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How to be a great mother-in-law
Most of these mother-in-law relationship problems are created because the mother-in-law is suffering from a fear of loss. This is the fear of losing out, missing out, being mistreated or being taken from at some level. - photo by Kim Giles

I have a really difficult mother-in-law, who continually disrespects my wife and I and our ability to parent our children. She often manipulates us with guilt to get us to do what she wants us to do, yet nothing we ever do is good enough either. When my wife has tried to talk to her mom about her behavior it blows up and she ends up mad at us. Whenever my wife and I fight my wife also runs to her mom with all the details, which is making the situation even worse. I am hoping you have some advice on the in-law topic that would be helpful to me and many others who have in-law challenges.


I think it might serve us all to get some clarity on the problem and define some rules of engagement for everyone to follow.

Most of these mother-in-law relationship problems are created because the mother-in-law is suffering from a fear of loss. This is the fear of losing out, missing out, being mistreated or being taken from at some level. Many women feel like they are literally losing their child (a child who has the been the focus of their attention for many years) when the child marries. The mother-in-law may get controlling, needy and selfish in an effort to hold on, stay involved and feel a sense of importance in your life. They may subconsciously see the spouse as a threat and try to undermine the relationship (this could be a conscious effort, but it could also happen subconsciously.) Most of these women are trying to be good, loving people, but their fear is making them needy and selfish and they are missing your needs.

The problem with trying to talk to a person (who is suffering from this much fear) about their behavior, is they will only see it as an attack. If you cant talk to her about the issues, then you must work on the tips below for you (including enforcing strong boundaries) and hope she gets it after a while. Or you could share this article with her and ask her for some other specific ways you could treat her better. Focus on how you can treat her better because you want to improve your relationship, and hope that she sees the wisdom in treating you better too.

Your mother-in-law is not a bad person though, she is just a scared person. What she needs is reassurance, validation, appreciation and to know that she is important and valued, and the good news is, you can give her these things without letting her control your life. You must enforce strong, resolute, but loving, boundaries with her and then let her process through any anger or drama she choses to experience about your boundaries on her own. You cannot feel guilty about it. The less you join in the drama, the more pointless the drama will become for her.

Here are some simple relationship rules for all married people and mothers-in-law to live by.

For all mothers-in-law:

  1. Let your child and their spouse do things their own way. Let them learn to parent on their own (unless they ask for your advice). Respect their parenting decisions and trust that whatever they decide will be the perfect classroom journey for that child. It is not your job to intervene unless there is abuse or neglect happening.

  2. Dont be greedy. Understand that they (your child and their spouse) are going to need time alone, time with their spouses family, and time with your family. This means you are never going to get as much time as youd like. That is just the way it has to be. Get used to it. Understand that the more demanding you are the less theyll want to be with you. Instead of feeling left out, explore the possibility that there is a reason you are supposed to focus your time on your other children or your own spouse right now.

  3. Let your childs spouse be their first priority. If you love him/her you must let them choose their spouse over you. Its supposed to be that way. If you make your child put you first, it will weaken their marriage, which will hurt them. Put your childs needs before your own that is a parents job

  4. If you dont like a situation or have concerns about your child, then talk to them privately in a loving, validating way. (If you dont know how to have a mutually validating conversation get my book and learn how its the most important life skill you can gain. The book is also full of family relationship advice.)

  5. Compliment your child and their spouse as much as possible never criticize. Criticism will poison your relationship. If you have a helpful suggestion, ask permission to share it. Say, Would you kids be open to a suggestion on how you might handle this situation, or would you rather me stay out of it. Im totally fine either way. Dont feel bad if they want to figure it out on their own.

  6. Never say anything negative about your childs spouse. Your job is to have compassion and love for everyone. If your child comes to you with complaints about their spouse understand they are sharing feelings (feelings that may change later). They are also sharing perspective, not necessarily truth. There are always two sides to every story. Try not to take sides, just be a listening ear and a source of support and love. As much as possible, encourage your child to stay loyal to their spouse on every level and to seek out professional help at the first sign of trouble.

  7. Work on being a good friend to your childs spouse. This means being loyal, supportive, understanding and compassionate to them. If you dont like this person, get over it. For now, they are your family and your job is to love them as they are. This is what Godlike love is all about and this may be your perfect classroom to learn it.

  8. Respect their space. Dont stop by unannounced, dont clean things they didnt ask you to clean, walk in without knocking, or assume everything in their life is your business. Healthy boundaries create healthy relationships. Honor their wishes for their children. Dont overly spoil or give your grandkids things their parents dont want them to have. Honor their role as the parents and they will want you involved more often.

  9. Dont buy your daughter-in-law clothes or home decor as gifts, since her style might be different from yours. Gift cards honor who she is and prevent anyone getting offended.

  10. In every situation try to put yourself in their shoes and think about how they might feel. Recognize your own fears of loss and set them aside trust everything will be fine and act from love. Remember that your child and their spouse just want to be respected, admired, appreciated and wanted. Be a mother-in-law who gives this, and you will get it back.

Dr. Phil says, You are a guest in their marriage and a guest in their home. You have to fold into their rules if you want to be welcome there.

How to be a great son-in-law or daughter-in-law:

  1. Insist that your parents accept your spouse and respect him or her. Do not tolerate them speaking ill of your spouse and DO NOT TAKE YOUR PERSONAL MARRIAGE problems to your parents. Be loyal to your spouse. If you are having problems, talk to your spouse about them or get professional help.

  2. If your parents are causing problems in your marriage, limit the amount of time you spend with them. Your marriage has to come first. If your parents are unkind or disrespectful to your spouse, it is your job to defend him/her. You must be the one to ask your parents to treat your spouse right.

  3. Support your spouse to have a close relationship with their parent if they want that. Dont get possessive, needy, or worry about being left out. (That would be fear of loss energy, which isnt attractive.) Show your spouse you support them and have no fear. This kind of love will be noticed and appreciated.

  4. Be loyal to your spouse first. Your spouse has to come before your parents. You can have a close relationship with your parents but when push comes to shove, you must show your spouse they are number one. If you cant do this, your marriage will suffer and your happiness too. Couples who stick together can handle any in-law problems together.

  5. If you dont like your mother or father-in-law, thats fine, but you do have to respect them and care for them. Causing problems between your spouse and his/her parents will make your whole family suffer. Let the grandparents spend time with your children (unless abuse is in the mix) your kids will benefit.

  6. Communicate and set clear boundaries and expectations ahead of time about what you need and expect. Dont keep quiet, then resent your in-laws for not behaving the way you wanted them to. Just be honest. You can do this with love, by asking questions about how they feel and then asking if you can share what works for you. You really can be strong and loving at the same time.

  7. Treat you in-laws the same way you treat your own parents. If you do anything for your mom, make sure you do it for your mother-in-law too.

  8. Dont expect parents or in-laws to be your source of free child care unless they offer to do this for you. Make sure you dont ask too much.

  9. Ask your mother-in-law for advice on parenting, cooking and anything else she is into. You dont have to take it. Just show her you appreciate her and admire her. Remember everyone wants to feel respected, admired, appreciated and wanted. Being someone who gives this feels amazing. You will like yourself if you are this kind of giver.

If you are still struggling with this, I highly recommend some relationhips skills training with a professional coach or counselor.

You can do this.