An interfering mother-in-law is one of society’s favourite stereotypes. The term ‘mother in law’ can sound negative and criticizing even before we know anything about the individual themselves.
Why does it often seem to be particularly difficult for daughters in law and mothers in law to get along?
“fear makes strangers of people who should be friends.”
What are we afraid of?
First of all, we need to recognise that our mother-in-law poses a uniquely powerful threat to our self-confidence and self-worth. She is a person who might come across as having ‘been there done that’ and so could potentially judge our ‘success’ as a wife, mother and woman. We usually cannot avoid her and our relationship with her also affects our relationship with our husband.
If our mother in law appears to be even slightly critical, for example of our cooking or parenting skills, then we can feel instantly threatened and our protective “fight or flight” instinct kicks in.
When we sense a threat our brain and nervous system create a physical and hormonal response; our hearts might race, we might feel hot and agitated and we will feel negative emotions such as annoyance, anger or anxiety.
If we are unaware what generates these feelings, then we will also be unaware that our subsequent actions are attempts to protect our self-esteem. We instinctively do what makes ourselves feel better—maybe criticise our mother in law in return, or pick a petty fight with our husband, or run upstairs and cry, and then think, ‘I don’t know why I did that.’
Our mother-in-law’s choice to be critical or judgmental (if she is) comes from her own self-confidence because she will be choosing to be negative about us in order to feel better about herself in some way. Mother in laws are often threatened by daughter in laws, you are competition for her son’s attention and affection and it can be hard for a mother to let go and to feel positive about another women in her son’s life. Knowing that her criticism is really about making herself feel better means that we can hopefully let it ‘slide off’ more easily.
What should we do to remain calm and ‘get along’.
Those people who can stay calm and can build a positive relationship with their mother-in-law no matter what she is like find ways to maintain their self-esteem in her company so that they remain in control of their thoughts and actions.
Only we are in control of how we feel about ourselves. We each generate our own emotions depending on how we interpret situations; emotions are not generated by someone else. Once we can maintain a positive self-image, we can be more accepting of our mother-in-law, and perhaps get to know each other better so that she feels better about herself in our company, and is less likely to be negative, critical or judgemental.
What to do ‘in the moment’ if you feel stressed:
Find somewhere to be alone. Take slow deep breaths and imagine you are breathing in confidence and self-belief, and breathing out self-doubt and criticism. Smile and stretch your arms to relieve your tension. Smarten your clothes or appearance a little, say to yourself, out loud if possible, “I am okay, I do my best, I don’t have to let her bother me, I believe in myself”.
I explain more about this instant technique for relieving stress in this short YouTube video.
What else can you do to improve your relationship?
– Be realistic about how much time you can spend in her company, but don’t avoid her too much. Familiarity can build affection, so repeated exposure if kept as positive as possible can help to build a friendship which previously seemed impossible.
– Prepare yourself. Before you see her take time to build your self-confidence, say positive things to yourself, wear your favourite clothes, tidy the house, or do other things which help you to feel prepared, calm and positive.
– Don’t compete with her, you don’t need to. Ask her for help with specific tasks she is good at so that she feels useful. Show you respect her knowledge by asking for a favourite recipe, or asking how she cared for your husband when he was little. Let her talk about herself, you might learn things which surprise you.
– Be positive about her and find ways to compliment her and show gratitude for what she does. Praising the behaviour you want from another person is usually a successful technique for ensuring that the behaviour you like is repeated.
– Don’t defend yourself by criticising her in return, this will cause her to become defensive and probably cause an argument. Remember, if she feels the need to judge you that is her issue, not yours.
– Don’t criticise her to your husband, he is likely to feel the need to defend her which will annoy you. Show acceptance of her and your husband will appreciate the effort you are making because it shows you care about his feelings.
– Stick to your own values. If you demonstrate self-belief and confidence in the choices you make then she is far more likely to accept and respect them. Listen to her opinion if she has one, but calmly explain your point of view and make it clear that you wish to be allowed to parent in your own way.
– Let her be a grandparent in her own way. If she wants to be indulgent or set her own rules, then let her, give her space, you don’t need to micromanage. Your children are likely to benefit from different rules and experiences and if you can respect her priorities she is more likely to respect yours.
– Give your mother in law thoughtful gifts occasionally simply so that she knows she matters to you. If she sees that you are thinking about her tastes, it will help to win her over.
– Communicate with your husband, remember he has parents-in-law too so he may have similar feelings about your mother or father. Explain how you feel without blame or criticism, ask him for help in specific ways e.g. “I am doing well but please don’t seat her next to me at lunch”.
Above all, the more we can do to improve our relationship with our mother-in-law the more we will be benefiting ourselves, our husband, and our children, and we can feel very proud of ourselves for that.
“Don’t wait for people to be friendly; show them how”
“Kindness is in our power; even when fondness is not”
I am a relationship counsellor, writer, blogger, speaker, British Army wife, mother and the author of ‘Stay Calm and Content No Matter What Life Throws At You’ which has multiple 5* Amazon reviews. I have been posted to many different locations and have had the pleasure and privilege of talking to hundreds of people about their common but difficult issues, and of helping those people come through them as calmly and contentedly as possible.
I can be contacted via my website and blog on www.staycalmandcontent.com or on Facebook: Stay Calm and Content or via Twitter @catstaycalm. I also has a Stay Calm and Content channel on YouTube.
50% of my profits from sales of my book go to military and civilian counselling charities.
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