To Be a Great Mother-in-Law Avoid These Three Mistakes


All my life I’ve looked for meaning, especially the deeper, unseen significance in events, ceremonies, holidays, even details of God’s creation. So when a new friend, Judy Dabler, made this comment at the start of small gathering, I wrote it down in my journal and drew stars around it:

“Human beings are meaning makers!”

I was dazzled by the implications … made in His image, the Author and Creator … who as the Word is the meaning behind everything … my search for meaning was and is always a search for Him!

What does this have to do with being a mother-in-law?

Simply this: These often troubled and ridiculed relationships are, at the heart level, a quest for meaning. When we swing and miss, when we believe the worst, when we retreat in fear and therefore withhold love, we miss the rich golden ore God desires to reveal. 

Here are three common mistakes I have made as a mother-in-law, and I guess you have too.

Mistake #1: Wrong assumptions

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. How many times have I assumed the worst about a daughter or son-in-law? “She doesn’t like me … he is angry … I bet they don’t want me to ever come again.”

What we mothers-in-law often forget is what it’s like to be in their shoes. Remember when you were newlyweds or new parents? What did you want from your parents and in-laws? What did you wish for? 

The danger of assigning motives, of assuming intent, is we never know all the facts. Our in-law children are new to our family. They come with their own often un-named values, beliefs and assumptions about what we, their in-laws, should or should not do. And … they are still figuring out their young marriage. It’s very complicated.

The temptation is always to side with your own children, to assume they are correct. But God is clear when He says, “You shall not be partial in judgment … For the Lord your God is God of Gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty and the awesome God, who is not partial …” (Deuteronomy 1:17;10:17). Meaningful in-law relations can’t happen if we are assuming the worst or assigning blame without knowing all the data.

Mistake #2: Impatience

We’ve had a lifetime to get to know our child, but only a very brief time knowing their spouse. It’s all too easy to impatiently expect this grafted-in new member of the family to feel as comfortable with your family as everyone else. Relationships take time … lots of time with many of investments grace, love and patience.

During a phone conversation with my friend Joanne as we discussed lessons learned with sibling and parent-child relationships, she mentioned to me the phrase “healthy detachment.” I instantly knew what she meant. I was feeling responsible to fix the rift in a relationship with a married child and spouse. I felt like I shoulddosomething … that not doing something was neglectful, unloving. But in this case the breach was not mine to repair; I needed to detach myself from the situation and let them work it out.

Healthy detachment is loving and caring your adult children without letting your daily happiness be ruined by a circumstance you cannot change. This isn’t easy. I know it is painful. But it’s important that parents continue to develop their faith in God regarding the outcomes in our children’s lives.

This is true even when they are still living at home as teens. God has given all of us the gift of free will. All children will make poor decisions. The critical factor is will they be allowed to fail or suffer and learn from these choices? Our adult children must experience their own consequences to want to avoid the same thing in the future.

Waiting is not wasting,” my friend Joanne reminded me during our call, and again I felt an exhale. She was right, of course. Releasing our children to God’s care is needed over and over throughout life. Trusting Him is the foundation of every healthy meaningful relationship.

When we sense or fear danger or suffering because of poor decisions, the most loving thing we can do is create a healthy detachment and wait for God to work. Don’t offer advice or suggestions unless asked, and then reply with “what does your spouse think about this?” Always point them back to each other and to God 

Mistake #3: Defensiveness

Judy Dabler says, “Christians should not be defensive because we are forgiven. Seeing a flaw in ourselves is a joy because we now have the opportunity to be rid of it” as we take it to Jesus the healer, the perfecter of our faith. The truest truth about us as Christians is we are forgiven. 

The natural response of my flesh when I see my weakness and failures, or when I’ve been shown to be at fault in a relationship, is to defend myself. I want to say, “Don’t you see how hard I’ve tried? Don’t you know what it’s cost me to do this for you? It’s because of the way I was raised that I do this. I can’t help it.”

