The role of mother-in-law (or future MIL) is often vilified by our society. She’s played to the hilt in media and jokes as the meddling, fault-finding, never satisfied, guilt-inducing relative. It’s all in one’s perspective, really, but if one happens to be cast in the supporting role – a bit part, but important nonetheless – known to the masses as the ‘son-in-law,’ it can be a pretty scary role to play.

Wife, mother, author and humorist, Erma Bombeck — herself a mother-in-law — once called motherhood the second oldest profession in the book. If that’s true, then being a mother-in-law is likely the third oldest, although it should be noted here, that by definition, she was a mother first — a fact she’s sure to remind her daughter of on a regular basis. 

So, why all the fuss? 

Bombeck hit the nail on the head, summing it up for both sides when she wrote, “Mothers-in-law who wear a black armband to the wedding are expendable.” 

A bit dramatic? Not to the son-in-law. 

Make no mistake, his role, while perhaps a mere bit part in the eyes of the MIL, is important, critical even, especially when it comes to spin-off characters – those cute, limelight-stealing moppets —  ‘the grandchildren.’

But we digress; back to the relationship between you — the lucky guy– and your sweetheart’s mother. 

For the sake of peace and happiness in your relationship, there are a few things you can do to make the relationship with her mother tolerable, if not harmonious.

First, think ahead when you know you’ll be interacting with her. Know the triggers – topics of conversation, habits, or situations that irk you or set her off – and avoid them if and whenever possible.

Be respectful and polite – even if she is not – but don’t be manipulated. If she is clearly trying to use guilt as a tool to get what she wants, call her on it – but nicely. She’ll be less likely to ply you or her daughter with guilt you if she knows you’re on to her. Keep in mind that guilt is often a weapon of last resort, used by parents to influence a situation or outcome when they feel there is no other way to get what they want. So ask yourself, ‘what does she want?’ If you realize it’s something you can live with – perhaps within reasonable boundaries – then offer it yourself.

If your mother-in-law drops in unannounced often, you are within your rights to set boundaries.

“Good fences make good neighbors,” marriage and relationship expert Phillip J. Swihart reminds us in his Focus on the Family article about in-law relationships. Swihart, a clinical Psychologist, reminds us that ‘Honoring’ one’s parents (Exodus 21:12) means that while we should absolutely set boundaries, we should do so in a kind and gentle way. This doesn’t mean, however, Swihart assures us, that you should always ‘obey’ your in-laws or allow them to disrespect, manipulate or attempt to control you – or your children – to satisfy their personal whims.

To deal with a mother-in-law who can’t seem to accept your role in her daughter’s life, says marriage therapist Romie Hurley, learn to support your wife without getting hooked into taking sides. Encourage your sweetheart to share her feelings directly with you, and make sure to always keep a sense of humor. Never let your wife forget that it clear that she is number one in your eyes, Hurley says, and don’t take things too personally. Most important, says Hurley, is to remember that building a relationship takes time. 

One idea, Hurley says, is that when you feel confronted with what feels like a no-win situation involving your mother in-law, try using what she calls the “drop the rope” theory, which she explains this way,

“Imagine a rope, the kind used in a tug-of-war,” she says, adding, “If you find yourself provoked, see that rope in your hands. You can choose to continue yanking on it — or drop it. Dropping it may sound as though you’re giving in or giving up, but it’s actually very empowering, Hurley assures us, and much more effective than “tugging back and forth.”

Finally, Hurley says, remember that by honoring her mother, you are showing her how much you love her.

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