Crucial Conversations QA

How to Get Along With Your Mother-in-Law

Dear Emily,

My husband and I recently moved to a new city and my in-laws decided to move near us. I often feel intimidated and inadequate around my mother-in-law. I called her one day to try and resolve a conflict concerning one of my children and I walked into a land mine. She unleashed several months of frustrations with me about my personality and how I raise my children. She questioned the success of my business and also told me my husband was in a terrible marriage. I was completely dumbfounded and responded to her in anger. My husband and father-in-law defended me and both told her she was way out of line. The two of us have not talked about what happened and my husband wants me to move on since he stood up for me. While I appreciate him standing up for me, her words are ringing in my head and I have had very little resolution. I feel even more inadequate knowing how she truly feels about me. How do I move on and be in her presence knowing she dislikes me so much?

Sincerely,
Blindsided

Dear Blindsided,

I hear the heartbreak in your question. I hear it. I believe the human spirit has an innate and deep desire for connection. For many people, our family connections are the most central. And when those connections are tenuous, hurtful, absent, or destructive, our heartbreak can be profound. So, I say, I hear you.

Your way through this relationship will be your own. I do not presuppose to be able to light that way for you. I can, as a friend, share some insights that have provided light for my path.

It is easy to presume that your story is a story of two women—you and your mother-in-law. In some ways, that is true. And, for just a time, let us step back and see what would happen to our thinking if we decided that this story, this experience, was yours alone. If we decided that this story was about you alone, and not about her, what questions might we ask? Here are some that come to mind for me:

Why does what your mother-in-law think of you matter? Why do you crave her approval? I ask that question without judgment. It is okay that her opinion matters. We are social animals. Connection to others matters. Therefore, the opinion of others matters. But what if you shifted your thinking and understood that her approval of you is hers to give, not yours to earn? Whether she gives it or not is about her, not you. How would that thinking shift your relationship with her?

Is her validation of you important enough to change yourself in order to receive it? Because changing yourself may be the only path to receiving her validation. And you may decide to change as you determine how important her validation is for you. Normally, we look at it the other way. We want other people to change. We want our mother-in-laws to recognize us for who we are and accept and love us for that. While this is a natural desire, it is also out of our control. But changing yourself, should you choose to do so, is within your control.

The question you ask (how can I be me and have her like me?) is not necessarily one of your choices. Your choice is to separate the questions: How can I be me, the me I want to be? And, what will it take in my actions for my mother-in-law to like me? If those two answers were aligned, you wouldn’t have written to us. Because they are not aligned, you need to decide which question is more important to you. If the former is more important, then go ahead and be you. If the later, then change in ways that will be pleasing to your mother-in-law. Neither choice is right or wrong—just make the choice that is right for you.

Are you holding her to a standard of perfection that is unfair? There is much more to your relationship with your mother-in-law than can be captured in a paragraph. I know that I have only the barest sketch in front of me. So, I will tread lightly. Based on what is here, I wonder . . . how much of what your mother-in-law said in that argument was a result of her own high emotions—her own frustrations and anger—rather than a permanent judgment of dislike toward you?

Because we know our own heart, it is often easy for us to see in ourselves the disconnect between what we really think and feel and what we may express in times of anger and frustration. And, we know that at times, our emotions take control, driving our actions in ways that are misaligned from our true intentions. It is much harder for us to recognize or accept that disconnect in others. After all, all we have to go on is what we have seen of them through their actions.

Do you know her heart as well as you know your own? You don’t because you can’t. It may be easy to say, “Yes, I know her heart. I have seen it through her actions and I know she dislikes me because that is what her words and actions communicate.” And that may be true. But, I would simply ask: Has there ever been a time when your words and actions (out of anger, despair, grief, or just sheer exhaustion) have been misaligned with your best self? If yes, then consider granting to others the reprieve we would give ourselves—realizing that one bad argument or even twelve negative interactions does not necessarily mean we are doomed to a state of permanent dislike.

Ten years ago, when I began training Crucial Conversations, I was surprised that the first fifty percent of the course was focused on me—on internal work I needed to do before I could open my mouth and start a conversation. In my naiveté, I often felt as a facilitator that I should “hurry through” that part of the course to get to what people had come to learn: how to talk to others. But in the last decade, I have learned that if anything, we are underselling the importance of working on ourselves first by only giving it the first fifty percent of the course.

Dig deep and know that this is your story. It is not about her. It is about you. Once you find your answers, you will be ready to begin a dialogue that has the potential to heal a relationship and has the certainty of healing you.

When you are ready to have that conversation, here are a few ideas about how to approach it:

First, apologize. Yep, that’s right. Based on the details you shared, I would consider apologizing to your mother-in-law for the things you said as you responded to her in anger. Now, the challenge with this apology is that it must be sincere and it absolutely can’t be given with the expectation of anything in return (i.e. don’t apologize as a way of hinting to her that she should apologize back to you). Your apology should be an acknowledgement, not a justification, of your behavior.

