Setting Boundaries with the Mother-In-Law
How to handle the mother-in-law has been a topic of emotional debate since Eve became a mother-in-law. Comedy routines are based on the actions of the mother-in-law. Movies center around her actions. Marriages have been ruined because of her. What can be done about it? Set the boundaries for your mother-in-law and stand by them.
Stereotypes are not always fair though they make great punch lines for jokes and comedy acts. The mother-in-law is not missed. The stereotype for a mother-in-law could be summed up as nosy, bossy, domineering, controlling, interfering, criticizing, and downright destructive. Before going further, I do want to clarify that 100% of mothers-in-law are not like this. Stereotypes do not represent the majority. Not all blondes are dumb. Not all jokes are stupid, and not all rocket scientists are nerds. All mothers-in-laws are not marriage destroying monsters. Unfortunately, a good number are (which gives the rest a bad rap) whether they realize it or not.
Many mothers-in-law want to help and just do not realize that they are doing more harm than good. These are the ones who inadvertently fall under the stereotype. Then you have the ones who are willing take up the scepter of mean mother-in-law and live it with relish.
Here, I’ll go into ideas on how to set the boundaries with your mother-in-law so that the relationship can be outside the “typical” in-law relationship. Discover different tactics and even potential problems.
Before going into how to resolve issues and prevent them before they occur, we need to get a better understanding of why mothers-in-law act the way they do. As stated earlier, not all are the same and they come in various degrees of the stereotype. But, why are they like this? Because they are mothers.
These women have been mothers for at least eighteen years usually before they encounter a daughter-in-law or son-in-law. They have had their precious child for many years and have gone through hell and back with them and for them. They have sat by their bedside and nursed them. They have clothed them. They have taught them the basics of life and have been the only woman they turned to for advice, help, and guidance. Now, their baby has someone else.
It does not matter whether their child is a daughter or a son. The newcomer that steals their attention and their affection is an enemy. Though not all mothers-in-law look at the newcomer with intense hatred, there is always a small degree of jealousy and possessiveness. They are losing the one who shared their blood for nine months and who they have sacrificed so much for. This new person has done none of that and wants to usurp the mother.
The hostility sets in the minute their child shows an interest in someone else. It is not easy to step aside and let their child go much less handing them over to another person. This has led to the stereotype of the evil mother-in-law. Boundaries need to be set to help the relationship not be destructive.
Going into a Marriage
When a son or daughter announces that they will be cementing their life with another for eternity, the mother has a mixture of feelings begin to wreak havoc in her heart and soul. They are happy for their child yet they feel fear. Is their child choosing the right person? Are they making this major decision at the right time in their life? Will they lose their child forever? As these questions go through their minds, they begin to react and set the stage for their mother-in-law role.
As a couple goes into marriage, the boundaries for the mother-in-law (and, in truth, all outsiders) need to be set early. Why is this important? The earlier this happens the less likely severe damage occurs and there is more time for fulfilling relationships to be developed.
What boundaries should be set at this time?
Criticism – One of the most destructive things anyone can do is criticize and put-down the love of someone’s life. When Mom points out all the flaws of the newcomer, they are letting their child know that they do not find the person acceptable. They are expressing their disapproval. That might be well and good one time because they love their child and want to make sure that they are not picking a gold-digger, abuser, or low-life for a spouse. Continual criticism is different and is extremely destructive not only of their relationship with their future daughter-in-law or son-in-law but more so with their own child.
Criticism tells the child that Mom does not feel that they are competent enough to choose a spouse. It is telling them that Mom does not want to let go. Stop the criticism up front.
Do not allow your mother to constantly put your intended down or point out their flaws. If you allow this to go on, you are giving her control of your marriage before it even occurs to her. By letting her constantly reject your love, you are letting your intended know that they come second to mom. That is not the basis of a strong marriage.
“Mom, I know that you are not fond of Jane (John) and that you think that they are not worthy of me. But I love her (him). I want to spend the rest of my life with her (him). I know they are not perfect. I’m not perfect either. Her (His) mother is probably pointing out how rotten I am, too. But we want to grow together and make each other a better person. Your rejection of them is a rejection of me. Please refrain from comments that are destructive instead of constructive because I do not want to be forced to choose between the two women who mean the most to me.”
