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Communication Mistakes Between Mothers-in-Law And Daughters-in-Law

common communication issues between a mother-in-law and daughter-in-lawI’m a bit nervous to write this post.

Do you remember when your friends who had no kids, gave out free and usually critical advice about how you were parenting your child?

That went over like a lead balloon.

But I was asked to write it. A post about mothers-in-law, or in-law relationships in general. So write it I shall, although I have yet to attempt MILness myself. I write it respectfully and with humility.

I have had three mothers-in-law, and haven’t been close with any of them. That may say something about me, I’m not sure. Two of them weren’t in the picture very long (much to my embarrassment). The last has had that status for many years now, and we were… amicable. Never best buddies. She loved our son, and I was grateful for that.

Let’s first say that there are some absolutely fantastic in-law relationships out there. If you have created one of those, no matter which generation you are, kudos to you. Your children will benefit immensely, as will your relationship and yourself.

As a therapist, however, I’ve heard a myriad of problems within the in-law domain, and from both generations. Here are some common complaints, and my own (cautious) recommendations. Usually the problems come when children arrive, and either the new grandparent fears that they won’t have a close relationship with their new grandchild, or the new parent worries about the impact of the grandparent’s influence over their child.

“My DIL isn’t trying to be close to me. She and the kids are always with her own mother.”

Well, if she’s close to her mother, then of course she’s going to turn to her first. You have to have the inner security and self-esteem to know that it will take time to build a relationship with her. Jealousy will only complicate things.

Maybe try to get to know her mother better yourself. Or suggest times when you can take the kids, so that she could be with her mother by herself. Honor their relationship, and time and patience will permit you to build your own.

“My DIL has no relationship with her mom, but she still seems withdrawn from me.”

People who never had a good relationship with a parent are not always yearning for that. They’ve learned to be very self-sufficient, even guarded with others.

Find out things she likes to do, and suggest doing those activities together. Hopefully, she will learn that you’re not going to be pushy, but you want to understand what she enjoys and get to know her slowly.

“My MIL does things with the kids that I’ve said aren’t what we want.”

This is often the result of the son (or daughter if a lesbian couple) not having clear boundaries with the MIL, and either inviting her opinion and/or her disregard for the message, or not having developed the skill to confront her.

However, there could also be something going on within the couple — perhaps resolution isn’t actually being reached. The son may be agreeing with both the MIL and his wife.

In both cases, the therapeutic work must involve the son. The MIL needs to listen and be respectful, and the DIL needs to understand the couples’ communication as part of the problem.

“I can’t believe my MIL spoils the kids so much. We get them back and they’re so tired and sugared-up, it takes a day to get them back into our routine.”

This can be true with an ex’s in-laws, or current in-laws. There seems to be something about not having total responsibility or maybe not living in the same city that makes leniency (later bed times, hours of video-watching, and donuts) more palpable. “I don’t get to see them much, so we do what they want.”

The good news is that, unless they let them eat nuts and they have an allergy to them, most of this is harmless. You are the parent, and what you teach them will be what they learn. A few days of shameless spoiling isn’t going to hurt them in the long run. However, in the case of a grandparent having an addiction that prevents them from following through with rules and discipline, this is an issue of safety and needs to be confronted within the family.

So many of the complaints above are based on the perception or assumption of manipulative or hidden agendas. If you can stop yourself from making that assumption, then ask yourself this question: “What do I know about my DIL or MIL that would explain her behavior, that has nothing to do with me?”

The answer you get will most likely add clarity to your thinking, and help you realize your DIL or MIL is not malicious. Maybe she’s just not always who you want her to be.

But not intentionally trying to get under your skin.

And, by the way, when my son gets married, and I’m wondering why my DIL never texts or sends pictures, please send me this link.

I’ll get over myself.

Margaret Rutherford

Dr. Margaret Rutherford is a clinical psychologist, who has practiced for over twenty years in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Since 2012, her writing has been found on her own website, as she writes about mental health, with a special focus on Perfectly Hidden Depression, midlife and relationship issues. She's the current mental health columnist for Midlife Boulevard, writes an advice column on Vibrant Nation, is a weekly columnist for The Good Men Project, and hosts a regular FB Live video session on depression for The Mighty. Her work and expertise can also be found on The Huffington Post, Sixty and Me, Better After 50, Reader's Digest, Prevention, Psychology Today, and The Cheat Sheet. Dr. Margaret recently has launched a new podcast, SelfWork with Dr. Margaret Rutherford, where you can listen to her direct and down-to-earth advice.


Monday 18th of April 2016

I think that it's really rare to find DIL & MIL getting along... It's like a constant battle for superiority or something.

Dr. Margaret Rutherford

Monday 18th of April 2016

That may be Ellie, but I would wonder in those situations what role the others in the family played in that dynamic. Thanks for s great comment.


Friday 15th of April 2016

I was never close to my MIL. She had had an awful relationship with her demanding, needy MIL, and she determined to be the opposite. Which meant she was much more distant than I hoped.

She was an amazing woman and I'm pretty sure we both respected each other. I wish I had done more to overcome our differences, and especially encouraged my kids to get closer to her.

She passed away about five years ago.

Dr. Margaret Rutherford

Friday 15th of April 2016

Sounds like she put up a a wall so she wouldn't be "needy" and it was so thick you couldn't get across it Kathryn. That's what I call over-correcting, which is easy to do. I know -- I have done it. Everyone suffers. At least the respect was there and that was good and your kids may have been closer to her. Thanks so much for writing and sharing some of your story.

Beth Havey

Thursday 14th of April 2016

Great topic for discussion and adherence too. I remember right after I was married, complaining to a close friend about my mother-in-law. She listened and then quietly said (I'll never forget it) Beth, maybe you are a rather difficult daughter-in-law to have. WOW. She had made a good point. Things got better as the years went on, but I compared my MIL to my mother--who in my eyes was close to perfect. A widow, who struggled, while my MIL had her husband forever and did not. Those were the days. Hugs, Beth

Dr. Margaret Rutherford

Thursday 14th of April 2016

Your comment is so apt Beth, that we compare our MIL's with our mothers... whether that's a comparison that makes us feel closer to them or more critical... It's so helpful to keep that in perspective. I know I wasn't the easiest of DIL's for sure - I am a strong personality. Thanks for commenting in such a personal way.

Debby Carroll

Thursday 14th of April 2016

Excellent information. My MIL never seemed to like me much. Who wouldn't like me? She just had a lot of visions of what she thought her son's wife would be like and I guess I wasn't a match. But, in her defense we got married so young and I gave little thought to working hard to develop a relationship with her. She's gone now (permanently gone, not just moved away) and am I regretful? Not so much. She treated my husband and my daughters like crap. I felt sorry for her in the end but overall, I think she chose the life she lead. I could've done better perhaps, but not when I was thwarted again and again by her and her daughter.

Dr. Margaret Rutherford

Friday 15th of April 2016

That sounds like a very difficult situation Debby and one that never had any resolution. I hope you can resolve any anger you have about it. Thanks for an honest comment.

Lois Hoffman

Thursday 14th of April 2016

I'm not there yet, but I will be at some point. We can only do our best, right?

Dr. Margaret Rutherford

Friday 15th of April 2016

so right Lois! Hopefully a sneak peek will help. Thanks for commenting.

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