Photo: Kate Webber Photography
Plenty of women absolutely adore their mother-in-law. They talk about feeling like a part of the family even before the wedding — being offered heirloom jewelry as their something blue, receiving a loving toast at the rehearsal dinner. That said, most wives confess some tension with the "other woman" in their husband's life, and the feeling is mutual, says Deanna Brann, a licensed clinical psychotherapist and the author of Reluctantly Related: Secrets to Getting Along with Your Mother-in-Law or Daughter-in-Law.
In a survey of 1,000 relationships, she says, 75 percent of both MILs and DILs reported less-than-fuzzy feelings, ranging from "I wish it were better" to "I can't be around her." Pop culture hasn't done moms-in-law any favors: From Jane Fonda's aptly named Monster-in-Law to the murderous Victoria Grayson on Revenge to that pinnacle of overbearingness, Marie from Everybody Loves Raymond, on-screen MILs are almost universally insufferable, interfering, passive-aggressive guilt-trip machines.
The fact is, your MIL is only human, and so are you, both reacting to a seismic shift in your relationships with her son and each other. Any time you're assuming a position long held by another (in this case, the most important woman in your fiancé's life), the transfer of power will be fraught, and even the most outwardly sunny relationship can harbor an undercurrent of tension, whether it's mild irritation or full-blown discord.
For Lauren Moore, a dietitian in Denver, it was the first. She'd fallen in love with her husband's short, feisty, bleached-blond mother the minute they met. "Remember in high school, there was one house everyone gravitated toward because of the mom?" says Moore, 28. "That's her. I can picture her serving pizza rolls all night to make sure the kids and their friends were fed and happy." Then came the Cookie Jar Incident: "She visited us and saw an empty cookie jar in our kitchen," she says. "She told Mike that if I didn't want to bake, she could send homemade cookies from Arizona to keep our jar full. I thought, 'Oh, shit, this woman is going to be overbearing.'"
Whether the trouble comes from cookies or controlling behavior, it's important for your mental and marital health to establish a cordial relationship with his mother, says Brann: "You don't have to be best friends, but at the very least you need to get to a point where you can be around each other without stress, tension, or drama." Here's how.
1. Think about how your big news affected her life.
"When you're a mom, you're in the driver's seat," says Brann. "Then you're in the passenger seat because he's growing up and can drive the car. Once he gets married, you're in the back and his wife is with him in the front." When you consider that kind of demotion, it's no surprise that issues arise; even the loveliest woman will feel a sting from being knocked a few rungs down the ladder. And often it's not just herself she's worried about: A University of Wisconsin study found that after their sons get engaged or married, mothers worry about their boys' well-being and wonder whether they'll be changed by their wife. Yes, these fears may be retro and irrational, but cut mama bear a little slack. "This is her child who's getting married," says Brann. You have a wedding to plan, but she has a son to surrender, and it takes time for most of us to adapt to a major life change.
2. Get to actually know her.
You probably have a sense of what kind of mother your MIL is— sweet or needy, bossy or nurturing. But if you want peace in the valley, lose the labels and find ways to see her as a real person and engage with her as such. This doesn't mean a standing Sunday brunch date, but hanging out separately with her during visits— maybe in the kitchen, where you might discover you're obsessed with the same Food Network show— can work wonders. "You want to express genuine interest and kindness and to find common ground, whether it's reading, traveling, or whatever," says Lesli Doares, marriage therapist and author of Blueprint for a Lasting Marriage: How to Create Your Happily Ever After with More Intention, Less Work. "Building that positive foundation early will help down the road."
And the best time to start is before the wedding, says Brann. "Try to involve her in some way so she feels she's a part of things and not just another guest," she explains. This is what one of Sandy Petrovic's daughters-in-law did before marrying her son in 2013. "It was huge for me when she invited me with her mother and maid of honor to pick out her dress and then to do hair and makeup with the bridal party," she says. "Although I didn't have much of a say in the planning, it was so meaningful that I was included, and I felt like I was a part of it."
If you're not prepared to go that far, even small gestures, like occasionally updating your MIL on how the planning is going, will reassure her that she'll have a role in her son's new life with you. That's what Kelly, an Army wife near Seattle, did. "My mother-in-law is a very blunt person, so I would tell her about things only once we confirmed them," she says. "I kept her in the loop on everything but didn't ask her opinion." That's a great way to manage an in-your-face MIL, says Jen Glantz, professional bridesmaid and founder of Bridesmaid for Hire. "Give her a call to let her know whenever something big happens," she says. You can also send snaps of your flower arrangements or from the venue visit to make her feel like she's part of the process.