But the most mature and faith-filled reply is, “Yes, I was wrong. I shouldn’t have said that. Will you forgive me?” Only when we own our mistakes with our kids and admit where we failed them will we grow rich relationships with our kids and their spouses. The truth is always your friend.

Pretending never creates meaning. Only humility produces the beauty of meaningfully deep relationships. And continually acknowledging our own sin and failure before God makes beautiful our lives and the greater body of Christ. 

At the end of this post I want to acknowledge my friend Judy Dabler, whom I’ve quoted several times. Judy has founded Creative Conciliation and wrote Peacemaking Women. She has given us wise biblical coaching as we navigate the unseen workings of God in six marriages and families. We love our kids so much, including their spouses. They each bring uniqueness which challenges us to greater faith, and that is always good. I think God is smiling on us as we navigate this family journey by faith. 

He’s got us and He’s got our kids too

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22 thoughts on “To Be a Great Mother-in-Law Avoid These Three Mistakes”

  1. My only son and DIL are both Christians for which I’m very thankful. My son met his wife online from another state, so neither of us had time to get to know each other. She has a lot of issues she is struggling with (adopted after being in a foreign orphanage for almost 2 years and growing up with a somewhat strained relationship with her mother). They now have an autistic 2 1/2 year old child and a 10 month old baby with some developmental delays. She struggles with this, as is understandable, and also has a hard time carrying so much responsibility (even before the children were born). Before the corona shut down, my husband would go to their home to watch the children one day a week (I work part time). Sometimes she will respond to me when I reach out, and other times it’s as though I’m not even alive – unless I’m offering to take care of the children. My husband and I always had a good and open relationship with our son. There are other concerns as well, but this certainly isn’t the relationship we anticipated we would have with our son, DIL and grandchildren. No matter what I do or say, my DIL seems to argue our contradict me or, sometimes ignores the fact that I’m even talking to her. I try to say almost nothing unless it is praise or encouragement of some kind. I go out of my way to compliment them and be only positive. I’ve asked God to use this situation to teach me, to do His work in my life and help me not be angry or bitter, but my heart is often breaking. Maybe it’s the fact that, after I feel like I poured my heart into homeschooling my son and raising him to serve the Lord (all of which I enjoyed), I had expectations of such a different relationship with his family than we have. Perhaps having only one child makes all of this even more difficult and lonely.

    1. Barbara Rainey

      Thank you for sharing your story Lynn. I’m sorry for your hard situation with your son and DIL. I feel for you and know some of that struggle with different circumstances of course. (I do have an autistic nephew) One thing I have learned now that our oldest have been married 20 years now is that time does have the opportunity to change a lot.
      My encouragement is to keep doing what you are doing; speaking positively, helping when you can, and praying. Keep encouraging. And as you pray ask God to keep both their hearts teachable. Your son as much as his wife. Marriage in intended to be redemptive God reminded me years ago about some of our kids marriages and it is true.
      May God bless your effort to encourage and be of help. He sees and is working even when we can’t see it.

  2. I see so many comments here about dealing with daughter-in-laws but I have only 3 son-in-laws. My daughters and I are very close and sadly all but 1 of them has moved away to another state. I dealt with sadness and jealousy because those 2 daughters live close to their husband’s families. I’d like to say I have released that to God but I still cling to it at times. 2 of my son-in-laws are great and I feel like they were raised similarly to my daughters but the 3rd one was raised very, very differently. All Christian so that is a blessing but with the 3rd son-in-law I feel distant and inadequate as a grandparent and mother. He is loving to my daughter and grandson but very protective of them and makes all of us aware they are “his” now. I have had discussions with them about how we feel isolated from them but they don’t seem to see the problem. Do any of you have daughters and sons and feel like it’s different with daughters than sons?

