I read your blog often but have not seen you write about how a daughter-in-law can deal with a mother-in-law who has boundary issues. I have been married for two years to a loving man, Stephen, 32, who is very close to his family. During our five year courtship, he has spent most Sundays with his parents. The good news is that I usually go along and his mother is fond of me. But her requests for Stephen and myself to spend time with her and his father have increased during the two years we’ve been married.
For instance, two weeks ago, she called and told us she booked a hotel for all of us in Niagara Falls for the weekend and she didn’t even ask us if we are free or want to come. Unfortunately, Stephen walks on eggshells with his mother and doesn’t want to hurt her feelings so he has trouble saying “no.” As a result, I feel like I’m being difficult when I set a boundary. Stephen travels with his job as an engineer and we don’t see each other much during the week so weekend time is important. We are also expecting our first child in six months!
How do I explain to Stephen and his mother that I need some alone time with him on the weekends and that I want to be asked before she makes reservations to go somewhere for the weekend? I’m grateful for all that my mother-in-law has done for us and she is a kind person, but she overreacts and takes things personally when I reject any offer to spend time with her (even to hang out in the kitchen when I want to swim in their pool).
Carolyn, age 30
Your problem is actually quite common and the mother-in-law and daughter-in-law dynamic is the most challenging of all in-law relationships. It’s crucial that you have a discussion with Stephen about the importance of making your marriage a priority and stress that you want to spend time with his family but it has to be balanced with time alone with him (and your child who will be born soon).
In one study, 70% of women polled expressed dissatisfaction with their mother-in-law or daughter-in-law. Comments ranged from “I’m glad she doesn’t visit” to “I wish she were dead.” It’s safe to say this is one of the most complicated relationships, according to Elizabeth Graham, author of Mothers-in-Law Vs. Daughters in-Law: Let There Be Peace.”
In fact, Graham states that the conflict between mother-in-laws and daughter-in-laws has raged throughout history and is well documented. Often a wife and mother have two radically different views of the same man and a mother-in-law may see him first as her child and may have trouble shifting gears in order to see him as a husband and father.
These are 4 ways to deal with an intrusive mother-in-law:
- Raise Awareness: Acknowledge that there is a problem with your spouse and state an “I Message” calmly to express your concern. Start gently by saying something like “I appreciate all that your mom does for us and want to spend time with her on weekends. But I think we need to set some boundaries so we have alone time to focus on us and our new baby.” It will work better than a “You Message like, “Your mom is selfish and never thinks about my needs.”
- Be Careful Not to Criticize Your Mother-in Law: Adult children can be sensitive and may even get defensive if they feel their spouse is criticizing one or both of their parents. So be sure to state your concerns in a positive way rather than getting too negative or blameful in your comments.
- Let Your Spouse Know You Are Willing to Compromise: You can express this by saying things like, “I know how much you love your mother. I will always do my best to understand your need for time with her because you are important to me.”
- Let Go of Expectations: Try your best to be realistic that you may never have the kind of relationship with your mother-in-Law that you expected or desire. If you focus on the positive (i.e., she likes you as a person and/or doesn’t bad-mouth you) you will adopt a more optimistic attitude and this will pave the way for better communication).
One last thought to consider is that people often focus on being liked by family members and forget that all relationships have limits. While it’s never easy to set boundaries with a family member, keep in mind that the mother-in-law and daughter-in-law dynamic is probably one of the most complex and challenging. Further, a professional counselor can be a good resource for support and feedback if this relationship becomes more problematic or does not improve over time.
Follow Terry Gaspard on Twitter, Facebook, and movingpastdivorce.com. Her book Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy, Long-Lasting Relationship is available on her website. Feel free to ask a question here.
Terry’s forthcoming book, The Remarriage Manual: How to Make Everything Work Better the Second Time Around, was published by Sounds True in February of 2020.