Okay, so we’ve all heard the mother-in-law jokes. And for many of us, the tension with our mothers-in-law is totally legit and can drive. us. CRAZY. But what if you could not only get along with your mother-in-law, but actually have her as an ally?
Meeting My Mother-in-Law
I’ll never forget the day I met my mother-in-law. My now husband and I had been dating for only a few months at that point, but we were starting to get serious. We met in Tulsa, where we both were attending college. But his family was in West Virginia, where he grew up, and that’s where we headed after school let out in May of 2004.
After a long, 16-hour drive at the end of finals week, we wound up the gravel hill to his parent’s house and my stomach did a flip-flop as I wondered if they would like me. “They’re going to love you,” Michael said, as if reading my thoughts. Smiling politely back, I hoped he was right.
I quickly checked in the mirror and adjusted my shirt, making sure I was modest enough. I took a deep breath and followed him to the door, where his mom greeted us. I put on my best, most enthusiastic potential-daughter-in-law smile and threw my arms around her in a friendly hug. It felt a little like hugging a 2×4, but I pretended not to notice.
She was a polite hostess and kept us well-fed, but I couldn’t help but wonder if she wasn’t sizing me up with our every interaction. Here I was, a girl from another state that she just met, making googly eyes at her only son.
We dated for another year before getting engaged and then married another year after that. I kept waiting for her to verbalize some sort of approval of me…but she didn’t.
Whenever I’d talk to her on the phone, I’d end the way I always did with my own family: “I love you.” Her common response: “Mmm. Hmm.”
Then one day, I had this realization that I was approaching our relationship from a defensive standpoint, rather than an open, intentional one. So, I shifted my approach and, surprisingly, she started to respond. Our relationship began to grow and we bonded in a special way. And it was so worth it.
Check out these strategies for how to make your mother-in-law love you and get ready to transform your extended family dynamic.
7 Tips for a Healthy Relationship with Your Mother-in-Law
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1. Recognize the WHY
One of the best gifts you can give your husband is to CHOOSE to not only get along with, but to truly develop a sincere love for and attempt to understand his mother. Because as good or bad as his relationship with his mom is, she is still and will always be his mother.
By investing in your own relationship with her, you are actually investing in the health of your own marriage and family in a powerful way. Not only will it show your husband how much you love him, but it will demonstrate to your kids what it looks like to build healthy relationships with people who may….or may not….be like you.
2. Understand Your Mother-in-Law’s Struggle
For the first whole YEAR of our marriage, my mother-in-law was still buying my husband’s underwear and socks! I couldn’t help but wonder if she thought I was incompetent as a wife. It wasn’t until several years and a counseling degree later that I truly began to understand things from her perspective.
For the first 23 years of my husband’s life, my mother-in-law had a very important identity and role. She was the most important woman in his life. She was the one who loved him more than any other woman in the world. His mom was his caretaker, the one who nurtured him, cheered him on, worried about him, prayed for him, waited up for him, celebrated with him and mourned with him.
Then all of a sudden, I come into the picture. This woman she doesn’t even know suddenly moves into the position of the most important woman in his life. Her identity has shifted. Is this a bad thing? No, of course not. But it’s significant to her.
A Sudden Role Shift
And as we got married, I took over many of the roles that she played in his life. All of a sudden, she’s not cooking meals for him, or kissing him goodnight. That’s my job now. She’s not making sure he has socks and underwear or hearing about his day. Her role in his life has completely changed.
I love the saying, “I’m not losing a son, I’m gaining a daughter.” And that can absolutely be the truth when all parties involved work together on this new version of their family. But there is still a major loss involved.
Your mother-in-law’s identity & key role have majorly shifted. And it’s perfectly normal for that transition….of her mind and heart…to take time. It’s even normal for her to grieve. If you seek to understand the evolution of her identity and role and how difficult that may be, whether she IS excited to welcome you into the family or not so much, it will go a long way. Give her time and grace to adjust.
3. Learn to Speak Her Love Language
If you’ve never read The 5 Love Languages by Gary Chapman, it’s an eye-opener. It will change your relationships. It’s based on the idea that there are 5 “languages” through which most people give and receive love (Words of Affirmation, Gifts, Physical Touch, Quality Time and Acts of Service). Although it’s great to give and receive love in all 5 of these ways, for most people, one or two of these languages resonates more strongly with them and speaks love most clearly to them. It’s different for everyone.
My top love language is Words of Affirmation. I know people love me because they tell me with their words. Well, my mother-in-law was not so inclined. She grew up in a family in which they didn’t really verbalize their feelings. Because of this, for the first couple years of our marriage, I didn’t think she even liked me. Not once during that time did she say “I love you” to me or tell me something she liked or appreciated about me.
And yet every single time she came to visit us in Cleveland or we went down to see them in West Virginia, she would give me something. It was often a kitchen gadget of some sort or some kind of useful item that she thought I needed. I sometimes assumed that she lacked confidence in my home-making ability. She literally majored in Home Economics in college, so no pressure or anything.
A Powerful Realization
Then one day, out of the blue, I had a realization. My mother-in-law’s love language is Gifts! For multiple years, I had been waiting for her to verbalize some sort of approval of me, and it never came. But instead, she showered me with gifts. I suddenly understood that she was reaching out to me in a way that she understood and I had been missing it.
