"She'll be here soon." A long pause followed as Nicole* gazed off into the distance. "To be honest, three days is about all I can take. I'm glad there are 500 miles between us."
Nicole was talking about a visit from her mother-in-law.
Few relationships seem marred by as much anxiety, conflict, and bitterness as the one between mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law. The silent but unyielding competition for dominance often begins even before a couple has announced their engagement. It can find new avenues of expression during the first Thanksgiving dinner and the first house purchase and commonly rages unchecked throughout the years of child-rearing. Even decades later, women recall hurtful encounters with their mother-in-law or daughter-in-law.
So what are some keys to coping with or even improving this explosive relationship?
1 Change what you can-yourself. As in all relationships, practice the golden rule: "Do to others what you would have them do to you" (Matthew 7:12).
"I've simply stayed out of the way of my son's relationships," Karen testifies. "I've never talked against my son's partners or taken sides. In my own life, I would not want my mother-in-law to insert herself into my affairs. Marriages nowadays have so many other things to deal with besides meddling from the in-laws."
2 Look beneath the surface. Understand that differences in behavior can stem from many factors: culture, personality, generation, education, upbringing, and more.
"When coming into a marriage and the family unit of our in-laws, our first reaction is often to look around and say, "You guys are all dysfunctional," Nicole explains with a half laugh. "But we have to recognize that we are marrying into a family that has been together for 20, 30, 40 years. They have already determined how they are going to treat each member."
Anna agrees that it's difficult to change, and understanding your in-law's motivation can make a world of difference. "When my son took our family to a restaurant and announced that he and his girlfriend were getting married, it was quite a big surprise and I started crying," she confesses. "I'm Hispanic . . . I'm emotional . . . What can I say? My family understood, but my daughter-in-law didn't. From that moment she started believing that I didn't accept her."
Fortunately, understanding eventually came. "For a long time, I sensed something in her attitude," she shares. "It wasn't until their first baby came that she told me everything. It had been eating her up. I asked her forgiveness and am trying to do my part to improve our relationship, and it is getting better. But one thing's for sure: I would tell any boy, 'Make sure you prepare your mother for your wedding announcement!' "
3 Communicate with care. As Anna's experience shows, a little communication can go a long way toward clearing up misunderstandings. It can also be the best tool for establishing boundaries.
Celeste describes her preparations for taking a trip with her in-laws: "I said, 'This is our vacation trip to you, but let me tell you right up front: Even though I love you, there are going to be some ground rules.' "
The ground rules mainly focused on preventing her in-laws from commenting loudly in public about the cost of meals and excursions.
"My mother-in-law responded graciously, 'OK, I'm good with that,' " Celeste reports. "Our trip lasted for 12 days, and we had a wonderful time."
Walking the tightrope between honesty and tact takes a delicate sense of balance. What one person may define as "being straightforward" can be interpreted by someone else as "She thinks 'being honest' is a license to let loose with whatever pops into her head!" So you have to use both your head and your heart when deciding when to stand your ground and when to yield.
4 Choose your audience. Another aspect of communication is whom you communicate with. In general, your first approach should be to communicate directly with your in-law, rather than expecting your husband/son to act as the go-between.
Looking someone in the eye as you broach a touchy topic can certainly take courage, but the advantage is that you can deliver your message accurately, without possible misinterpretation by a third party. That period of awkwardness just may be rewarded with greater understanding and tolerance, and you'll always have the personal satisfaction and self-respect that come from speaking up about something that is important to you.
On the other hand, sometimes you can say something discreetly to your husband/son, who won't get as upset as your in-law would. In fact, the most powerful key to a tolerable in-law relationship is a son/husband who will set boundaries where needed.
Celeste, who has been married for 20 years, says, "During the first year of my marriage, my mother-in-law visited us and started to criticize the way I was doing something. My husband looked at her and said, 'Mom, this is her house, and she will do what she wants.' That really set the stage."
5 Plan ahead. A sensible technique for dealing with free-floating anxiety is to take a situation that is causing you stress and analyze how you might be able to handle it better the next time around. By anticipating a potential problem and planning your response in advance, you are less likely to feel put on the spot or to react in the heat of the moment. Writing and practicing a script in your head will help you feel prepared and in control.
Nicole says, "It is important to my mother-in-law that the whole extended family all sits together in church or at other events-and it's often not easy finding one whole empty row! If for some reason we're split up, it can change the whole spirit of the day. In my view, it's just not that important. However, on one visit I just decided to deal with my irritation by implementing a whole strategic plan and marshaling all hands on deck. It was like, 'OK, you and you get into the sanctuary early and place several coats down the row; then you and you sit on the ends to make sure no one else comes to sit there, and you go round up the straggling family members,? and so on. And it worked! Everyone was happy, and it took only a little extra time on my part-time well spent!?
Better than blood
Encouragingly, many women have discovered a surprising benefit to the in-law relationship. Celeste shares, "My mother-in-law and I still have our struggles, but our relationship has evolved to the place where she will often confide in me before her daughters. Despite her being so controlling, I see that she has valid views that her family doesn't always give her credit for. It's easier to speak up for her and be direct when I'm not a blood relative."
Martina has also had a positive experience: "My daughter-in-law gave me the nicest compliment I could get. She said, 'Sometimes I feel more comfortable around you than with my own mother. I can talk to you about anything.' Well! My own kids haven't ever told me that!"
* All names in this article have been changed.
Shelley Nolan Freesland is the communication director for Adventist World Radio in Silver Spring, Maryland.