And if it seems that your MIL couldn't care less about the planning? Update her anyway. Caitlin's mother-in-law had kept her distance throughout a seven-year courtship with her son, so Caitlin, who's 28 and lives in Indianapolis, didn't even think to include her in the wedding planning. "It felt like it would have been weird," she says. "Now, three years after the wedding, family members say she still has bad feelings about not being asked to participate in decisions that I had no idea she even cared about."
See More: 30 Emotional Mother of the Bride Moments
3. Enlist your husband's help in setting boundaries.
Lisa, 40, a New York marketing exec, wishes she and her husband had come up with a solid game plan to deal with her "narcissistic" MIL before matters came to a head. "My mother-in-law pushed my buttons in strange ways on multiple occasions," says Lisa. "It drove me crazy when every time we visited for the weekend, she'd say I looked tired and why didn't I go upstairs and take a nap. I'd already told her I wasn't a napper, so I felt like she was being passive-aggressive, but I continued to answer politely that I wasn't tired."
Finally, after Lisa had heard it one time too many, she barked at her to never, ever suggest it again. Her mother-in-law burst into tears, her fiancé fled the room, and the incident sparked six months of silent treatment. "I should have been more respectful, but my husband should not have left the room," says Lisa. "Since then, he and I have become a team. And when his parents come to town, they stay in a hotel."
When you have a MIL who just doesn't get it, showing a united front and setting clear parameters of where she fits into your new family unit is key to keeping your marriage happy. If something's getting under your skin, talk to your husband, and if he isn't feeling your pain (most sons are inured to their mom's shortcomings), don't resort to name-calling and labeling, says Doares. "He'll be too busy defending her to address the specific behavior," she says. So instead of whisper-shouting in the kitchen, "Your mom's doing that thing again!" wait until it's just the two of you and say, "Can you tell your mom that she should call before she comes over? Imagine if she rang the bell when we were naked!"
If he talks to her and she still doesn't make adjustments, you and your husband need to agree on consequences. (Yep, just like with a two-year-old.) When she tries to barge in on Sunday mornings, answer the door and tell her you're busy. "Stand your ground, and eventually she will respect your wishes," says Brann. And keep in mind that she's not the only guilty party here. "Mothers can't dominate their adult sons unless they allow them to," says Karin Anderson Abrell, a psychologist in Chicago. Of course, you won't call your guy out on that; just cite specific times when you feel hurt and need him to stand up to his mom so that you can be a strong husband-wife team— without her sitting in the middle.
4. Be the change you want to see.
Whether your mother-in-law missteps because she's having a hard time letting go or she deliberately tries to undermine you at every turn, take the high road whenever you can. "Remember, this is your husband's mother," says Susan Shapiro Barash, author of Mothers-in-Law and Daughters-in-Law. "For that reason alone, you have to make allowances." Emily, 35, from Tampa, wanted to cry every time she visited her domineering, matriarchal mother-in-law in Spain. "For the first four years, she refused to say my name and would only call me 'the American,'" says Emily. "When I tried to speak Spanish, she shook her hand and said, 'Stop talking! Your Spanish hurts my ears!' She criticized the way I held my fork and knife, the way I dressed, even my weight." Because Emily knew her husband's family was important to him, she decided to make a real effort. She combed the Internet to find a worthy addition to her MIL's collection of ceramic ducks and brought updated family photos on every visit.
It transformed their relationship. "Now my mother-in-law hugs me and has even started to say 'I love you,'" she says. "I wish my younger self had had the confidence to do this sooner." Lauren Moore also adjusted her mindset after the Cookie Jar Incident. "I came to realize that the full jar was a symbol to my mother-in-law of hospitality, of welcoming people into your home— the things I love about her," she says.
5. And if all else fails, remind yourself that she did raise an awesome guy.
Don't worry if things get off to a rocky start; you've got years to work on this. Be patient and keep perspective. "Assuming your husband's values remain aligned with his parents', you likely have similar core values, ethics, and morals," says Anderson Abrell. Even if it's hard to find common ground, you share at least one crucial thing with your MIL: love for her son. Says Kelly, whose mother-in-law is prone to very abrasive backseat driving: "At the end of the day, she brought up an amazing man, and for that, I love her." Besides, if you plan to have kids, there's a good chance you'll be her one day.