Stop the condemnation now before it destroys everyone involved. Too many times, the mother-in-law is allowed to rip apart their child’s spouse. “Amy needs to learn to keep house better.” In other words, “Amy is not near the housekeeper I am which shows that I’m the better woman here.” “Brian needs to help out more around the house.” In other words, “He is not man enough for you and is lacking.” Some comments might not seem like much, but each criticizing comment tears down the potential strong relationship bonds.
Criticism needs to be stopped.
Interference – Criticism leads into interference. The stereotypical mother-in-law is always trying to tell the future spouse how to plan the wedding, where to live, what jobs to have, and how the relationship should be. The couple cannot make a single decision without the mother-in-law putting in her two cents or more. This is just as dangerous as criticism.
Lay down how much influence she has on the wedding. Is she paying for any of it? If so, she does have a degree of influence. If not, she needs to realize that this is the couples’ day and not hers. Either scenario needs her to be respectful of each party and to realize that this is their special day to remember forever.
If the boundaries are not laid out now, the marriage will practically three parties.
Too often couples do not attempt to set boundaries until after the wedding. This can be done to the immaturity of the couple when first married or because of logistics. Setting boundaries later in the marriage relationship is much harder and can have negative effects. She has already entrenched herself which means uprooting is very difficult.
The key is to be strong and consistent. If you are not, then nothing is being resolved and no boundaries will be firmly established. Might as well accept the fact that the marriage is made up of husband, wife, and potentially two warring mothers-in-law.
Remember that in most scenarios there are two mothers-in-law that want influence. Talk about a battleground!
Importance of Spousal Support
Both spouses have to be on the same page with the boundaries. If Jane does not want John’s mother to barge in without knocking (who knows what she might be interrupting!), then John has to support her on this. In fact, he needs to reinforce this as much as possible and not leave it up to Jane to tell her. If he puts it all on Jane, John’s mother looks at Jane as the enemy and not the couple as a unit.
This is especially true when grandchildren are involved. If boundaries were not needed before, when a grandchild arrives, they will be extremely necessary now. Nothing gets a mother-in-law more involved than her grandbaby arriving. She wants to make sure that they are healthy and nothing harms them.
Set ground rules early. Is she allowed to control how the child is dressed? How much influence does she have over the child’s daily life? This can be touchy, but is critical to be addressed early on.
Rest assured that none of these actions will be taken with a smile on their face. There will be radioactive fallout over any of this. Though this might make you wonder if you should even set up boundaries, keep in mind that without them the marriage could be ripped apart.
Create a united front with your spouse and make sure that the boundaries are not set in place or enforced out of anger or malice. At times, it might be necessary to be stern and unmoving, but always reassure that she is not being pushed completely out of the life of her child and/or grandchildren.
If you set the rule that she cannot just walk in without knocking, make sure that she is invited over regularly so that she knows that she is not banned from your house but needs to respect that it is your house and that you should have privacy. If you state that she cannot go through your refrigerator and clean it without asking, ask her advice on a dish or take her grocery shopping. In closing a door, let you know that she is not removed from the whole life of her child.
Being a Good Mother-in-Law
I want to address the mothers-in-law at this point. You child is bringing someone into their life and it can be threatening. You do not have to be the stereotypical mother-in-law.
Did you like your mother-in-law commenting on how bad the kids are dressed or pointing out how your cooking is lacking? Did you like you own mother always pointing out how you spouse just does not measure up? No one liked that. Then why do we take up the role of nasty mother-in-law and do it so well when we know how it is to be on the receiving end? Limited eyesight.
Have you ever seen the movie Monster-in-law? Though this is a very funny movie on the stereotypical mother-in-law, it is a very serious look into how the monster-in-law is created. The mother-in-law became her own nasty mother-in-law. She was created by her own arch nemesis. We become the ones we hate.
How do you become a good mother-in-law? Always remember how it was to be the daughter-in-law. Remember how you felt when criticized or controlled. Before opening your mouth, think of what you are going to say. Though you might be just trying to help, how will it be received and how will it be delivered can greatly influence your relationship with them. Much of the relationship you have with your son-in-law or daughter-in-law will be shaped by you. Be willing to admit when you are wrong and apologize.
Every relationship, including between husband and wife, needs boundaries. These boundaries are not meant to be mean or controlling. They are meant to be nurturing and create lasting, loving relationships. With boundaries in place, mothers-in-laws can be close to their child’s love and be a part of their life.