According to popular myth, mothers-in-law are meddling, overbearing, and impossible creatures out to wreck an otherwise wonderful marriage. They think they are always right and that it's their job to always tell you the right way to do things (their way!). If this describes how you view your mother or mother-in-law, you probably feel she is interfering with your life rather than being helpful. However, if you would like your relationship with her to be different, read on.
What Is Really Going On?
First of all, it will help tremendously to understand what is happening underneath the stereotyping. It's no accident that mothers are the subjects of in-law jokes. The relationship with your mother, and your spouse's relationship with his or her mother, change more than any other when you get married. Think about it. Mothers nurture us from the moment we are born. Through our childhood they are the ones most involved in our day-to-day life. They know the names of our friends and what our favorite flavors of ice cream are. (We are not excluding fathers from this level of intimacy. However, the fact that there are no father-in-law jokes out there probably reflects a less emotionally complicated relationship.) As we get older, our relationships with our mothers change, but they still are one of the most profound influences on our lives.
Until we are married, our mothers have had the most intense, intimate relationship with us of almost anybody. Friendships and other relationships somehow do not seem to threaten a mother's special role with her child. But when we marry, things are different. We have made a public commitment to a life partner who will share our deepest concerns, our day-to-day life, and our future together.
As it should be, we make our spouse the number one most important person in our lives. Hopefully, our mother is incredibly proud and happy for us. But she also might feel insecure and not know where she stands in her relationship with us anymore. A vicious cycle can start in which the more insecure and left out our mother feels, the more she tries to overinvolve herself. And, the more she overinvolves herself with our lives, the more we are inclined to back away. Take this quiz to assess your own relationship with you mother and mother-in-law.
Breaking the Cycle
Stephanie's mother stopped by several times a week, often while Robert and Stephanie were eating dinner. It really interfered with their time together and made Robert uptight. Generally Robert was a polite person, but he really considered this rude and tended to show it. He wasn't mean to his mother-in-law, but he wasn't a gracious host either. After she left, he felt frustrated and also guilty that he had not treated her nicely. Stephanie often became angry that Robert had not treated her mother well. She also wished her mother would come by less often, but she didn't know how to improve the situation.
Stephanie and Robert finally sat down and talked about the problem. They realized that what bothered them the most was the lack of privacy caused by an unannounced visit. Stephanie suggested they set up a regular night that her mother would come for dinner. Robert agreed.
Marriage Q & A's
Q: Now that I'm married, my mother is telephoning me twice a day. I don't want to upset her, but I don't want her to call so often. What can I do?
A: Perhaps if you telephoned her on a regular basis, she would feel more secure. When you finish a conversation with her, tell her when you will next call her. Make a point of calling her back when you said you would. If she can count on you to contact her, she might telephone you less often. If that doesn't work, you should talk openly and kindly with her about your needs.
Stephanie called her mother and discussed the idea with her. She told her mother that they loved seeing her, but it was difficult for them when it wasn't planned. She needed time alone with Robert. She told her mother that Robert and she would like to invite her for dinner every Thursday evening. Then they would really be able to give her their undivided attention. She emphasized to her mother that she was welcome in their home at other times, but they would appreciate it if she would call first.
At first Stephanie's mother felt she was being shut out of their lives. Stephanie almost caved in, but somehow found the courage to be firm. She told her mother that she was always a part of their lives, but that they just needed a set schedule to make their lives more manageable. Her mother didn't seem happy at first, but it ended up to be a very workable solution for everybody. Robert was much more gracious and polite to his mother-in-law then he had previously been. He took a genuine interest in her life and became much closer to her than before. Everyone looked forward to their evenings together.
When you are in the middle of a difficult situation, it can be hard to be objective. If you feel your mother or mother-in-law is smothering you, you probably want to push her out of your life. But that will not work, and you will only hurt her feelings and feel guilty for having done so.
You need to make your mother or mother-in-law feel secure. Let her know when you appreciate something she has done for you or some advice she has given you. You don't need to argue with her if you disagree with her suggestions. Just listen and thank her. Ideally, you will come up with ways to include her in your lives. You might ask her advice about certain things if she might be helpful. Make a point of inviting her over for a regularly scheduled time (even if it's infrequent). Having a time that she can count on might calm her down, making her less likely to be over-involved in your lives.