, and he told it to me, my heart was broken. I know I can be annoying like anyone else, but it hurts me that you would tell Brayden something bad about me. Please let me know what I did to annoy you, and we can talk about it. I want to fix this, and I don't want Bray to be involved. Love, Sharon." An example of a bad reaction would be blowing up, confronting her unlovingly, and not taking into account her level of immaturity in comparison with yours. Understand that she is younger and less experienced, and give her some grace by overlooking as many offenses as you can, and handling the ones that need to be dealt with in a respectful manner.

4. Don't Be Critical

This may be the hardest one yet for a mother-in-law. Due to your years of acquired experience and frequent annoyances with your DIL, you may be tempted to spurt out little snarky comments here and there to express your dominance. Not only is this not humble, it can be very, very annoying to a daughter-in-law. She is changing her baby's diaper only days after it was born, and she is a first-time mom. You laugh and scoff, "You are doing it so slow!" How was that comment helpful? The only thing you succeeded in doing was hurting and irritating your hormonally whacked-out DIL in a situation when you should have just kept your mouth shut-- a situation she will recall for years and years to come, if not the rest of her life. Instead of being critical, be supportive. "Diaper changing will get easier and easier as you go along," you might say with a smile and a pat on the back. It may feel fake and awkward, but any act of love will be appreciated if your DIL is overall a good-willed person. Supportive instead of critical actions will go to great lengths in contributing to a good relationship. I have talked to many women who say they just cannot bite their tongues and control it when those criticisms just start flying. My advice in this situation would be to be open and transparent with your DIL about this issue, which brings me to my next point.

5. Be Transparent

Piggybacking off of the previous section, if you are unable to control your frequent critical comments, you may be starting some serious problems. Even though you may inadvertently be trying to establish your dominance or teach her a thing or two, the critical way of responding will never, and I repeat, never do any good at all. The only thing you are doing is deeply hurting your DIL over and over and making her hate you. Now, I am not saying she is perfect, either. Still, if you are struggling with holding your tongue, why not do what feels odd, but can really pour some healing words into your relationship? I'm referring to being transparent about your shortcomings and your relationship. It may be that nothing inside of you wants to reach out in a loving way. You would rather hold your ground and let her learn the lessons. Still, you should keep calm, lay down offense, be supportive, and be transparent. Being transparent means being meek and humbly sharing the areas you struggle in. It may go something like this: "Jennifer, I feel a little vulnerable coming out like this, but I just want to tell you that I am having a really hard time controlling myself and my emotions. Maybe it's my age, maybe it's because you're new. I don't know. All I know is I am grateful you are in our family, and I do not know why these critical and overbearing statements keep coming out of my lips. I'm really trying to work on it, but it is a struggle I'm having almost daily." By being transparent, you open up the arena for a conversation about ways to improve your relationship. Every act of confidence you give to your DIL will make her feel safer and safer as she progresses in her relationship with you.

6. Recognize Her Behaviors May Not Be What They Seem

She seems so defensive. What is her deal? Did your son really marry this crabby, uptight, nag-fest-in-a-bottle? Chances are, she is a different person alone with him. Her uptightness and defensiveness do not mean she is uptight and defensive, it means she feels threatened—by you. Something, somewhere along the way must have made her feel like you were over her shoulder, disapproving of what she does. Something you said or did must have made her think that she was not good enough. Let me tell you, she longs for your acceptance and support. So, be her biggest cheerleader, even if everything in you wants to hold back and establish your position as matriarch. Make room for her in the family, and don't think that she is acting a certain way because she is a certain way. Here is an illustration: Jessica is your 28-year-old DIL and mother of your twin four-year-old grandchildren. One of your grandkids developed an allergy after a vaccination and Jessica thinks this was the reason. You think this is absolutely ridiculous and unfounded. It is time for their 4-year-old checkup and their usual flu shot, which they need because they go to one of the most crowded daycares in the city. When you ask her how their appointment went and if they got the shot, Jessica becomes flushed and snappy, and very defensive. When she goes on and on about how "The doctor told me that the flu shot has in fact caused problems in children and that it has not been tested, etc.," you feel patronized and are unsure why she is so anal about shots. Here is what you do not see: Jessica feels like you are infringing on her parenting rights, and like you are forgetting your place. Jessica feels like you had your chance to raise your son and you did a great job, but it is her turn, and she would love to tell you to back off. She truly believes she is doing the best thing for her children per what she has read online in her hours of research regarding the matter, and she gets immediately frustrated when she has to give so many explanations to people about her decision. Another thing you have long forgotten about but still resonates in her mind, is a comment you made when she was pregnant with the twins, that so-and-so was crazy for not vaccinating their children. Jessica is threatened by your lack of support and disapproving attitude. What is the one thing she is craving in this situation? Your complete support. You may word it like this, "I'm sure you're doing what's right for little Kaiden". Even if you think she is wrong, it's not your place to decide. She is the mother. Take a step back and remember that you are grandma. You get to spoil them. If they get the flu, she will have to take off work and take care of them. Delight yourself in your role and don't be overbearing by stepping into hers.