My whole perspective of my mother-in-law changed in a moment. My base assumption that she didn’t like me shifted to a base assumption that she DID and was doing her best to communicate that in a way that came naturally to her…gifts.
If you want to know how to make your mother-in-law love you, figure out her love language and start to express love to her in that way.
How Do You Discover Her Love Language?
Watch what she does with her kids (or grandkids) for clues. Does she frequently telling them she’s proud of them or appreciates them? (Words) Is she great at picking out the perfect gift or always bringing little trinkets or candy? (Gifts) Is she quick to hug and kiss, always rubbing a back or touching a shoulder? (Physical Touch) Does she often want to spend time together, talk, do a puzzle, go shopping together? (Quality Time)
Or does she like it when her kids help with the cooking or jump in to do the dishes? (Acts of Service) If you’re not sure, ask your spouse. They can even take the free online assessment on her behalf to help figure it out.
Once you do, be intentional to express love to her in her language, even if she doesn’t return it or respond in the way you’d hope. It took years, but my mother-in-law eventually began to not only receive love from me, but to speak my language as well. She started expressing appreciation and even *gasp* talking about her feelings with me. And I cherished it.
4. Shift Your Mindset to a Same-Team Strategy
Only two women in the history of the world will love your husband the way you and his mother do. It’s something the two of you share in a unique way. You have the choice to view your mother-in-law as your competition or enemy OR you can choose to see her as a fellow teammate in one of the most important things in your life: loving, supporting & believing in your husband. When you allow yourself to see that you and she ultimately have the same goal in mind, you can recognize the value of approaching your family from a same-team mentality.
The more you treat her like she’s on your team, the more likely she is to actually be on your team.
5. Demonstrate Your Love & Respect For Her Son
One of the most POWERFUL things you can do to win over your mother-in-law is to love her son well. Even though you may not see eye to eye on everything, if she sees you truly love him, and he loves you, that will cover over a multitude of differences.
Let her see you express love and affection to him. Speak highly of him whether he’s around or not. Tell her things you love and admire about him. If you notice something positive he does that she taught him, for crying out loud, point it out! Ultimately, every mother wants her son to be loved. If she sees you are loving him fully, it can soften her heart towards you.
6. Invite Her Into Your World
One of the hardest things I have done in my relationship with my mother-in-law is to be vulnerable with her. But it’s so worth it. For the first several years of our relationship, I wasn’t sure if she liked me, so I tended to be defensive. But having that stance can do more harm than good.
Remember that, as much as you want her to like and approve of you, deep down, she is wanting the same from you. Be the one who gives first. Don’t wait for her to make the first move. Even when it’s hard, open your heart to her.
When you notice something she has done, thank her for it. Compliment her. Tell her something about you that matters. Find ways to include her and make her feel important to you and your family.
How to Include Her:
- Text her a cute photo or video of your kids or family throughout the week. We actually created a text group that includes both sets of parents and send little updates, photos and videos several times a week. They all LOVE it!
- Invite her to do something just the two of you: going shopping, out to lunch, coffee date. Ask her questions to get to know her and be willing to share something about yourself.
- Send her a card just because. Thank her for the role she plays in your family’s life.
- Send her flowers if you’re far away, or drop off flowers for a special occasion or just because.
- Invite her to important events in your kid’s or family’s life.
- Ask her for help. Instead of saying “no thanks” if she offers to help with something, let her. If she feels needed or wanted by you in some way, it will help her shape her NEW role in your husband’s and your family’s life.
7. Extend Lots of Grace & Forgiveness
There are bound to be hurt feelings, miscommunications, disagreements and sometimes even deep wounds. But don’t give up on her. Extend grace.
Even though it’s hard, you can choose not to let offense and bitterness take root. Instead, have the courage to forgive her, whether she asks you to or not. And when you do something that hurts her, whether intentionally or not, apologize and ask forgiveness. Show her that you are not looking to be offended, but that the intention of your heart is truly connection.
Why It Matters
My mother-in-law passed away just 2 months ago. Over the past 14 years of knowing each other, we had our ups and downs and hurts and miscommunications. And I was just as responsible for causing those as she was.
But when I stood by her bedside in her final days, watching my daughters give their final hugs and witnessing my husband hold his mother’s hand for the last time, all those minor annoyances…and even the major ones…faded away.
As I had the honor of singing her favorite song to her and thanking her for who she was, promising to love her son and granddaughters with all my heart, I felt extremely grateful that she and I chose to push through the hard things and form a genuine love for one another. Because I knew that she entrusted her son’s heart to me. And in that, we both had peace. The time we shared together ended up being a gift to both of us. And for that I am eternally grateful.
You never know what twists and turns life will take. But love is always worth the risk.
Like this post? You may also enjoy reading:
- Is Toxic Venting Sabotaging Your Marriage?
- Rough Times? How to Rock Your Season
- How to Change Your Husband in 4 Simple Steps
Disclaimer: I know that everybody’s situation is different. There are some cases in which extremely unhealthy dynamics like addiction, mental illness, abuse, etc. is involved. In those instances, I recommend seeking professional guidance and holding strong boundaries for the safety and well-being of everyone involved.
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