How to Deal with a Difficult Mother-in-Law

Discover ways to improve your relationship with the other woman in your partner's life.


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Wondering how to deal with a difficult mother-in-law? Maybe your fiancé's mother insists on a church wedding when you two would rather say your vows on the beach. Maybe she wants to be included in every pre-wedding party, even when you've made it clear your bachelorette weekend is just for your close girlfriends. Perhaps she just generally has an opinion about everything from the food to your dress to the song you've chosen for your first dance.

Whatever the issues, you've got to find a way to fix them or at least cope. Here are helpful ways to improve the relationship between a bride and her mother-in-law.

1. Talk Openly and Honestly with Your Fiancé

While you may come off as being overly sensitive, stay calm and persuade your partner to see things from your perspective so that the two of you become acquainted with being on the same team. The easiest way to do that is to position the conversation as though you want to make things better, for both you and your future mother-in-law.

Encourage your S.O. to have a conversation with his or her mom to express happiness in your relationship and excitement for the future. This is also a great opportunity to express gratitude for the role she played in childhood and how she'll continue to be important. Let her know that celebrating the two of you as a couple is what will make him or her happy.

Even though your partner left home years ago and hasn't been "her baby" for quite some time, her child's wedding is still a milestone for her, and recognizing the weight of that milestone will go a long way in tempering her emotions leading up to the wedding. Plus, it might allow her to begin accepting you as important in not only her child's life but in hers as well.

2. Understand that Emotions Create Tension

For a mother-in-law, a child's wedding is something she's been imagining since the child was born—and feelings of anxiety and abandonment are natural as the big day draws near. "That's why they're texting you all the time, losing their cool when a plan changes, coming up with a million ideas, pushing for what they think is best," says Sharon Naylor, author of The Mother of the Bride Book and Mother of the Groom. "They want you to have the perfect day."

3. Be Firm in Your Vision, But Still Include Your MIL in the Planning

Make a list of the no-compromise details you and your fiancé are unwilling to forgo on your wedding day. If parents are paying, that doesn't give them the right to veto these decisions, says New York City–based Marilynn Nereo, PhD in clinical psychology, LMFT, and LPC. But if money comes with the condition that parents have final say, be prepared to lose those funds if your vision doesn't fit theirs.

Prevent bruised egos by including moms in your planning from the get-go. Invite them to dress fittings, ask for their opinions on cake design, and take advantage of their talents.

4. Tell Your Mother-in-Law When She's Overstepped Her Bounds

It's not an easy conversation to have, but Nereo says the earlier you discuss it, the better. Make time to talk to your mother-in-law in person, and open by thanking her for the nice things she has done for you. Follow with a frank explanation for why her decisions or actions are causing problems. Take a firm tone—not an angry one. (Vent to a friend beforehand to let it out.)

"It's your turn to decide the direction you want your life to go, and your wedding day is the first formal day of that commitment," Nereo says. "Think: 'We will do the best we can in letting parents know what that direction will be, knowing that we have time in our future to perfect their understanding of us. This is a new beginning and the focus of this day is on us.'"

Understanding Different Types of Mother-in-Laws

If you're looking for ways to deal with specific types of mothers-in-law, you're in luck. We talked to Tina B. Tessina, a psychotherapist and author of How to Be Happy Partners: Working It Out Together, to better understand the different breeds of MILs and how to tackle each one. Below, Tessina shares her top tips for how to deal with difficult mothers-in-law in each of their various forms.

The Jealous Mother-in-Law

We all know the traits of a jealous mother in law: She's cold and/or critical because she feels replaced in her child's life, she feels competitive with you, or that's just what she does in relationships with other women. Either way, the best and most effective way of handling her judgmental remarks is to react with silence instead of egging her on and trying to defend yourself. Just treat it as if she said something unspeakably rude (which is true) and you're going to do her a favor by ignoring it. Look directly at her, smile, and say absolutely nothing. Chances are, after a very uncomfortable 30 seconds or so, she'll probably try to take back what she said. And it'll keep the peace between you and your partner.

The Needy Mother-in-Law

If blowing family occasions—particularly the holidays—out of proportion sounds familiar, you've got a needy MIL on your hands. You and your partner need to work out together what you want to do and how you'll split spending time with each other's extended family. After you decide, gently and considerately inform her and remain firm in your decision. She has to learn that you have a new family now, and you'll be connected but not joined at the hip.

The Mother-in-Law Who Knows Everything

She has an opinion about everything you're doing, including spending money, parenting, health issues, your friends, and your home. Instead of defending yourself at every turn, figure how to ignore your mother-in-law—because if you just stay calm, ignore her, say um-hmm, and let it go, the little comments she makes won't turn into a full-on big deal. And no matter what, don't try to tailor your life to suit her opinion; trying to please her can be an endless, frustrating, and irritating path. (Trust us.)

The Controlling Mother-in Law

This well-intentioned mother-in-law unfortunately hasn't learned to let go and can try to maintain control by doing too much for you. While this may seem great at first, especially if she helps you with that down payment on a new home, buys you a car, takes care of the kids, or bails you out of financial problems, there's likely to be strings attached and she may want something in return from you that's disruptive for your family. Best to be very aware of the cost of parental help prior to accepting.

The Mooching Mother-in Law

The MIL who is always broke and wants to borrow money or have you sign for loans, etc. can be very difficult to handle, particularly when you're not blood related. Of course her child feels obligated to help. However, it's important for the two of you to set limits together. Talk about her money problems in general, and make a deal. You may need to accept that she needs assistance, but limits are key or she'll become a bottomless pit.

The Nagging Mother-in Law

She nags, scolds, or whines when things don't meet her expectations. However, you have to remember to take care of yourselves and find a way to protect your marriage from her guilt-inducing behavior. If you or your partner is constantly intimidated and continually gives in to her demands, it can ruin your relationship. You're supposed to be primary to each other now, not to your parents. Work together to respond to parents only when they ask directly and simply, and motivate them and each other with affection, humor, and fun.

The Mother-in-Law Who Judges You Constantly

If your MIL doesn't approve of how you handle your money, raise your kids, divide your chores, dress, or behave in some way, and your spouse is influenced by that opinion, you'll wind up fighting endlessly about it, and the arguments will suck the joy and love right out of the relationship. Womp, womp! Keep in mind that your parents can no longer tell either of you what to do, and it's important to not side with them against your partner or carry their criticisms home. You make the rules now!

The Overly Involved Mother-in-Law

This MIL type comes out hardcore when kids are involved. If she babysits or cares for your children and doesn't do what you want, don't fight with your spouse about it. If there are behaviors, diet rules, schedules, and homework that you want your kids to adhere to and their grandparents won't do it, then you may have to limit time. It's a tricky situation, but work as a team to tackle it.

The Pot-Stirring Mother-in-Law

Even if none of the above things are happening but you somehow have marital friction about your MIL, it's time to make sorting this out a top priority. If the friction your in-laws cause is subtle and you don't understand why you're fighting, a marriage counselor can help you sort it out. Go quickly, before too much damage is done, though.

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