Few familial roles are more analyzed and vilified than that of the mother-in-law. Whether it’s a more lighthearted rivalry such as the one between Jennifer Lopez and Jane Fonda in Monster-in-Law, or something more sinister (think Gwyneth Paltrow versus Jessica Lange in Hush), even Hollywood cashes in on perpetrating the negativity associated with this matriarchal role.
While there are definitely examples of toxic relationships and dynamics, the majority of situations may boil down to simple miscommunication. In the counseling setting, I helped many families navigate these types of conflicts and, when we got down to it, people were usually surprised by what was at the root. While your mother-in-law might seem like a hateful demon, she’s still just a human being.
Here are some things that she probably wishes you knew.
She did her best
You are building a life with her child and can’t help but notice some of their peculiar habits. They have never eaten vegetables, and they skip breakfast. Some of their favorite childhood memories took place in a casino and when you opened a treasure chest that they sealed in fifth grade, it smelled like cigarette smoke.
Of course, you are going to have opinions about all of this, and more than likely, you are going to say “Who raised you?” at some point in your relationship. Your mother-in-law wants you to know that she raised the person you are living with, and that she did the best she could. It may not have been perfect, but they survived their upbringing to become lovable enough for you to want to couple up — so it couldn’t have been completely terrible.
Note: do not make excuses for abuse. If your mother-in-law abused your spouse, do not downplay this. If necessary, seek professional help to best understand how to support your husband through this difficult dynamic.
She gets jealous
There’s something so incredible about the bond between a mother and her child. If you’ve never been a parent, you may not have a full appreciation of how it feels to be the center of someone’s entire universe — and then the kid falls in love, and everything changes.
It’s tough to feel like second place. Seeing her son fawn over you, make you the priority, and even make changes to better align with the life you are both creating can be really tough. It’s natural for a mother to feel a twinge of jealousy (and even resentment). She probably feels like she’s losing her son and, in some ways, she is. Have empathy when she acts possessive.
While it’s best to avoid projecting our own hopes and dreams on our children, some mothers have spent years imagining what their son’s adult life will be like. She may have preconceived ideas about the relationship she would have with her daughter-in-law, or the type of woman her son would choose.
You might be completely different than the person she imagined (or hoped for) and she might be pretty disappointed about that. You can’t (and shouldn’t) change yourself to please your mother-in-law but just realize that she might be working through those types of feelings.
She’s still a mother
There’s this idea that parenting ends when on a child’s 18th birthday. Anyone who has raised kids will know that this is just not true. Sure, your relationship and level of involvement might change, but you will be a parent forever.
As a result, your mother-in-law will always have an opinion about what is, and isn’t, best for her son. She’ll want to raise concerns or offer suggestions, and hopefully, she is doing it with the best of intentions. It can be annoying, but in her mind, she’s just continuing her role as someone’s mother.
She wants to be respected
Regardless of what you might think of her, your mother-in-law is responsible for raising your partner. Again, unless this is a case of neglect and abuse, she was there when he was up all night teething, made sure he had clothes for school, and was proud when he walked across the stage at his high school graduation.
You may not agree with how she did things, and she may not be fond of you either, but she wants (and deserves) to be respected for the role she played in her child’s life. It may not be easy, especially if you espouse very different philosophies in life, but it’s worth trying.
She’s not a mind reader
When you deal with someone on a regular basis, it’s easy to step on someone’s toes without even realizing it. If your mother-in-law has done something to upset or offend you, she may not even realize that it’s happened.
Remember that, even if her slight seemed obvious to you, she’s not a mind reader so it’s important to just be honest if something has made you unhappy. Communication is key to improving and maintaining all relationships, especially the tricky ones.
Her feelings get hurt too
While your partner’s mother could come across as critical, angry, or even vindictive (and she might actually be some, or all, of those things), there’s a good chance that her negative behavior is really due to feeling hurt.
Now that her role in her child’s life has changed, it can feel like she’s suddenly become an outsider to a life she helped create. It can be a difficult transition and can lead some to lash out in unproductive ways.
She doesn’t know how to communicate with you
Feeling comfortable with anyone new usually takes time, but it can require even more effort with your mother-in-law. Many things complicate this relationship, which can make for some awkward interactions, especially in the early days.
Understand that your partner’s mother may struggle with finding the words to say to you, even if she’s genuinely trying to be nice. This can be further amplified if you come from different backgrounds. You might be tempted to write her off but, if you can work on your communication, everyone’s lives might get a lot easier (for years to come!).
She’s scared of what you might do
Deep down inside of most mothers, there’s a fear that someday, someone will come along and steal their child from them. And, if you think about it, this worry is not totally irrational. Most people will partner up, in some way, and create a life that is separate from their mothers, and for a large portion of it, she will be a distant observer. That’s a big transition for her.
