How to get along with the in-laws

Just in time for the holidays, a psychologist delivers some useful containment strategies


“I have been married for two years. For Christmas, I received a girdle from my mother-in-law. I opened it in front of the whole family. Um, thank you, I guess,” writes an insulted daughter-in-law on a forum devoted to the worst gifts from a mother-in-law. A response comes back: “For Mother’s Day, don’t hesitate to give her really slinky, tiny, tacky lingerie as a present.” The British psychologist who moderates the forum, Dr. Terri Apter, has advice for dealing with problematic relatives in a new book, What Do You Want From Me?: Learning to Get Along With In-Laws. Many women, Apter writes, “complain about subliminal insults, such as being given a size ‘large’ sweater by a mother-in-law who explains, ‘You probably didn’t realize the ones you have are too tight.’ ”

Apter’s advice is to get your husband onside. Tell him, “It would be helpful if you could say, at least once, in your mother’s presence, ‘I think my wife looks just fine as she is.’ ” Gently solicit his help. Do not insist, “You should support me and not your mother.” Do not make a global complaint, “You never stand up for me.” Tell him, “When I feel uncomfortable with your mother, I’ll reach out my hand for you. Will you take it? That’s all you have to do to make me feel you’re supporting me.”

Apter surveyed 150 couples in the U.K. and U.S. and found that housekeeping is the No. 1 bone of contention between mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law: 80 per cent of mothers-in-law admit “the standard of cleanliness in a home was an important issue in whether they could warm to their daughter-in-law.” Many of those mothers-in-law, writes Apter, “say in all sincerity that they are keen to raise sons to be new men who are as responsive to children and as domestically responsible as their partners. Yet, on a deeper level, they may want a daughter-in-law who puts her husband first.”

Take Sammi, 34, who is thrown into self-doubt every time her mother-in-law visits. “She’s always rushing around muttering to herself as she cleans up. ‘Let me save you a job,’ she says as she picks Tim’s clothes out of the dryer and starts folding them. I tell her, ‘Marge, it’s Tim’s job to iron his own shirts, so you’re not saving me a job, you’re saving Tim a job and I hope he thanks you.’ I never know if she gets it, or if one more thing has flown out of my mouth to put her in a sulk.”

When both parties suppress the conflict, Apter calls this “the good-behaviour syndrome.” The challenge, she writes, “is to learn how to speak out, without setting off the alarms that lead straight back to silencing.” Appeal to your mother-in-law’s understanding, advises Apter. Say, “I sometimes worry that my home is not as well organized as yours. But it would mean a lot to me if you realized I did my best.” Avoid accusatory mind reading. Do not say to your mother-in-law, “You’re angry.” In turn, Apter warns mothers-in-law, “watch out for the bias toward your own son. There is nothing wrong with a parent seeing her own son’s career or comforts at twice their normal size. But if this parental bias minimizes the achievements of your daughter-in-law, it will generate conflict.”

Sometimes in-law conflicts arise between siblings-in-law. If a sister thinks her brother is “bending toward his spouse at the expense of a parent,” writes Apter, “then they may step in to shift the balance.” Apter talks about Kelly, whose husband, Jared, promised her she’d “love” his older sister Gail—they were “two peas in a pod,” he said. “You can imagine how intrigued I was to meet Gail. Who was this woman who was, in my lover’s eyes, so much like me? I tried at first,” says Kelly. “But she seems to resent every single success I have. My mother-in-law is really proud of me and I’m not sure Gail likes that!” Gail’s mother is ill. Gail believes that Kelly keeps her brother away from her mother. Gail told Apter, “Kelly’s favourite stupid line is that he needs to separate. But that doesn’t stop her from being on the phone to her mother three times a day! That selfish streak of hers is taking him away from our mother and from me.”

Discuss the situation with your spouse, advises Apter. Don’t forget there’s always hope that “over time, people learn to appreciate and respect their in-laws.” Even in-laws who “initially believe that a son or daughter could have done better and are disappointed in their choice realize, many years on, that the chosen partner has qualities that ‘lasted,’ ” she writes. “For many people, in-laws become a combination of friend and relative.”


How to get along with the in-laws

  1. there's a new way to have an excellent relation with your mother-in-law..
    Just ignore her !

  2. Oh grow up. I am a mother/parent. And yes you can 'cut the apron strings' in that you can accept the new spouse, treat them favorably, socially, civially. As the mother in law, you no longer have control over your child's life – their choices now need to revolve around their new family, not around you. Yes, they still need to connect with you but the relationship should change. It is no longer a child-parent relationship. Your "child" is now an adult and need to be treated as such. Even though they are your child. And to maintain that parent-child heirarchy is unhealthy. I believe it is why "in-laws" get such a bad rap – because the "in-law" is unable to accept that the relationship has changed as their childs life changes.

    • Oh my goodness. I would love to have a mother-in-law like you. You are so wise and understanding. I don't believe that my future mother-in-law will ever understand the concept of letting their child learn how to be independent and take care of themselves and their own families. I've been engaged for just over a year and she treats him like a child still, saying he does not need to worry about saving money and buying a house at this time (he is almost 27.) My mother would love to have grand-children some day as I would like to have kids of my own and his mother cannot see that happening for a long time and caters to him like he's a 9 year old. My mom has always been nice to him and is very excited about our future together. Anyway, I'm here to talk about my personal life, but just to thank you Momx2 for understanding.

    • Yes, I agree – as I also commented , People need to grow up!!

