Unhappy Mother-in-Law


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Sandra A. Doron LCSW

Dear Sandra:

My daughter-in-law only phones when she wants me to baby-sit. She has no interest in me other than what I can do for her. I think I have been an excellent mother-in-law, but when I think about how she uses me without really caring about me, I want to say something to her. But then I don’t, in fear that I will make matters worse. What do you think? UNHAPPY MOTHER-IN-LAW

Dear Unhappy Mother-in-law:

You are not alone in your concern about your daughter-in-law. This relationship is probably the most difficult one of all. It is inherently competitive, and most sons, especially when they first get married, have usually not resolved their conflicts between their loyalty to their mother, and their new loyalties to their wife. This can take a long time to resolve. In the meantime, the two women are frequently very miserable in their relationship with each other. In fact, they have not chosen to be with each other. Their relationship has been imposed upon them by their sons.

The most difficult thing to do is to remain silent. However, in your relationship with your daughter-in-law, it is important to restrain yourself, and this is precisely what you are doing. At this point, anything you may say to her could be interpreted by her as a criticism. If this happens, she will probably distance herself from you even more. The only time we can risk saying something confrontational is when we have a trusting and secure relationship—and even then, we must tread very carefully and with great discretion. Husbands and wives often criticize each other, but they can take those risks because they are living together (and sleeping together), and have ample opportunities and time to repair the damage. As most mothers are painfully aware, once their sons get married, their sons’ first priority, as it must be, is to their wives, and mothers struggle very hard to accept this major change in their relationship with their sons.

It sounds like you are a respectful mother-in-law, who recognizes the damage you can cause if you express your dissatisfaction and hurt directly. Your daughter-in-law will hopefully learn to acknowledge and appreciate you. To expedite that day, you may want to consider these intermediate steps:

1. Study your daughter-in-law. Find out more about her. One easy and fun way to do this is to read her sun sign, even if you don’t believe in astrology. One book that many people enjoy is Sun Signs by Linda Goodman. You will identify some of those things that are mentioned that are true about your daughter-in-law, based on your current knowledge of her strengths and weaknesses. This could be an excellent springboard from which to get to know her even better, so you can more fully appreciate qualities in her that are positive, and to accept qualities in her that probably will not change.

2. Look at her tendency to “use” you, not in a negative way, but rather as an opportunity. She is still not sure she can trust you; however, she is giving you opportunities to interact with her children, and be an active grandparent. Trust will most likely be built when she is confident that you will not impose your wishes on your son or control him in ways that are harmful to her. When she perceives that not only her children, but she too, benefit from their relationship with you, then she will hopefully see you more as a valued and respected family member.

3. Give and give in whenever possible. Mothers-in-law have the opportunity to earn many points when issues arise that involve her parents. Common disagreements, such as which set of parents gets the kids for the holidays, or after which parent the baby is named, can tear families apart. The more demanding and difficult parents often get what they want from their adult children,, but these children build up resentment towards these more demanding parents over time. The parents who clearly want what is in the best interests of their children, and are not invested in controlling their adult children’s lives, will ultimately earn their children’s love and respect.

4. Refrain from making any derogatory comments to your son about his wife. He will want to defend her, even if he knows you are right. However, if you have an issue that is causing you so much pain and hurt that you feel you must speak to him, then wait, think the issues through, discuss your concerns first with a trusted friend, and then, speak with your son.

As you strive to make this relationship with your daughter-in-law work, take pride in your patience and restraint. Eventually, your daughter-in-law will begin to acknowledge and appreciate you. This process may take a long time, but it is well worth the effort. Your current investment will pay dividends some day. You may never have a close friendship with your daughter-in-law, but you will earn her respect.


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This site was last updated 02/03/06