An 'interfering mother-in-law' is one of society's favourite stereotypes. The term 'mother-in-law' sounds negative and criticising even before anything is known about the individual themselves.
Mothers and daughters-in-law often find it particularly difficult to get along. What is the secret of those who can overcome the stereotype, and build a friendship with their 'DIL'?
"Fear makes strangers of people who should be friends."
The first thing we need to recognise is that we pose a uniquely powerful threat to the self-esteem of our daughter-in-law. As an older woman we could potentially pass judgement on her as a woman, a wife, and a mother, because we might feel that we have 'been there, done that', and feel that we either 'got it right' or can advise her how to.
Our daughter-in-law will be acutely aware of this. Even if we don't actually say anything judgemental, she will already be wondering what our opinion is of her, and whether she 'meets the grade' in our eyes. Our son has chosen this person, and that needs to be enough for us.
Our daughter-in-law can also affect our self-esteem. She is competition for our son's love and affection. We might pick up that she might not like us, which might damage our confidence in her company, or we might compare ourselves to her and feel we are lacking in some way.
Only we are in control of how we feel about ourselves. We each generate our own emotions depending on how we interpret situations and how we allow them to affect our self-esteem.
Mothers and daughters-in-law both want the same thing; to feel respected, listened to, understood, and loved.
Why do we feel afraid?
When we feel disrespected, judged or criticised our brain reacts by triggering our physiological fight or flight response; our heart might beat faster, our hands might shake, we might feel sick, hot, or cold, and we will describe these physiological reactions as 'negative emotions' such as annoyance, anger, fear, or anxiety.
If we are unaware what generates negative feelings, then we will also be unaware that our subsequent actions are attempts to protect and repair our self-esteem. We do what makes ourselves feel better in some way, maybe criticise our daughter in law, criticize another relative, leave and go home, or cry, and then think, 'I don't know why I did that'.
What can you do to improve your relationship?
- First of all, take responsibility. You are the older generation; you need to show unconditional acceptance, respect, and affection, before you can expect the same in return. Both you and your 'DIL' are individuals, there are reasons why you think and behave as you do, understanding each other might just take effort, patience, and time.
- Be realistic about how much time you spend in each other's company, but don't avoid each other 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.
- Be prepared. Think about where would be the best place to meet, or what you might do together; for example, a walk and a picnic is usually more relaxing for everyone, than lunch in your house.
- Prepare yourself. Say positive things to yourself such as "I am a good person, I can be kind to her no matter how she treats me". Wear clothes which help you to feel relaxed and confident, and do anything else which helps you to feel prepared, calm and positive about yourself.
- Be positive about her and find ways to compliment her and show appreciation for what she does. Show respect for her knowledge by asking about her work, or for a favourite recipe etc. Don't make assumptions, ask a few thoughtful questions and let her talk about herself, you might learn things which surprise you.
- Let her be a wife and parent in her own way. She will never want your advice until she trusts you enough to ask for it. Remember, you are a threat to her self-esteem until you prove otherwise. A statement such as "the baby's crying, maybe you should feed her" can feel like a personal attack, as if your daughter-in-law doesn't know herself that her baby might be hungry. You might not be meaning it in this way, but as a daughter-in-law it is very easy to hear criticism, whether it is there or not!
- Compliment and praise how well she is doing as a parent, even if you don't agree with everything she does there will be aspects you do agree with, so let her know. The better she feels about herself, the better parent she will be, and the more she will open up to you.
- If there is something that really concerns you which you can't ignore, then ask her a gentle question about it e.g. "I'm probably missing something, is there a reason why....". Whatever the issue is, there will be a reason from her point of view, so if you are worried, ask her to explain and then try to understand where she is coming from. She might want advice or support with a particular issue, but has been afraid to ask for fear of being criticised.
- Don't criticise her to your son, he will be very likely to defend her, which is likely to annoy you. Show acceptance of her and your son will appreciate the respect and love you are showing him by caring about his feelings.
- Give your daughter-in-law thoughtful gifts occasionally, 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.
Above all, remember that you can only do your best. Show your daughter-in-law acceptance and kindness and hopefully the rest will take care of itself. By improving your relationship with your daughter-in-law you will be benefiting yourself, your son, your grandchildren, and your family as a whole. You can feel very proud of yourself for that.
"People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did,
but people will never forget how you made them feel"