If you are a mother of an adult child with a new spouse, this article is dedicated to you. I am a fairly new mother-in-law and am contemplating this new role. It can be complex and complicated but I am hoping to attain understanding, simplicity, grace, ease and friendship.
Many young people don’t think about the fact that after they marry, their relationships with their in-laws will change. Sometimes the stereotypical expectation of trouble causes young people to enter the new in-law relationship with their spouse's mother with trepidation, judgement, resistance and sometimes dread. Everyone is playing new roles and there are new rules.
Mothers-in-law seem to have been criticized forever (or as long as modern culture has existed) as they are most often portrayed as troublesome and interfering in movies and pop culture. Watch 'Monster in Law' with Jane Fonda and Jennifer Lopez. Sadly, the stereotype has also evolved because of reality. Mothers who are very protective of their children often don't notice when their children grow up (especially if their children aren't acting like grown ups). They may have a hard time respecting the choices of their adult children. Or they may long for the time when they were needed and consulted.
If a mother offers (or imposes) her opinion and involves herself in decision making without being consulted, this is disrespectful to the relationship of her adult child and spouse. Even with good intentions, the message received is a lack of trust that the young adults are capable of making their own decisions. This will naturally cause dissention and resistance.
Whenever a resistant energy is perceived by the mother-in-law, it would be helpful and healthy for her to reflect on what language or actions led up to it, and ask herself if she could be interpreted as interfering, controlling or offensive by the young people. Nobody wants to be told what to do or feel disrespected, and it is important for the mother-in-law to see things through the eyes of the young people. Maybe she can try to remember what it was like to be a daughter-in-law to her own mother-in-law.
It can be very hard for a mother to adjust to a new woman having much more influence over her son than she does – especially if mom feels the need to protect him. I remember my own mother-in-law (a trained psychotherapist) making comments about her daughters-in-law stealing her sons and not being good enough for them. If any mother has this feeling, of course she will resent and resist the spouses of her children. If there is resentment, competition will follow. And with competition, an energy of unrest will be felt by the whole family putting significant and unfair pressure on her adult child who will be in the middle of the dissention.
If a mother-in-law cannot let go of the need to control, or to compete with her child's spouse, she needs to remember one thing: there is no greater joy than a grandchild - but the son or daughter-in-law may choose to withhold them as punishment. Ouch. Even though this is a travesty, as children benefit so greatly from having grandparents in their lives, the power lies with the younger generation whether the older generation gets visitation rights.
However, interpersonal issues aren’t always caused by the mother-in-law only. Sometimes in a keen intention to find their place in a new in-law family, the young person may also impose themselves in a competitive or combative way. Inter-generational competition and challenge for alpha status exists in all species of the animal kingdom, as the younger generation push out the older. It is necessary for the survival of the species. This dynamic also exists in human culture but often in a more subtle way, and can often be seen in families in the relationships between mother-in-law / daughter-in-law or father-in-law / son-in-law relationships.
My own mother-in-law made many mistakes as she competed with me for influence over her son, but I also remember trying to make her wrong whenever I could and challenging her every step of the way. We competed for power on an ongoing basis and made each other pay for the perceived injustices of the other. I wish I had the understanding of this dynamic back then, as I like to think I would have been more mindful and less combative. But we did get through it, had some honest conversations (and a few tears), agreed on boundaries, learned to respect each other and eventually became great friends. What followed was mutual respect and a healthy collaborative adult relationship.
A fair, honest, loving, supportive, non-judgmental, non-competitive relationship takes work on both sides but is possible and necessary to keep peace in a family.
To the mother-in-law: I honour you and acknowledge all your sacrifice and loving support up to now but if the relationship is tense between you and your child's spouse, please remember how it was with your own mother-in-law. So be the mother-in-law you wished you had and bite your tongue, put a smile on your face, realize there has been a shift in power, and hope for respect and kindness. Get together with other women friends of your generation and share, as they probably have similar stories. Find the humour and don't forget to bring wine.
Claire Nielsen is a health coach, author, public speaker and founder of www.elixirforlife.ca. The information provided in the above article is for educational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional health and medical advice. Please consult a doctor, healthcare provider or mental health practitioner if you're seeking medical advice, diagnoses and/or treatment