Making Peace With Your Mother-in-Law

By Susan Flynn

Terri ApterThe jokes are often about the poor men subjected to impossible mothersin- law. But the truth is the relationship with the greatest tension is by far between the mother-in-law and daughter-in-law. Just ask Terri Apter, a psychologist and author of the new book What Do You Want From Me: Learning to Get Along with the In-Laws. She interviewed close to 50 couples and their parents to better understand this complicated relationship.

We recently caught up with Apter, a mother-in-law herself, to get insight into the relationship that most married couples must enter, for better or worse.

1 Why write a book about in-laws?

As a professional, I see it is an interesting dynamic. I worked for a number of years on a study on midlife transitions, and, often, what came up were problems with the in-laws.

I can also give a more personal answer. My mother-in-law was someone who was very well-meaning, who didn’t have any nasty objective and who was a good mother. Yet in her presence, I felt very irritated, very stifled – almost as if I was gasping for air. I didn’t understand how she could be so dismissive of me. Once she wanted to make a gesture of friendship and she told me she admired me because her son’s shirts were always so well ironed, which, of course to me, a modern woman, I took as an insult.

2 What’s the biggest mistake people in these relationships make?

It’s the expectations. The mother-in-law thinks that her expertise as the person who knew how to run a family will be respected and sought by the new daughter-in-law. The daughter-in-law thinks that the mother-in-law will see her as the daughter she never had, the perfect person for her son.

3 Why no complaints about the father-in-law?

There can be a lot of exchanges in a family that men don’t necessarily pick up on – little put-downs and slights that men do not register. There's also less conflict between the husband and the in-laws because a daughter is better at reassuring her parents that she’s still attached to them. A lot of women said their husbands were very passive. If the son was more proactive in saying to his mother, 'We are still attached to you,' these women felt that the mother-in-law would not be so possessive.

4 What are the keys to making this relationship work?

The in-laws have to show appreciation of one another. The daughter-in-law has to show that she appreciates what the mother-in-law has brought to the family and how much she loves her son. The mother-in-law has to show the daughter-in-law she’s interested in getting to know her as her own person, with her own goals and her own needs, not just someone supporting her son. The mother-in-law should also avoid talking behind the daughter-in-law’s back. The daughter-in-law shouldn’t be so quick to take offense if her mother-in-law gives her something – 'Oh, I would never wear a tweed skirt.' It's just a gift, not a symbolic gesture.

5 As a new mother-in-law, how are you doing it differently?

I don't pretend that my own child doesn't come first, so that’s out in the open. I'm very interested in my sons-in-law as people and I try to show that, and I'm lucky that they're very polite to me. They seem to enjoy my company and it's reassuring that they're not taking my girls away. I also know and I think they know that if they treated my daughters badly, I wouldn’t be on their side. 

Susan Flynn is associate editor for the Boston Parents Paper, a Dominion Parenting Media publication.