Next, express your intent in holding the conversation. What is it you really want? My hope is that your intent is to build a positive, peaceful relationship with your mother-in-law. If that is the case, say that. And mean it.

Then, check in with your mother-in-law to understand what her intent is. Does she share a similar purpose i.e., having a positive, peaceful relationship with you? If not, what type of relationship would she like to have with you?

Finally, in this first conversation back into the relationship, focus on listening, exploring, and understanding. You may even consider preparing for the conversation by generating a list of questions you can ask—judgment-free questions that focus on gaining insight into your mother-in-law. There will be time later to share your perspective, to let her know (if and when appropriate) how the conflict between you has impacted you. Instead, in this first conversation of healing, simply listen. Listening, more than any words you can say, will demonstrate your commitment to repairing your relationship.

I wish you the best of luck in this very important crucial conversation.

Emily

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Emily Hoffman

Emily has consulted and trained with non profit, start-up ventures, and major national corporations such as Eli Lily and The Chicago Board of Trade. Additionally, Emily has taught finance courses at Brigham Young University and trained corporate clients in Crucial Conversations. read more

13 thoughts on “How to Get Along With Your Mother-in-Law”

  1. Thank you for this article.
    I’m a mother-in-law. My relationship with my daughter-in-law has slowly dissolved during the years of dating and marriage to our son. There have never been any words between us, but she has distanced herself from my husband and I. She now is the mother of our first grandchild and we fear we will not be a part of our grandchild’s life. Our son keeps us involved, but our DIL does not always acknowledge us when she sees us and seems to avoid spending time with us. She has some social anxiety and is very close to her mother.

    I have struggled with the ideas presented in your article, starting the conversation with her by apologizing for anything I said that upset her or made her feel unwelcome and telling her I hope our relationship can be closer. My struggle is that I don’t think she cares as I have reached out in other ways to her let her know she is important to me with no change in her reaction to us.

    It’s time to schedule a lunch conversation.

  2. I look forward to every installment in the stories of relationship advice. The scenarios are applicable to both personal and professional situations, are well-written, riveting and helpful in the extreme. Whenever an email pops up in my in-box, I stop everything else I am doing to learn another lesson in communication.
    Thank you so much for your role in educating us all.

  3. Dear Emily,

    What a great response to
    How to Get Along With Your Mother-in-Law

    I would add on the benefit of forgiveness to make us better and feel better,
    on the power of showing love in behavior (e.g. hugging the mother in law) to warm any frozen heart, take the initiative of mending the relationship without a formal conversation, finding something good about her and expressing respect and adoration for that.
    Lastly, this is a little manipulative – just notice and express respect and appreciation every time she does something you like (and ignoring what you don’t like) will transform the relationship in no time.
    and enjoy your power to transform your world.

    to love!

  4. I always like your articles Emily. They are so thoughtful. I am surprised that you didn’t recommend that she listen for some truth in the criticisms. People don’t develop opinions from thin air. Also I believe that she should set some boundaries if she was treated disrespectfully. I agree she start with self.

  5. If this happened to my wife then I would be done with Mama. Nobody. n-o-b-o-d-y nobody talks to my wife like this and gets away with it. I would tell Mom adios. Dad, good luck with that. I know this is about conflict resolution, but at some point the conflict overwhelms the relationship and it is time to move on. If her husband is not stepping up and backing her up in this situation, then THAT is the real issue; not his hag of a mother. If her husband is not in her corner 100% than their relationship is the one that needs a crucial conversation.

    1. Here here John. My MIL is a high end narcissist, pathological liar and bully. She attempted her demanding behaviour on me and when her sickly sweet strategy failed, she turned vicious in a heartbeat. I tried to talk, reason, negotiate – all that before I realised I was dealing with a pathological narc. She attempted to get her son to divorce me and set off a smear campaign of lies to turn her whole family against me. When he would not divorce me – she turned against him, had us stalked until we had to take out an intervention. Not everyone can be negotiated with. Now I hear she is hacking her way through her others sons marriage. Beware the narcissist – they do not negotiate – they only want to win

  6. This is a wonderful, thoughtful reply. I plan on stealing this thought process – and maybe even some of your words – to help employees who are hurt by coworkers comments, and want JUSTICE (restitution? revenge?). These relationships have to go on, and be productive, and I often have to help them manage that path – they have tome to be because they don’t know how to manage that path on their own – or even know that path exists.

    Thank you very much.

  7. Brilliant! I love the idea of asking ourselves “why do I crave her approval?” This encourages us to look at our own stories about our needs. Emily, you are freakishly intuitive and empathetic! Thank you !!

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