THE BLOG
10/16/2012 11:53 am ET | Updated Dec 16, 2012

Got In-Laws? Get a Game Plan!

I love people-watching. I learn so much by watching others talk with their friends and family. I can usually figure out how they feel about themselves, how they feel about the people they are talking to and often what is going on with their relationships. No, I'm not a mind reader, but I am a psychotherapist. Reading a person's body language, listening to what they say to one another and how they say it and noticing who is talking to whom about what can give good information about them and their relationships. And what better place than a wedding shower -- when the stakes are high, the stress is high and everyone's best or worse behavior starts to seep out behind the masks.

I went to just such a bridal shower a few weeks ago. Although I didn't know the bride and groom well, I did learn a lot about their new family dynamics just by watching the way the bride, her mother, and the groom's mother interacted. For example, imagine this scene: Before the party got started, the bride's mother was standing next to her daughter but was talking to another woman. The bride's future mother-in-law walked up to the bride and started talking to her. She seemed a bit uncomfortable, which is natural, but I gave her points for trying to engage. As they began chatting, the bride's mother immediately stopped talking to this other woman, turned to her daughter, and without any hesitation interrupted her daughter's conversation with her future mother-in-law.

It was an awkward moment to say the least. The mother-in-law was startled speechless, the bride shrank right there on the spot, and the bride's mother was oblivious to all of it. You could tell that the bride, who looked torn, was thinking, 'What do I do with these two women?' She had no clue how to integrate them into her new world and into her new family.

I really felt for her. And sadly, I must say that I predict a lot of problems for her in the years ahead. Just this short exchange showed me that all three women are struggling with where they will fit. Each woman is trying to stake her claim. So how do a bride, her mother, and her mother-in-law create an environment that allows everyone to belong? How do both a mother-in-law and a mother of the bride allow their roles to change from being an active participant in their child's life to one that is more on the sidelines? Unfortunately, users manuals for this situation don't exist, but I can share a few things to consider that may make the process a little easier for everyone.

The best place to start is for each of these women to look at her expectations for these new relationships. What does she want them to look like? How can she get what she wants but still allow everyone to feel a part of things? This is not an easy task, of course. The bride now has another woman in her life, one who has a long history and a relationship with her new husband. The bride's mother has another woman of equal footing in her life, as well as a new man with whom she must now share her daughter. The future mother-in-law has both an older woman of equal status in her life as well as a younger woman who shares, albeit differently, a love for the same man. And then on top of all that, there are the two extended families to add into this tricky mix of belongingness.

Yikes! A lot of sharing needs to happen, and unfortunately sharing is not always so easy to do. But it can be much easier if you know what key points to focus on, right from the start. Here is a game plan designed for all three women that will help them begin this journey into their new lives together.

Mothers-in-law:

• Accept that your relationship with your son is changing. He's a man, and he will soon be a husband. Let him go. Graciously accept your new relationship with him.

• Your son loves this woman; so learn why he is so crazy about her. Then embrace those things that he loves about her.

• Cherish the fact that she, too, loves your son. After all, you want only the best for him, right?

• Understand that you did not gain a daughter when your son married his wife. She is a woman in her own right, so allow her to be just that.

• Remember that being right is not important -- strengthening the relationship is what counts most.

• Recognize that you are not in competition with your son's wife or her mother. You have a unique role in their lives.

Daughters-in-law:

• Your husband's mother matters to him, let her matter to you, too.

• Realize that you have power in this new relationship with your mother-in-law. Use it thoughtfully.

• Appreciate that your mother-in-law may be struggling with all these changes and treat her with compassion.

• Remember that being right is not important -- strengthening the relationship is what counts most.

• Recognize that you are not in competition with your husband's mother. You are the one he chose -- trust it.

• Understand that you will not be disloyal to your mother if you like your mother-in-law.

Daughter-in-law's Mother:

• Accept that your relationship with your daughter is changing. Let her be the woman she is meant to be.

• Understand that your daughter's relationship with her husband should be her priority. Take a step back and allow that to happen.

• Appreciate the role of your son-in-law's mother -- it's not an easy one.

• Remember that being right is not important -- strengthening the relationship is what counts most.

• Recognize that you are not in competition with your son-in-law's mother. You have a unique role in their lives.

• Trust your daughter. She can love and care about all of you without that taking something away from you.