7. Say Kind Things

If you have started putting the steps listed above into practice, it may be time to use some healing words. I will never forget what my mother-in-law years ago after one of our heart-to-heart conversations designed to fix our relationship. She looked at me after we were done talking and said, "You know, I have never thought you were a bad wife for my son." It seems like a backward compliment, but if you really think about what she was saying, you will see a woman who is saying, "I have no malice toward you, no predisposed disapproval of you, and no hatred for you." In that instant, I felt healed of many hurts. I am forever thankful that she took the opportunity to step through the pain and frustration that my 23-year-old self was causing and say something kind. That day, she added some healing words into the formula. Healing words can be any sort of kind statement that you can think to muster up. Make sure, first of all, that what you are going to say is 100% true. False efforts can be easily detected. If your DIL is overweight and out of shape, do not tell her she looks so skinny in that dress; that is just overkill and will hurt her more. Think of the qualities your DIL has that make you happy. Make a list of these good things and practice speaking them to her and over her in your day-to-day lives. "You are such a good mom." "Your home is so cute." "I like how you've got that centerpiece arranged." "Cool idea!" "I'm glad you're in my life." "My son is so happy with you." "You've got a knack for _________." "I wish I could ________ like you." All of these are healing words, and there are many more. Even though it may feel strange, your vulnerability will be appreciated if she is good-hearted. Don't hold back, even if you want to. Reach out in earnestness and transparency and she will grow in her trust with you.

Uptightness may be your DIL's way of expressing frustration when she wishes you would back off or let her decide something.

Uptightness may be your DIL's way of expressing frustration when she wishes you would back off or let her decide something.

It Takes Two

Your relationship with your daughter-in-law may never be perfect, especially if she refuses to overcome offenses or work toward progress in your relationship. Still, I feel that most of the power rests on the mother-in-law's self-restraint and kindness, which over time will make the DIL trust her MIL and lead to an open and healthy relationship. By remembering how you felt, keeping calm in tense situations, not getting your feelings hurt, not being critical, saying kind things, and being open and honest with her, you will gain serious ground in bettering your bond. I am interested to know if this article was helpful for you. Please let me know in the comments below and be sure to vote in the polls I have included at the end of this article.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2018 Audrey Lancho


Audrey Lancho (author) from Spain on May 11, 2019:

@Flourish, I LOVE that you can appreciate the good along with the bad.

FlourishAnyway from USA on May 11, 2019:

My MIL was a very brassy and boisterous lady who smoked like a train (a very inconsiderate smoker too). She never let anyone get a word in edgewise, but she applied her behavior evenly and meant well. There were certainly no awkward silences when she was around. I tried to grin and bear the whole thing since we didn’t live close by and I encouraged my husband to call her regularly. I respected her raising three kids virtually alone because her husband had a massive stroke when her youngest child, my husband, was only three. A strong lady. She’s gone now but my daughter reminds me of the more positive aspects of her personality.

Audrey Lancho (author) from Spain on August 01, 2018:

Thanks for your insight, Liz! :)

Liz Westwood from UK on July 31, 2018:

My MIL ticks all these boxes and now I'm a MIL myself I try to copy her example. This article speaks a lot of common sense into what can be a potentially very difficult relationship.