    • at first my inlaws were not too happy about their son's choice for a wife. but after ten years and lots of hard work (on all our parts) we have become a family… I worked at convincing them that they didn't lose a son but that they gained a daughter ( in law)… My husband and I are coming up on our twentieth anniversary at the end of June. These last ten years with the inlaws have been great.

    • You are certainly correct in what you say. It's sad for me to see my child being abused by his spouse, but I have to keep my mouth shut and let them work it out. It's easy of course because my son has been told to not talk to any of this friends or family or else (we're all worried that or else means she will hurt the children). I had hoped that I raised my children not to allow abusers to take advantage of them, but sometimes it just happens and you have to hope they get through it okay. A child that is married to an abuser is not unlike an addict and the only thing a parent should do is let them work it out.

  3. The worst mother in law is someone who acts really nice in front of everyone including you and speaks behind your back .

    • I totally agree! Just picture this: my futur 'mother' in law is doing everything she can to ruin my wedding day and says she will not show up and talks badly to all of her family ( she has 7 brothers and sisters ) about me, I haven't met most of them yet and they are all invite to the big day!! She has turned all of my fiance's brothers and sisters (she has 4 other children) against the idea of us getting married. They won't have me over and I wasn't invited for Christmas diner this year. My fiance and I have been together for three years and its been difficult. We are getting married next month, it has honestly affected our relationship … did I mention that she's the pastor's wife of my hometown church?!!!
      Sometimes, it does'nt matter how good of a person you are, some people refuse to let you in.

    • That's so true! I never really thoght of that before but I do realize now that that might very well be the case with me.

  4. I strongly agree with you. Though it's not really easy being nice to an in-law, but it pays. Just be nice to them as much as you can but of course you ought to have boundaries. By the time they see how nice you are to them, they will not need to be told to respect themselves when they come around you. You should make it clear that they are some things you cannot compromise. Para venture you have a problem with them, your spouse will stand by you cos he knows how you treat them and hey, you're on your way to a happy relationship with your spouse.

  5. Though it's not really easy being nice to an in-law, but it pays. Just be nice to them as much as you can but of course you ought to have boundaries. By the time they see how nice you are to them, they will not need to be told to respect themselves when they come around you. You should make it clear that they are some things you cannot compromise. Para venture you have a problem with them, your spouse will stand by you cos he knows how you treat them and hey, you're on your way to a happy relationship with your spouse.

  6. I agree with the being nice part, although as soon as a harsh word is spoken or hurt feelings emerge it is much harder to be "nice". Boundaries are good, however, if mother-in-law doesn't accept them then you got a problem. Even nodding your head and smiling as if in agreement to shut her up doesn't seem to work! LOL! The hardest part of all is when there is a battle she NEVER thinks she did anything wrong. She NEVER apologizes but rather will say, "I forgive YOU!" not "I'm sorry, will you forgive ME?" My husband says she has issues and to me sorta dismisses her behavior. I'm ALWAYS left to apologize to her with nothing in return. I don't understand it. My mother had an amazing relationship with her mother-in-law to the point they were best friends and my mother could confide in her. I will never know that because I'm not good enough for her and she doesn't know how to forgive or see another point of view that is not her own. I kinda feel sorry for us both really!!

  7. You all mmake mme think of the Carol Burnett show and their Mamma episodes! My favorite was when they were playing "SORRY!" LOL. I amm a mmother in law and have the mmost caring, loving , kind and smmart daughter in law. I couldn't be happier for mmy son and their son!!! I hear the commplaints of both sides of the inlaws and its mmainly dramma that doesnt need to get fed in to. People need to grow up! /// Imm so glad we had this timme together – just to have a laugh or sing a song. Seemms we just get started and before you know it – commes the timme we have to say, 'so long!' Mmy daughter in law calls mme the eccentric mmother in law. Wonder why?! Love you all Nat, Josh and little Aidan-Neo!!!

  8. Maybe you need an article on how "In-laws" can get along with their children's or siblings spouses. I have recently let go of my ex-in-laws and it feels wonderful. It was like living in a bagful of snakes with these people. I'm now a mother in law my self and I wouldn't dream of interfering in my children's lives. It's hard to know when to back off, but just SHUT YOUR MOUTH if in doubt! If you're doing your job right and there are problems your children will come to you.

  9. My Mother in Law is horrible I always try to be nice to her, i bake her cookies she says they contain stuff that could kill a horse (but my son was aloud to eat them) I tell her I'm pregnant she gives me books and tells me that I need parenting books b/c my parents are divorced so I will surely "screw up this kid" I also have 7 brothers and She has not met them all. I was out with one and she went as far as to tell all her co workers and called my husband to tell him that she caught me cheating on him. (husband knew it wasn't true b/c he was with us, just mother in law didn't see him) I have tried everything, but in the end it's just easier to cut her out of my life. I don't need this. I say if you have a MIL like this run as far away as you can. And always have the flu on holiday.
    P.S. Don't forget if you rearrange the letters in "Mother in law" it spells "Woman Hitler" coincidence I think not !

  10. You became a part of his family just as they became part of yours. Does your husband have the same attitude toward your parents as you do toward his?

  11. LOL YOU will be one bitch of a mother-in-law when it's your turn….It's easy to see you want your own way at any cost….I pity your children and their spouses.

  12. It's easy to see YOU want your own way at any cost. YOU will be one bad sucker of a mother-in-law when it's your turn. Your selfish attitude is what makes bad mothers-in-law bad. You have your head shoved up your butt and should get someone to help you get it on your shoulders where it belongs.

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