Along with this, there is the fear that she will be cut out of her child’s life if their partner doesn’t like her. This will mean missing out on grandchildren, special occasions, holidays, and the simple joys of everyday life. In essence, there are mother-in-laws who are combative and ornery because they are scared to let you gain too much “control,” and, on a fundamental level, that’s pretty understandable.
She feels lost
As the boundaries in her relationship with her child change, your mother-in-law may struggle to understand her place in their life. She might be upset that certain topics are suddenly off-limits and that her advice is no longer needed.
Encourage your partner to talk to their mother about this and find new ways for her to feel valued and connected. Make an effort to include her where you can, and if she’s trying to avoid crossing the line, thank her for respecting your relationship. Keeping things positive will go a long way.
She doesn’t want to be caught in the middle
Whether you are on good terms with your mother-in-law or not, she does not want to be brought into the middle of your relationship (and, if she does, that’s definitely not healthy!) so don’t go to her to complain about her child’s behavior.
Remember that if you open that can of worms, it can start a bad pattern. Do you want your partner complaining about you to their mother? Do you want her to judge you for all of the little dumb things that you do? Probably not. Keep her out of your arguments. Period.
She needs a little patience
Maybe you and your partner have decided to adopt a vegan lifestyle and your mother-in-law is a hardcore carnivore. She will probably struggle to understand and respect your decision — at least at first. The same will be true of everything that’s new and different from how she raised her own family.
If she pushes back on some things, forgets the “rules,” and makes awkward comments, use a little patience while she adjusts to the changes. Most of us struggle during transitions and she’s not any different.
Pro tip: If you’ve given her plenty of time and she continues to argue or disrespect the way you live your lives, a conversation is warranted. Your partner needs to make it clear that the decisions you make in your relationship are not up for negotiation.
She’s not always proud of her child
As parents, we like to believe that we raised our kids right but there will be times when we see them doing something that we find disappointing. Even if she wants to speak up, she may not know how. It can be really difficult to know how to offer guidance to an adult child who is genuinely doing something that is counterproductive.
Understand also that, even if she’s standing right there and sees some unsavory behavior, she might defend her child. Mothers instinctively want to protect their babies no matter how old they are.
Pro tip: While it’s best not to involve your mother-in-law in disputes, if she witnesses something that is questionable, talk to her about it. She might be struggling to know what to say.
Honesty is best
In your quest to maintain the peace, you may find yourself dishonestly saying that you love your mother-in-law’s tuna casserole (even though you are allergic to fish), brushing off the comment she made about you being adopted, and the mocking tone she had when you announced your baby’s name.
There are times when it’s just not worth speaking up since not every little thing is worth a fight. For the most part, however, it’s best to just be honest. You never want her to find out that you’ve been lying to her for years or that you’ve been bottling up resentment.
Pro tip: Ask your partner to navigate these touchy waters since they will better know how to say something to their mother in the least offensive way possible. Break it to her gently!
Maintain some privacy
You might live your life like an open book, sharing all of the details for the world to hear. That’s great, but that might not be the best thing for your relationship with your mother-in-law. Sometimes, less really is more.
If the sex has been really great lately, if you’ve been arguing more frequently, if you’ve been fired from your last three jobs, or you have been talking about having an open relationship, understand that your mother-in-law probably doesn’t need that information.
Pro tip: Before you share some intimate detail of your life, ask yourself if your partner’s mother should really be in the loop. Chances are, she’ll be fine without those details.
Her religious and political choices are her own
The world seems to be divided on religion and politics right now more than ever. Friendships and families have been torn apart by what’s happening and most people, rightfully, have a strong opinion about it all.
You may discover that you and your mother-in-law are at odds on some (or all!) of the issues facing our global society — and that’s okay. You don’t have to agree on everything, in order to respect each other’s differences.
Pro tip: If necessary, have a rule that politics and religion are off-limits, especially if you have children who might be listening to your discussions. This is a great opportunity to learn how to communicate with those who see the world through a different lens. Learn to bridge the gap — it’s the only way things will ever get better!
Make an effort but have a limit
If you are building a life with someone, the last thing you want is to be at war with their mother. This is particularly true if you are raising a family together. For this reason, it’s worth trying to build some sort of relationship with your mother-in-law.
Sometimes, things fall into place but, for many, the dynamic is strained. Rather than pull away and back into individual corners, try to find a way to meet in the middle. With patience, effort, and the support of your partner, your relationship with your mother-in-law can improve.
Of course, if she is being abusive to you, your partner, or your children, you will have to take action. Set healthy boundaries and stick to them. If being part of your lives is worth it to her, she will make the effort. If not, you can sleep at night knowing she made her own choices.
For the most part, we are all just trying our best — including your mother-in-law. Give her the benefit of the doubt, try to find common ground, be secure in yourself, and choose happiness.