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Deanna Brann, Ph.D. Headshot

The MIL/DIL Competition: It's Not What You Think

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Getting along with your mother-in-law or daughter-in-law can certainly be a complex issue. Even if you've accepted the fact that you won't ever be best friends, you will still be in each other's lives for quite some time. And that means you need to know when to speak up, when to stay silent, and how to maneuver within a disagreement so that you keep the relationship intact. It's not easy, to say the least. Although learning these skills is important for navigating all your relationships, it's extremely important when it comes to the MIL/DIL relationship.

This relationship -- like no other -- really needs to find that delicate balance because it's extremely fragile. One wrong look, one inconsiderate behavior, or one off-putting remark from your MIL or DIL can change how you feel about each other forever. In my book Reluctantly Related, I discuss five reasons why this relationship is so difficult. But here, I want to talk about why it's so different from the other family relationships (including other in-law relationships), most of which can weather the storm much easier than the MIL/DIL relationship can.

The main factor in why it's so different between MILs and DILs is that there's an undercurrent of competition between the two women -- but it's not what you're probably thinking. Most of us want to believe that this competition is for the husband/son's love. That's not it. The competition is actually for the influence each woman has over this man in the middle.

This is an unspoken competition. Most women will feel some tension around something the other did or said, and then they will find fault with the actions displayed by the other. For example, a DIL may complain that her husband's mother won't let go, or a MIL might say that her son's wife wants to keep him from the rest of his family. Making these statements or having these reactions is really how each woman tries to deal with the covert competition. These statements and/or reactions are the consequence of this undercurrent of competition, not the cause.

Think about it for a minute. Let's say your in-law brings something up in conversation that leaves you with a vague uneasy feeling. You feel threatened in some way, but you aren't really sure why, so what do you do? The most common reaction is to look at something your in-law did and find fault with it because that action is creating anxiety in you that you don't understand. You're pushing back in an attempt to get rid of your anxiety. Both your behavior -- or should I say your reaction -- and hers is all about this misunderstood threat.

So let's say you now see this interplay for what it truly is. What does that mean and how do you deal with it? First of all, be aware that understanding this aspect of the MIL/DIL relationship is more than half the battle. Even getting just this much will start to shift your mind and emotions to some degree, which then allows you to behave or react differently when the next situation arises. That can be huge!

Once you know that this tension may be about your influence (or lack thereof) over your son or husband -- and not about his love for you -- you can take two big steps toward healing this friction. First, you can consciously decide to look at the bigger picture and realize that each of you plays a role in his life. You each play different roles, mind you, but just the same, you each have a role. Second, you can determine how your role (as his wife or as his mother) can create a positive experience for all three of you.

For example, as his mother, you can think about how you can shift your importance in his life to something that fits well with the adult he has become. He's no longer your little boy, and it's appropriate for his wife to have a say in how they, as a couple, want to live their lives. That doesn't mean you have no influence -- you're still very important to him in ways that have nothing to do with his wife. But when you see that your importance has just shifted, instead of evaporated, you'll feel less threatened.

As his wife, on the other hand, you can learn to recognize your importance in your husband's life without feeling the need for him to discard his mother. She will always be a big part of his life, for sure, and that's natural. It doesn't mean he doesn't care about building a whole new life with you. Remember, he chose you to build a new life together, didn't he? Trust that.

Whether you're an MIL or a DIL, understanding how the other can feel threatened by the fear of being unimportant or devalued will also help you develop some compassion toward the other. This will no doubt soften you a bit so that you're less reactive and more deliberate in what you say and do around the other. It gives you a bit of much-needed breathing room. In the end, you're both important to him -- and that's a very good thing.