How to get on with your mother-in-law

Becky Dickinson explores how to have a more harmonious relationship with your mother-in-law

They are the subject of Les Dawson-style humour and injurious marital arguments. There is perhaps no relationship more precarious, than that of a woman and her mother-in-law.

As the well-worn joke goes: “What’s the difference between out-laws and in-laws?’’ The answer: ‘’Out-laws are wanted.”

Yet whether or not you want your mother-in-law (or MIL), there’s probably not an awful lot you can do about it. Whereas, in most cases, you can choose your husband or partner, you can’t choose his mother. She enters your life by default.

She is the other woman in his heart; the woman who brought him in to the world, nurtured him, cherished him and then let him go – to you.

No wonder then, that she is desperate to claw back some of her son, reincarnated in
her grandchildren.

Of course, not all mother-in-laws live up to this stereotype. Many provide practical help and emotional support: free childcare, perfectly timed cups of tea, and sparkling work surfaces. But for other women, the relationship is one of intense rivalry or hostility, even leading, in extreme cases, to marital breakdown.

“Seeing their son become the ‘man of the house’ for another woman can trigger a lot of envy in some mothers, which can manifest as conflict,” says London-based psychotherapist, life coach and couples counsellor, Hilda Burke.

I remember the first time my partner’s mother came to stay after the birth of our first child. No sooner had she plonked her suitcase on the floor, than she whipped my son from my arms, in what felt like a display of, ‘hand him over and no one gets hurt.’

I remember sobbing upstairs, listening to my baby’s cries, while she clutched him possessively to her chest. All I could think was, he’s mine, why doesn’t she give him back? To make matters worse, we didn’t even speak the same language.

It was as if I was nothing more than a uterus that had born her first grandchild. I felt violated, marginalised and furious with myself for being so unassertive. In hindsight, I can only blame the tide of hormones and sleep deprivation, combined with being completely unprepared for the situation.

According to Hilda, it’s crucial to put boundaries in place before the baby arrives. “Many couples imagine that once the baby arrives they’ll have an excuse to be more of a nuclear family and that the MIL will step back. However, the opposite can be true and what emerges is a demanding baby combined with a demanding MIL.”

Fortunately, by the time our second and third children came along, I felt stronger and more in control. I was able to insist she didn’t stay until I was ready.

So, how can MILs ensure they are wanted? Hilda believes that firstly it’s vital they realise their relationship with their son has changed. “She may need to acknowledge her sadness about letting go and actually feel that pain before being ready to move on. Issues typically occur where there is no acknowledgement that things have changed and a ‘business as usual’ approach reigns.”

As for the daughter-in-law, Hilda says the first step is acceptance. “No matter how annoying a mother-in-law can be, it’s important to acknowledge that without them the man you love wouldn’t exist.”

Though, she adds, that doesn’t mean letting them do whatever they want.

“If your mother-in-law is being too overbearing, it’s important to agree boundaries with your husband or partner – for instance, agree to invite his mother for tea each fortnight or to take her out once every month.”

While I may never see eye to eye with my MIL, we have learnt to accept each other. I now appreciate the help when she visits, and I know she loves her grandchildren.

So, whether or not your MIL is a saint or a pain in the proverbial, she probably does have the best interests of her grandchildren at heart. And remember, you too could be a mother-in-law one day…

Tips for daughters-in-law

• Set boundaries, especially regarding visits to your home.

• Appreciate her strengths and help. If she wants to clean, let her. It’s one less thing for you to do. 

• Don’t suffer in silence. If possible, talk to her and your husband about your feelings. If necessary, speak to a professional.

Tips for mothers-in-law

• Don’t give advice unless asked. Try praising your daughter-in-law, instead.

• Unless you have a close relationship, never turn up unannounced and avoid staying longer than two nights, if you need to stay at all.

• Like all relationships, give it time to develop. Don’t try to be her mum.

Want more? Coping with parents and in-laws