I fall into the unfortunate camp of trying to figure out how to deal with a difficult mother in law. I shared the news that my mother in law was making one of her trips down to visit this week and was blown away by how many people reached out to express their solidarity with a similar situation. If you are dealing with a difficult in law relationship, you are not alone! In-law relationships can be super complex, and there are lots of feelings involved. There are varying levels of difficulty ranging from slight annoyance to severe hostility, and I have dealt with my fair share of everything on the spectrum. Regardless of where your current situation stands, figuring out how to deal with a difficult mother in law relationship takes real work.
Aside from your mental health which should be your first priority, many of us want to forage a better in law relationship for the sake of our marriage or our children. The mother in law raised your partner, and finding a way to meet in the middle can be beneficial for everyone. I am the first to express how much it SUCKS to have a difficult mother in law relationship. Many years have been spent dealing with a fair share of awfulness. I hope that your relationship with your mother in law is all shopping dates and wine. But if you find yourself in a similar place, here’s how we are working through it.
1. Remember The Why
I NEEDED this when I was learning how to deal with a difficult mother in law and still remind myself of it often when we are at a low point. I have to remind myself WHY I am concentrating my efforts on a relationship that is so challenging. This person is my spouse’s mother. As a mother to three little kiddos, it would break my heart if one of their future spouse’s felt such disdain towards me as I have often felt towards my mother in law.
Working on a positive relationship with my mother in law is about caring for my spouse. It’s showing respect to the man I love in ensuring his wife and his mother are able to co-exist. It’s showing respect to my kids in the relationship I want them to be able to have with their grandmother. These are the reasons I continue to put in the effort instead of writing off the relationship. It can be helpful to make a list of these reasons if you need an extra dose of motivation during a particularly difficult time.
2. Talk It Out
The very first thing to try when dealing with a difficult mother in law is talking it out. Lay out your concerns or solutions for moving forward and hear her side of the equation. Talking it out was a strategy that has completely failed me to date, but for a lot of relationships a difficult conversation is a great starting point. Having your spouse on board and participating in the conversation is also extremely helpful so that she sees you are on the same page in your own partnership.
3. Dish It Out When Necessary
There are certain things you should never compromise on for anyone, even family members like in laws. If you are treated in a manner that affects your mental health, the health and safety of your family, or your value system, you SHOULD NOT allow it. When I say dish it out, I am referring to things like bullying, unsafe childcare, bigotry, belittlement, or any form of toxic behavior. I have been there, and no amount of stress and effort is worth those vital things. There have been plenty of times when I have had to dish it out and put an end to something due to severe impact and I have no regrets. While I still choose to take positive strides towards meeting in the middle, you should not ever feel obligated to work on a relationship that is toxic to your life in some manner.
4. Pick and Choose Your Battles
This. If you are like me, you have a million battles you could fight with your mother in law. If I wanted to, I could battle with her over almost everything because we are such vastly different people. But, spending all your time battling will not lead to anything productive. Sit down (preferably with your spouse) and identify the core values that you feel are most important to you. It is important to have boundaries with your in law over things that matter in your life. The items you select are the things you need to hold your ground. The rest of the battles, you need to let go of and learn to cope with.
Be clear and neutral with your boundaries and avoid getting too personal. I have to explain to my mother in law why certain things are important to me, and why I am asking her to respect those boundaries. She may continue to disagree with me, but at least she can understand my perspective.
5. Be Consistent
Going along with choosing your battles, once you know your boundaries you need to be consistent. You need to continue to hold the boundaries that are important to you, and continue to let go of the items you said you would let go of. Your mother in law needs to learn the boundaries through your consistency. Being consistent does not me every conversation or visit needs to be an argument. Being consistent means you and your partner need to stay firm in your beliefs and the way you are choosing to live. The life you are building with your partner is critical, so having agreed upon boundaries in place is important for the longevity of your relationship.
6. Identify and Avoid Triggers
Do political debates get a rise out of you every time? Are holidays a source of tension for your mother in law? Over time, you will learn where the sticking points are in your relationship and what triggers them. Learn to avoid triggers to allow for a civil time between you. I know my triggers, and am now quick to use an avoidance tactic to prevent derailing the whole situation. There will be peaks and valleys to your relationship. Avoiding triggers can help lessen the number of valleys.
7. Alone Time For Your Spouse and His/Her Mother
This one has been a godsend for me. When my mother in law visits, I make sure to plan for time for her and my husband alone. An activity for them to go out and do together, or something at home just for them. It gives me a break and allows my mother in law to express all the opinions and comments she wants to my husband and not me. She really enjoys that time with him, and it provides her an outlet to vent to him if she needs to.
8. Consider Her Perspective
This is another one that I have not been very successful on in my own journey with my mother in law, but I keep trying! Consider her perspective on any issues to see if there is opportunity for you to handle things differently. I am aware that most of my issues my mother in law has with me are things she cannot control, and things I cannot change. She dislikes that I am a millennial (like that’s even a choice), a working mom, and a “crunchy” mom. These are things that my husband and I are supportive of, and it is not her place to try to change them. While understanding her perspective may be helpful, you will most likely never be able to change it.
9. Forgive Her
Forgiving someone does not me you have to become their best friend. In many cases (like mine), that will never happen. Forgiveness in this relationship means forgiving particular behaviors or problems that have occurred and trying again. I have gone through periods where I do not speak to my mother in law over certain issues. Over time, I have come to some level of forgiveness and moved forward. Dwelling on the situation can cause more harm than good, and sometimes it helps to just forgive. Forgiveness can also help your relationship with your spouse if that has been damaged in any way. Forgiveness is not applicable in every situation, but can be beneficial to your well being if you are able to get there.
If you find yourself trying to learn how to deal with a difficult mother in law, we are in the same boat. I wish you the best on your journey, as I continue to take steps in mine. Solidarity, mama!
All the best,