How to Overcome In-Law Problems

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The relationship between a mother-in-law and daughter-in-law can be painful, but it doesn't have to be. The issue often is a lack of trust. This article offers five practical tips for building trust.

Listen to a broadcast about relationships with in-laws featuring Deb DeArmond.

“I want to know your secret,” said the woman across the dinner table. A three-day retreat had brought us together, but her face was unfamiliar. I don’t share secrets with random strangers. And even though I was intrigued by her statement, I was silent because I didn’t know what she was talking about.

My blank expression prompted her to continue. “I’m sharing a cabin with your daughters-in-law. They love you. I mean big-time love. I can’t stand my daughter-in-law, and she feels the same about me. It’s been a war zone since she married my son.”

The problem is no joke.

The relationships between WIL (women-in-law) have long been among the most painful many women — even Christian women — will ever face.

The mother-in-law jokes and references on TV and in movies are legendary. Think of Marie Barone, the ever-present and always nosy mom-in-law on the sitcom “Everybody Loves Raymond.” Her greatest achievement? Raising the “perfect” son, Ray. Beleaguered daughter-in-law, Debra, could have cooked the perfect lasagna while cartwheeling across the floor singing “That’s Amore,” and it would never impress her demanding mother-in-law.

From what I’ve seen, women are culturalized to believe this relationship will never be good. And when it isn’t, they aren’t surprised and do little to improve it.

It might be expected that women would bond over their mutual admiration for the man in the middle, but that’s not the way the story typically plays out. The problem is that two women love the same man: one as his mother, one as his wife. And sometimes these women feel the need to stake out their territory to rebuff all trespassers. Moms have spent years and tears in the process of raising a son. Then a mother’s tenure gives way to the benefits a wife can provide. Sometimes the mother-in-law has a critical attitude: “My daughter-in-law is not good enough for my son. She’s not the woman I would have ever chosen.” This creates a clash with “the other woman.” Other times, the wife comes to the relationship with preconceived ideas that she must fight for her place: “My mother-in-law needs to stay out of our lives and let us create our own family.”

The relationship problem often centers on a lack of trust, and trust must be built over time through consistent, observable behavior.

Five tips to build trust

Are you a wife or mother locked in an adversarial relationship with your WIL? Are you already living in a no-trust zone? Here are five practical tips to help you build trust with your WIL:

  • Treat your daughter- or mother-in-law as family. She is connected to someone you love deeply — try to understand how he feels about your WIL. Be sure you treat your daughter-in-law as your son would expect (or your mother-in-law as your husband would expect). Even if her behavior toward you is difficult or rude, you can choose to respond respectfully to her.
  • Forgive your mother- or daughter-in-law. Set aside grudges and past hurts. How is that possible? By following Christ’s example and forgiving her for the hurt in order to build the relationship. Jesus is there to help through His strength and love.
  • Speak kindly. The Bible reminds us in Ephesians 4:15 that we are to speak “the truth in love” and that “we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.” Truth spoken without love can be painful. Be candid but kind and use the truth to liberate, not annihilate.
  • Avoid manipulation. Manipulating and attempting to control others to serve yourself does not demonstrate the love of God. Ask Him what you can do to serve the best interest of the family, which includes your daughter- or mother-in-law.
  • Give trust. Believe that others are essentially honest. Be willing to disclose appropriately. If you want to be trusted, go first: Trust your in-law until given a reason not to. For inspiration, consider the book of Ruth. That story depicts a beautiful women-in-law relationship with a joyful ending.

So where does that leave my retreat dinner partner whom I referenced earlier? I shared the suggestions and Scripture verses above. But instead of embracing the ideas, she stomped off angrily. However, several months later she read my book on the subject and she called me afterward. She apologized and reported she had finally reached out to her daughter-in-law. “We’re not best friends,” she said. “But we’ve healed a lot of hurt. We’re on track to becoming family.”

How strong is your marriage? Find out today with the Focus on Marriage Assessment. This reliable assessment is based on the research and experience of Focus on the Family’s marriage experts Dr. Greg and Erin Smalley. Take this free assessment now.

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