All six of our children had adjustments and challenges with their in-laws. Everyone does. We did too.
Two daughters had extra challenges setting boundaries with their in-laws. Living in the same city brought expectations for dinners, family gatherings, and baby-sitting privileges that hadn’t been declared in advance of the marriage.
Whether living close or far away, most expectations in new in-law relationships are never spoken and certainly not written down. Therefore the surprise, “But we do Sunday lunch every week” creates instant tension when a give-and-take conversation in advance would have been a healthier more respectful approach.
Because expectations are unspoken mistakes are common on both sides of this often-strained relationship. Here are four tips for getting along with your mother-in-law.
1. Don’t assume motives.
“When we assume the motives of someone else we are wrong about 80 percent of the time,” said my friend Judy Dabler, a Christian conciliator and educator. Yes, for most daughters-in-law it feels like she’s always taking her son’s side, not actually trying to know you, merely working to fold you into their world rather than supporting you both.
But are you sure you are 100 percent correct in assuming your mother-in-law’s motives accurately? If my friend Judy is right, and she has far more experience than I in coaching reconciliations, then you may have a few assumptions right but most are wrong. Ouch. Sorry.
Here is a truth about most women whose children are grown: we are acutely aware of our failures. We’ve made many mistakes and are trying to figure out who we are now, whether still married or living alone. Life has been harder than we expected.
The truth is that all mothers-in-law are broken. We are living in a fallen world, raising kids who are equally handicapped and fallen who are now grown and married, one of them to you, and this beloved of yours is still fallen, too. Sin does not stop in this life.
Some mothers-in-law are not believers or have never learned to understand grace and forgiveness. They are still living with a performance perspective, still trying to prove their worth. Or maybe your mother-in-law is of another faith, cultural, ethnic, or regional background. The two of you probably could not be more different. That in and of itself is a setup for misunderstanding. Personalities, histories, gifting, emotional balance, losses, and our individual stories all factor into this complex relationship.
What you see today is definitely not all there is. So don’t assign motives to your mother-in-law. You only know a thin slice of the whole truth. Courageously ask God to help you see her more clearly with His eyes and heart.
2. Be teachable.
The most important quality you can own and grow for life is teachability which rightly assesses who you are at your core. To recognize your inabilities and personal needs is the first step toward godly maturity in marriage and with your mother-in-law.
Failures, mistakes, and misunderstandings in relationships stop us in our tracks. We stall, assessing what went wrong, whose fault it was and what to do next. Difficulty and relational pain always present a fork in the road.
One road is labeled “I can do this.” Shame, personal self-ridicule and anger become fuel which feeds your vow to redouble your efforts so the offense never happens again or never hurts you again.
The second road is labeled, “I can’t do this.” You equally feel the embarrassment of this failure while seeing clearly your inability to generate good toward this person. But instead of turning within to your personal task master, you take your whole self to God, the author of all relationships. Recognizing your lack of love, your inability to even be nice to this woman, is a very healthy place to be. It’s where we go with that knowledge that makes all the difference.
Being teachable means going to the power source of lasting life change. Many times in my life I have asked God to give me His love for others, even my husband, because I couldn’t produce love on my own. And there were times I didn’t want to love the person who’d offended me. Feeling justified that I was right felt much better in the moment. Augustine wrote, “Heal me of this lust of mine to always vindicate myself.” So true of me and you.
God has made it clear we are to honor our parents. First you must decide you want to get along with your mother-in-law. He will help you find ways to honor her … to get along with her … if you chose the “I can’t do this on my own” road.
A word of caution: Choose your words carefully when you share your frustrations or anger at your mother-in-law with your husband. He has a natural and normal loyalty to her and may find it hard to reconcile his love for his mom and his love for you. Perhaps talking to someone older and wiser or a therapist first will give you language to use in helping him understand you with grace and truth.
In the end, refusing to humbly go to God, refusing to ask for His transforming love, only adds bricks to an invisible wall between you and your mother-in-law or other relationships. And eventually these walls—built for protection—become a prison.
3. Graciously speak the truth.
It’s healthy to create space in your relationships with both sets of parents, especially in the early years when so much effort and energy is required to establish a solid foundation in your marriage. The very best way to create the needed space is to define what both of you desire and need and then find a healthy honoring way to verbalize it to your parents. Going dark or fabricating excuses for not showing up is childish.
Graciously speaking the truth honors the parent while standing up for what is needed today knowing in time space may open up for more in the relationship.
4. Trust in God.
In the Old Testament story of Ruth, who chose her mother-in-law over her own family and home, I see a young woman who depended unreservedly on Someone greater than herself. The story makes it clear that Ruth’s mother-in-law, Naomi, was not a happy person. Can you identify with having an unhappy mother-in-law? Naomi verbalized her outlook on life when she told her friends to call her Mara, which means bitter. Naomi’s losses had produced a heart of deep disappointment, cynicism and bitterness.
What makes Ruth a strong woman was not her personality but her absolute faith in the God of Israel to provide what she lacked. She knew Naomi was unpleasant and that she herself was an outsider to the family of God. But Ruth saw hope in God, her Redeemer, that surpassed any bitterness of her mother-in-law.
Do you think Ruth was exceptional? Did Ruth have strengths, gifts or options you don’t have? No, she was probably just like you, but her faith in the unseen God is what marked her as an exceptional praise-worthy woman.
Fix your eyes on Jesus, all of you who grit your teeth when with your mother-in-law. Ask God to give you His love and grace because yours simply is not enough and never will be.
And if you choose God’s way of love above all else, you will make your life and the body of Christ more beautiful, just as Ruth’s faith made her “a woman of excellence” (Ruth 3:11), known by everyone in the city.
I pray this will be true of you too.