Marriage and Family — 19 August 2006
How to be a good mother in-law

Many mothers in-law are cherished, respected and valued. Regrettably, many others are viewed with disrespect, are objects of jokes, are dislike and feared. Why do some parents struggle with an unhappy relationship between themselves and their adult children’s spouses and what can be done about it?

The more common of the many possible causes for a rift between parents and their married children’s spouses are: issues of belonging, sphere of influence, boundaries and personality determinants.

In some families the prevailing value of belonging creates the distinction between “us” and “them”. All those within the “us” circle are treated more favorably and the entrance criteria for club membership are most stringent. When an adult child selects a mate, the new person has to meet the family’s standards to be approved. All parents want the best partner for their children and are often opinionated and sometimes rigidly judgmental. Any criticism or objection to a fiancé is more likely to be voiced by women. Once the intended becomes aware of the less than enthusiastic endorsement, he or she is apt to become hurt and fearful of the dreaded “mother in-law”.

Parents often pride themselves by how well their young adult children turned out to be. Parents attribute it in part to the influence, guidance and teaching they provided for their children. When the adult child chooses a partner, the parents realize the end of their role and the start of their child’s spouse influence on their grown offspring. A competitive struggle over influence may begin. The parents’ formerly accepted guidance may now be perceived as excessive advice or disapproving judgments. Since women are more likely to be the parents’ voice in expressing these opinions, they are the ones branded with unfavorable titles.

Psychological boundaries are the imaginary lines between individuals that signify the realm of each person’s individual autonomy in thoughts, feelings and actions. Children’s boundaries are limited due to their age, inexperience and evolving judgments. However, once they mature, they are in full rights of their own personhood. Some parents fail to understand this transition and continue to hold on to the enmeshment with their children which excludes the spouse.

For the young adult the new mate becomes the focus of attention, consideration and love. Decisions are made not by parental recommendations but by couple consensus. When parents fail to recognize the new unit as an independent group with its own boundaries, the younger adults feel discounted, disrespected and may withdraw or retaliate.

Some personality traits of certain mothers such as: being controlling, intrusive, overly helpful, opinionated, demanding, advice giving, critical, unsatisfied, sulky, needy or punitive may also complicate their relationship with the adult child and spouse. Since the relationship between the generations is a life long commitment and is often nurtured by women, all efforts need to be made for positive connections.

If you are a mother in-law:

• Realize that your adult child’s choice of a mate is his or hers, not yours. Regardless of your ideas about what is best for your child, s/he made the choice and needs your support.
• Once the commitment between your adult child and the spouse is made, your old role of active parenting has changed. Your new job is to be supportive, loving, respectful and affirming. Reserve all your judgments to yourself.
• Be delighted that your son or daughter found a love match. Embrace the new person into the family as a blessing.
• Abstain from expectations about the frequency and type of relationship you wish to have. Invite and graciously allow the young couple to grace you with their company on their terms. Remember though that all people gravitate toward those who affirm and embrace them.
• Refrain from competing with your child in law for the attention and affection of your child. The spouse did not replace your child’s love for you – s/he only added the love for the spouse.
• Embrace the new spouse’s family as different as they may be from yours. They did succeed in raising a young adult worthy of your son/daughter’s life commitment.
• Being a great mother in-law is easy if you remember that loving your child means stretching your love and support to include his/her mate and family, without expectations, judgments or opinions.

• The best support you can give your adult child is to affirm his/her spouse and respect their adulthood and autonomy, which will help blend both families in mutual respect.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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