  3. I read this today, and it was perfect timing for me. I’m a new mother-in-law within the past few years and have been trying so hard to figure out how to love my DIL in ways that she can translate it into love on her end. She is sweet, and we are both believers – I am grateful for her and she loves my son well, but we are very different in some ways. I have tried to show love, and a lot of times it is taken well, but sometimes I feel my acts of kindness offend her. I try different love languages and feel like nothing is very much appreciated. I can’t figure out what her love language is or what my role should be in her eyes. Sometimes I feel like she is afraid to let me love her because she would feel like I’m trying to take her own mother’s place. I would never want or try to do that. I do believe it will get better with time, and it was so good to be reminded in your article that I’ve had my son’s whole life to get to know him, but just a few years to get to know her. Is it ever wise to talk with your DIL about these things, or is it best just to do careful trial and error to figure things out? I don’t want to offend, and I feel like it would be so much easier if things were out in the open, but I’m not sure if that would make her feel uncomfortable – maybe she doesn’t perceive a problem and it’s all in my head. My heart just brakes over this as I have been a mother figure and close to so many girls over the years, but can’t seem to get close to my own DIL. I would love the wisdom you all have to give.

    1. Ellen,
      Thanks for writing. First I’m guessing you are doing better than you are imagining. But second it is true that while you are well loved by many young women in your community it is on their terms. They seek you out or respond to your kindness or teaching or your life lived when they see you at church or work. Your daughter-in-law didn’t choose you. She might have wanted to but she never had that option. You came with her husband, your son. It is complicated, but not beyond God’s reach or His timing. And it’s His timing we so often dislike. I would suggest you give her more space. Initiate less toward her. Don’t back away completely because that will send another signal of rejection! She may be feeling pressure to like you and learn from you and she’s just not ready for that yet. And remember we are all so broken. One day she will see more clearly and will recognize her own insecurities and regret them and how it impacted you. Until then may Jesus be your constant source of hope and comfort. His is best anyway!

  4. When I feel slighted by my daughter-in-law, I simply remind myself that she is part of MY sanctification process. Then I ask the Lord, “How am I doing?” And of course, that almost always results in a change of MY attitude. God is so good!

    1. Penny, YES! you are so right! God wants all of our hurts to be given to Him for Him to heal and to use to sanctify us. I’m rereading the Hiding Place right now and it’s been such a good reminder that God loves to use hard things to make us like Jesus!
      thanks for sharing this with us!

  5. Great advice for being a daughter in law as well. I know I’ve been hurt many times what I have perceived as slights or oversteps of my mother-in-law and my husband’s hesitance to tell her to back off. But my response to her actions/comments and my attitude towards her is the only thing I can control in the relationship. It is hard, but your advice about not assuming her motive is especially helpful.

    1. Christy,
      So glad you joined in this conversation about mothers-in-law. I was hoping some of you would find encouragement to give more grace. I’ve written one to daughters-in-law which will be posting in March.
      Grateful for you, Barbara

  6. My relationship is more like Terry’s experience. They live out of state so it’s very hard to spend any time face to face. I attempt to call her instead of my son but she doesn’t return my calls. I text either them “both” or just her. She will sometimes reaping that she will have “him “ coordinate a phone call or a face time with my granddaughter. She doesn’t say hello on a face time so I usually say “ say hello to Mary for me” or I will hear her voice in the background and say “Hi Mary”!!!
    But my son just does the talking, seems he knows she doesn’t want to engage. Very odd and there wasn’t any particularly event that happened. I’m a Christian and she (they) are not so that’s a point of view she probably spends time with her friends mother in law bashing. I do pray for her and their marriage. Any other advice? Thank you!!

    1. I have been through very similar things. My advice to you, try NOT to take it personally even though it is her behavior that hurts. Not being a christian will make that silent separation. Nonetheless, keep being a real christian mother-in law. Be kind, be understanding and always take the backseat concerning your son with her.

      I reached out for years with one of my daughter-in-laws and it wasn’t until much effort, that I finally got a surprising email one day. She thanked me for all the encouragement over the years and said she was sorry for not thanking me sooner. A short and very sweet affirmation that I had years ago decided it doesn’t matter if it’s acknowledged or not, I was going to be the best mother-in-law ever!

