I n-law relationships are naturally stressful. But we can make them pleasant

“I have no idea why my daughter-in-law isn’t close to me. I think I’m very good to her. I don’t know what her problem is.”

“I know my mother-in-law means well when she insists that the whole family come to her every Sunday for dinner. It’s very generous of her to host everyone. But we’re supposed to keep our babies awake, drag our kids from their friends and birthday parties, curtail whatever plans we might have, leave work and housework unfinished, and get over there by five thirty — or else! When we’re there she’s the beaming bubby. It’s obviously working for her — but she doesn’t seem to care at all whether it’s working for us.”

A Hill to Climb

Our sages warned us long ago that female in-law relationships tend to be challenging. It seems that it’s natural for women to feel competitive when it comes to a man that they love — be that a husband, brother, or son.

Even when you know that things are as they should be — your new daughter-in-law should have your son’s fullest attention, and your sister-in-law should be the one your brother is now confiding in — you may have trouble coming to terms with the loss of your former place in this person’s world.

Making friends with the one who has taken him from you is important and absolutely necessary. If you fail to do so, you may suffer even more losses. These newcomers have a great deal to say about how often you will see your loved one and his offspring. It doesn’t serve your own interests to be unkind to them.

When Connection Is Tough

Despite being aware of how important it is to establish a harmonious connection with our loved one’s wife, we make human errors. We occasionally offer unsolicited advice, forget something, or otherwise slip up. Usually these small mistakes will be taken in stride, but it is always worth our while to heighten our sensitivity and use our best relationship skills.

Sometimes the young lady in question has — in addition to the natural competitiveness inherent in in-law relationships — her own issues that make connection difficult or even impossible.

“On several occasions, I invited my daughter-in-law to spend an afternoon with me, going out for lunch and shopping. Each time, she called five minutes before I was supposed to pick her up to tell me she couldn’t make it. The third time it happened, I sighed — it wasn’t more than that, although by then I really was seething about how inconsiderate she was to give me such short notice.

In any event, she heard that sigh, and I haven’t stopped hearing about it ever since! She told my son that I’m rigid, critical, and rejecting. My son told me I need to apologize!”

Normal Rules Apply

It’s true that everyone is imperfect, but almost all people are “well enough” to have good relationships. When either party is clearly unwell, normal rules of engagement do not apply, and workarounds must be found. However, most people only need to follow the normal rules for normal relationships in order to have successful relationships with their in-laws.

Mothers-in-law, for example, need to be as respectful and considerate of the needs and feelings of their daughters-in-law as they are of their friends. Healthy people don’t insist that their friends do anything; instead they understand and work with their friends’ schedules, needs, and feelings.

They don’t tell their friends how to clean, cook, or parent — unless their friends specifically ask for this kind of advice. They don’t guilt-trip their friends into visiting or socializing and they don’t pop into their friends’ homes without making sure it’s convenient. They seek and maintain reciprocity in their friendships, preventing a buildup of toxic resentment.

Although a daughter-in-law needs to honor and respect a mother-in-law as part of the fulfillment of kibud av v’em, she isn’t required to “obey” her, or do whatever the mother-in-law wants. Cooperation and true desire to please, however, are the natural consequences of having a pleasant relationship.

A mother-in-law is more likely to gain that cooperation by nurturing this relationship with kindness, consideration, and respect conveyed in every interaction. Oddly enough, it’s not the big picture that matters most (“I’m very good to her”), but rather the details. A mother-in-law who is confused by her daughter-in-law’s cold shoulder needs to examine her own actions. (Originally featured in Family First, Issue 567)