THE BLOG
03/11/2013 12:33 pm ET Updated May 11, 2013

Marital Bliss 101: Making It Work With Your Mother-in-Law

You would love to continue basking in the afterglow of your wedding day (who wouldn't?), but reality is setting in: you now have a new extended family to consider, and that includes a mother-in-law. How are you supposed to treat her, to act around her? You're not exactly friends, and she doesn't feel quite like family yet. But she is certainly more than a mere acquaintance. Where's the rulebook? you wonder, and why didn't I get that for a wedding gift?

As you have no doubt come to realize, marriage is more than the wedding itself, and it encompasses more than merely you and your husband. Marriage involves so many factors with so many people in so many new situations that there is no way you could have thought about all its dynamics and nuances in advance. But when you think about your mother-in-law, tread with care because she's more than just "another person to bring into the mix." Just as you love your mother and can't imagine yourself not having her in your life, your husband loves his mother, too. Of course, she isn't necessarily going to be in your life in the same way that your own mother is (you don't really need two women mothering you, do you?). But even so, this woman is definitely going to be a part of your lives in a big way -- and just wait until you have kids!

One of the things I've seen over the years of working with mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law is that there is an unspoken but much-felt sense of competition between them. It's not a competition for your husband's love; it's a competition for who has more influence over him now. Obviously, at one point in his life, his mother had a tremendous amount of influence over your husband, especially if they were close. But now that he is an adult and you are married, the person who has the most influence on him has appropriately shifted to his life partner: you! This transition will not necessarily be easy for your mother-in-law, so having some patience and compassion and remembering and trusting that you really are in that top spot will make managing this new relationship so much easier.

How do you go about creating a comfortable relationship with "the other woman" in your husband's life? Here are some tips for forging ahead while avoiding most of the drama and power struggles:

1. Decide what you want this new relationship with your mother-in-law to look like. Try to visualize what you want in as much detail as possible. Do you see yourself going to lunch with her sometimes? Chatting on the phone once a week? Asking her opinion about things? Defining exactly what you want will put you in a much better situation to create it. (Don't worry -- you can always adjust the picture, but start with something.)

2. Get to know who your mother-in-law is. All mothers-in-law fit into one of four types (or some combination thereof): Comfortable Carla, Mothering Margaret, Off-the-Wall Wanda, or Uncertain Sara. (For full descriptions, see my website at www.drdeannabrann.com.) When you determine which personality type yours is, you will be able to understand her and how to relate to her better, anticipating and preparing for the potential pitfalls you may have along the way.

3. Slowly build your own relationship with your mother-in-law. Let your husband have his own relationship with his mother -- forge a relationship with this woman that is separate from his. Get to know her as an individual, not just as your husband's mom, so you can start to see her as more than just a mother figure. After all, you're more than a wife and a daughter-in-law, aren't you?

4. Be proactive. Remember that your mother-in-law is probably struggling to define her new role in your husband's life. She wants to remain a part of things, but chances are she doesn't yet know the best way to make that happen. Help her out by taking the first steps toward defining this relationship. This will also show her that you do want her to be a part of your new life together, and that will undoubtedly allow her to relax a little, easing much initial tension and awkwardness.

5. Determine what you can do to make this transition easier for both of you. Take the steps you would want someone to take with you, and do it with compassion and respect. She's as uncertain as you are, so she'll probably welcome your lead. If tensions start to pop up, think about how you'd want your own future daughter-in-law to handle the same sort of situation if it were to come up with you (some day way in the future, of course!).

Remember that you are on a new journey in your new life. You and your husband have the ability to create the world that you want together. So as you move ahead, be mindful, thoughtful, and compassionate with your new family, especially with your new mother-in-law. Trust me, your efforts will definitely be worth it.

Deanna Brann, Ph.D., is a leading expert in the field of mother-in-law/daughter-in-law relationships. She has over 25 years experience as a clinical psychotherapist and ran her own private practice for more than 18 years. Based in Knoxville, TN, Dr. Brann is a sought after speaker, author and seminar leader. She is also the author of Reluctantly Related: Secrets to Getting Along with Your Mother-in-Law or Daughter-in-Law. For more information please visit: www.drdeannabrann.com

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