      Hang in there, expect nothing, don’t be ‘hurt’ over it, and keep loving her because it is who your son chose. Respect that and cast your bread upon the water, after many days, it will come back to you!

      1. Lynn
        Great advice. Thanks for joining the conversation! God sees and knows all. I’m thankful for your encouragement.

    2. Cathy
      Thanks for writing. I’d say you are making good honoring decisions. Way to go! Keep praying and trusting God in this. He knows the future, knows the plans He has to reach them with His love.

  7. This really spoke to me. We have four grown children. Two recently married and another to marry in a couple of months. So much good information. Thank you!

  8. I can’t tell you how much this blog subject came at a perfect time. I am a newer Mother in Law who has made mistakes and asked forgiveness for them. Now my own Mother in Law is back in town after 18 years being away and I feel like a newlywed all over again. My parents are still in town but never left. So thankful for 2 sets of great grandparents close, but it has had its challenges.

  9. Thank you for this. We find ourselves in a strange life situation right now. My brother-in-law is 22 years younger than my husband and he’s about to be married. My mother-in-law recently passed away and we have felt this sweet young couple looking to us for guidance now in place of mom. It’s a strange situation since our kids are still just 12 and 7!💗

    1. I have found that as a daughter-in law I ffrequently felt left out of my husband’s family . Although my mother-in-law was a kind, considerate, and faith-filled woman, she continued, after our marriage, to directly communicate to my husband instead of me regarding extended family dinners, gatherings, etc. As I learned about boundaries through counseling, and after years into our marriage, I came to understand she was operating as though her son never married. She wanted her relationship with him to remain the same as when he was single. This mother-son communication distanced my relating with her and his family. Once I realized these dynamics, I strongly urged my husband to step up and tell his mother that she needed, from now on, to communicate with me directly for any ‘social’ activities with family. He told her I was in charge of our social calendar. This allowed us to be able to discuss alone our plans together, before we had to commit to the invitation. Although painful and intimidating for him at first, he became expert at deflecting all of her attempts to try to return to the old family system of communicating. This strengthened both our marriage, and empowered us to be viewed as a couple to operate together rather than extended family expectations trumping our plans. After 46 years of marriage experience, I frequently tell my friends, and mentorees, how absolutely critical it is to communicate directly as mother-in-laws to our daughter-in-laws in order to communicate love and acceptance, as well as promote connection. I believe so many divisions and misunderstandings could be prevented by inclusion of that new family member. This also reinforces to our sons how we both treasure their choice in marriage, and respect their headship of their home. It basically helps the ‘leave and cleave’ premise God intends for each marriage.

      1. Jill, I appreciate your insight. However, my experience has been the total opposite. My son has been married only 5 years. I have tried reaching out to my DIL directly during that time, even as recently as Jan. 2020. I sent a light note, inviting her to meet for lunch one day. She responded with a lengthy email asking me to stop contacting her, and from now on, only to contact my son. I believe I have tried to extend love, but she is not interested in having a relationship with either me, my daughter, or my husband. It is heartbreaking.

        1. Terry,
          I can feel what your words told about this heartache. There are no quick answers so this reply is to tell you many of us know what this feels like. And we want to encourage you to take their cues, step back as they requested and pray for God to soften their hearts. I have a good friend whose daughter-in-law used to meet with a friend for mother-in-law bashing sessions every week. Insecurity abounds in this often trying or non-existent relationship. God may give you an opportunity one day to explain how you have felt or He may work in another way. But remember most of all that God cares deeply about your heart and your son’s marriage. Broken relationships pain Him greatly.

      2. Jill,
        I love this story and that you took the time to share it with us. I hope many will read it and be encouraged. I was. Much wisdom in your reply!

    2. Thanks for writing Jennifer.
      God has given you a great honor and responsibility. Pray He will guide you and take the challenge of the young brother-in-law to heart. And get them to a Weekend to Remember marriage getaway! It’s the best preparation for marriage money can buy and couples in love are always eager to learn. Barbara

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