It’s no secret that daughters-in-law and mothers-in-law have complicated relationships. “Both women can feel threatened,” says Deanna Brann, PhD, psychotherapist and author of Reluctantly Related: Secrets to Getting Along with Your Mother-in-Law or Daughter-in-Law. Daughters-in-law want to establish their place in the family, while mothers-in-law want to ensure they’re not excluded. Even when the women love each other, their roles can be hard to figure out. To avoid causing family stress, we asked real mothers-in-law (and some daughters-in-law too) about comments that have rubbed them the wrong way—and asked experts how you can address issues peacefully.
An open-door policy is bound to backfire. For instance, Judy’s* daughter-in-law told her she’d be there for her if she needed anything. “But when my husband developed Alzheimer’s she went AWOL,” leaving Judy hurt and confused. “Making promises you don’t intend to keep leads to resentment,” says Tina B. Tessina, PhD, psychotherapist and author of Money, Sex and Kids: Stop Fighting About the Three Things That Can Ruin Your Marriage. Instead, set up times to see each other that work for you both. If you’re asked to make plans on the spot, say you need to check your calendar or talk with your husband before committing.
“When I advised my daughter-in-law about balancing career and family, she became incensed,” says Kathleen.* While unsolicited advice may feel like your mother-in-law’s condemning your way, “assume her intentions are good, say ‘thank you’ and do your own thing,” says Dr. Tessina. If she continues to push her opinions, deflect them by citing an authority. Try: “Thank you, but we’ve decided to take our pediatrician’s advice,” suggests Dr. Tessina. If that doesn’t keep her quiet, recruit your husband and explain together that her behavior bothers you both and certain topics aren’t up for discussion.
Politics, religion and other hot-button topics can turn a family dinner into a battleground. “During a conversation about politics, our daughter-in-law forcefully told us our view was wrong—I was stunned,” says Sharon.* If you can’t keep your cool in these situations, Dr. Brann suggests begging off from the conversation by saying, “Politics really gets me going; I’d better stay out of this!” If you enter the fight, no one comes out a winner.
Many wives blame their mothers-in-law for their hubbies’ shortcomings. “I hinted to her that I wished she’d taught my husband organizational skills,” admits Sarah.* “She took offense and called me uptight.” Not surprising. “What’s your mother-in-law going to do other than get defensive?” asks Dr. Brann. It also involves her in your marriage, which can get messy, and prevents your husband from taking responsibility for his own actions. “Though it may seem easier to fault the mom, you and your husband should deal with your own issues,” says Dr. Brann.
A common complaint among mothers-in-law? Their daughters-in-law favor their own parents, says Dr. Brann. “My daughter-in-law celebrates every holiday with her family; her parents’ photos are all over the house and there are none of me and my husband,” says Kathleen. While it’s reasonable to feel more at ease with your parents, “daughters-in-law need to accept that they’ve joined a family and figure out how to include them,” says Dr. Brann. Step one: Talk with your husband about things like where to spend each holiday. Then, together, set those terms with family members. If your hubby wants to include his family more, “it’s OK for him to have alone time with them and for you to drop off the kids with them sometimes,” says Dr. Tessina.
“My daughter-in-law said she bought an armoire because, as she put it, ‘I was hoping to inherit yours, but I couldn’t wait any longer,’ as though I couldn’t drop dead fast enough!” says Judy. Conversations about inheritance should be between your husband, his siblings and his parents—not you. “You have no right to your mother-in-law’s property,” says Dr. Tessina. “If she brings up passing things down to you, wonderful—but a daughter-in-law shouldn’t initiate the conversation.”
“My mother-in-law wants to see us more than we want to see her, and she doesn’t respond well when we say we have other obligations,” says Sarah. Once again, join forces with your husband to talk to your mother-in-law. “Kindly tell her how often you can see her to establish clear expectations and prevent surprises,” says Dr. Tessina. One tactic: “We love seeing you, but it’s also important to keep up with friends and have time for ourselves.” If she ambushes you with a plan, say, “That date doesn’t work for us, but we could do that activity the next time we’re scheduled to see you.”
Sibling squabbles are tricky, but you’ll get nowhere asking for your mother-in-law’s help. “We hired my sister-in-law to babysit while I worked, but she kept cancelling, so I asked my mother-in-law to talk to her,” says Melissa.* Instead, her mother-in-law stood up for her daughter and got angry with Melissa. “Involving your mother-in-law is asking her to take sides,” says Dr. Brann. Unless you’re dealing with a major issue such as alcoholism, sibling scuffles should stay between siblings.
“If it were up to my daughter-in-law, she would cut us out of our grandchildren’s lives,” says Kathleen. This would be a shame, says Dr. Tessina, because “seeing personality differences teaches kids how to negotiate various situations.” If you’re worried your in-laws might harm your children—say, they’re smoking around them—then you and your husband need to tell them to stop, or else they won’t see the kids. “If you set a consequence and follow through, it won’t take long before your in-laws cooperate,” says Dr. Brann.
“My son does all the communicating," says Susan.* “I didn’t even hear from my daughter-in-law when my husband was in the hospital. The message we're getting is ‘stay away.’” While your husband should deal with his family on many issues, don’t hide behind him to avoid with your mother-in-law. “You need a relationship with your in-laws so your husband isn’t resentful of always being in the middle,” says Dr. Tessina. Plus, seeing you interact with your in-laws will help your kids feel comfortable having a relationship with them.