You’re always polite, offer to help around the house, and never fail to give gifts at holiday time. Yet you’re still getting the cold shoulder from the woman who’s married to your beloved son.
It’s probably not your imagination: More often than not, the mother-in-law and daughter-in-law dynamic is complicated and fraught.
Terri Apter, author of What Do You Want From Me? Learning to Get Along With In-Laws, says that her research has found that some 60% of women referred to their mother-in-law/daughter-in-law relationship as “strained,” “infuriating” and “simply awful.” Meanwhile, just 15% of mother-in-law/son-in-law relationships report similar tension.
Researchers have suggested that there are biological forces at work, with women looking to protect their own family unit. That leaves you competing over who will have the most influence over the husband or son, says Deanna Brann, Ph.D., author of Reluctantly Related: Secrets To Getting Along With Your Mother-in-Law or Daughter-in-Law.
There’s a competitive aspect, too. Traditionally, women are the gatekeepers to their family’s social lives, and their children’s schedules, says Brann. If you’ve been the one calling the shots until now, it can take some adjustment to get used to a new regime.
Trouble is, when these types of power imbalances get off on the wrong foot, they can be tough to course correct. The following tips can help.
1. Put aside the advice
From buying a wedding dress to breastfeeding, you’ve been through it all before. Chances are your daughter-in-law doesn’t want to hear your wisdom. “She may be making mistakes, but they are her mistakes to make and learn from,” says Dr. Brann.
What if she asks you for advice? Tread delicately, with phrases like: “This is how I would do it but you might know of a better way.” Then, show interest in her ideas and opinions. “Say five positive things for every negative thing,” says Christine Rittenour, faculty associate, Women’s and Gender Studies, West Virginia University.
2. Let old memories be bygones
“When you join a family, you can feel like there are inside jokes and history you don’t know. You feel like an outsider,” says Rittenour.
Don’t talk a lot about the past, unless your daughter-in-law asks. Instead, ask her about her family memories. One exception: She’ll likely enjoy childhood stories and old photos of your son.
Also, at holiday time, ask her about her own traditions and recipes for family gatherings, and be sure to incorporate them into the mix.
3. Follow her parenting rules
Some of your son and daughter-in-law’s ideas about parenting might sound kind of cuckoo. So what? Every generation has their fads and preferences when it comes to parenting, and it likely won’t make all that much difference to your grandkids, in the end. If you want to feel included, stick to their rules.
And if you are unclear about the rules, ask. Your daughter-in-law will be glad you showed her that respect.
Also, your daughter-in-law may want to be in charge of the rules, but that doesn’t mean she wants to be in charge of the kids every second. Offer to help, in whatever way you can manage, whether it’s regular or occasional babysitting, or even just coming over to play with the kids while the parents relax over a glass of wine.
4. Respect the marital union
If you and your daughter-in-law are struggling in your relationship, you may be tempted to ask your son to weigh in. Don’t. First, it’s not fair to ask him to mediate between two people he loves dearly. Second, he’s more likely to side with his wife — if only to keep the peace at home, the place where he spends most of his time.
A final reason to steer clear of putting your son in the role of the third party: It’s likely to backfire. When your daughter-in-law finds out that you went behind her back (and she will), she’ll be annoyed and even less willing to smooth things over.
5. Be direct
If you sense that something is off, don’t stew or be a martyr. After all, you’re hopefully building a relationship that’s going to last for decades.
Ask calmly, “You seem to be upset. Can we talk about how we can do this better in the future? I love you and want us to have a good relationship,” says Dr. Rittenour. “Really listen to what she has to say. Sometimes all a person wants is to be heard.”