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5 Tips for Handling a 'Difficult' Mother-in-Law

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This past weekend I had a visit from a friend. She's been with her husband for almost 20 years but needed to get away for a few days: her mother-in-law had been staying with her for 3 months and she was at the end of her rope. The interesting thing about her visit was that she was venting a lot of the same frustrations with her very well-worn MIL that I hear from some of our clients who are just wrapping their heads around their new relationships with their MILs. (Indeed, a lot of the conversations I had with my girlfriend are talks that I've had with our clients and talks that I have had with myself! My ex-MIL was no walk in the park!)

Yes, there are those lucky gals who sit around baking bread and trading compliments on Facebook, but for most gals at best the MIL is all the annoying things about your own mother, only she isn't... so you can't tell her that she's annoying you. At it's worst a difficult MIL relationship is like a football game: both sides feel that the ball (your lovely spouse and her perfect child) "belongs" rightfully to them and therefore they aren't going to step on the field to hug it out and share. There will be fighting to get the ball to the desired side and all we can hope is that no one gets hurt.....

Your engagement time is in many ways a microcosm of what you can expect post-wedding. If he loved to spend money on the wedding and you were thrifty... you'll probably see that at home too. Similarly with Mother-in-laws. My visit with my friend showed me that those passive fights and irritations with your MIL that start with the wedding planning will last throughout the duration of your marriage without change or improvement unless you can adopt a different attitude. One of the worst things that we assume when settling into a new marriage is that time will heal all. Sometimes we need to be active participants in that healing, too.

So, if your Future mother-in-law is driving you batty, here are five tips on how to DE-escalate the drama that you can use now and hence-forth after.

1. Remember that your gain can feel like her loss.
Try and practice empathy with your future MIL. While you are excited about the beginning of this new phase of life with her son or daughter, for your MIL, this new phase can serve as a reminder that their "baby" is no longer a baby and all of the complicated feelings that go along with that. It may stir up resentments, feelings of aging, anxiety about their relevancy in their child's life, fear of you shutting them out, a feeling of being "replaced"... even if these things are irrational. So, when you feel that your MIL is attempting to assert herself in ways that push your buttons, take a moment to remember that it is likely less personal to you than it is personal to her. Empathy can only diffuse a situation as you remember that this woman is less your combatant than potentially you in another 25-30 years.

2. When discussing your MIL grievances with your Dear Husband or Wife, stick to behaviors not character assessments. MILs have the ability to bring out the most girl-fighting instincts in us women! Countless girlfriends describe their MILs with the sweeping character assessments one sees only in a Novella "She's so manipulative!" "She tries to control everything!" "I think she wants us to break up!". While your girlfriends may listen and even agree with these assessments, they are harder for your partner -- her child -- to hear. A new layer of frustration can build when you feel that your partner "refuses to see" who their mother really is. Don't introduce your issues with "As usual, your manipulative mother is trying to have her dream wedding." Instead, tackle the behavior at hand: "I found out today that your mother went behind our back and asked the florist to change the colors of the flowers. I found that behavior unacceptable, since it not only isn't her choice, but she did it secretly. How should we address this?" (these are all real problems, by the way!).

3. Don't pick fights, but stand up for yourself.
You are a grown woman- after all you are grown enough to be married, right? It's normal and natural to have your own way of doing things -- from little things like laundry to big things like celebrating a religious holiday. You are entitled to and should stick up for yourself and your way of doing things should you feel it diminished verbally or bullied behaviorally. It's important to feel comfortable with how you want to raise your kids or if you want to go to church on Easter (in example) because then you will be able to verbalize your way of doing things and not "fold" under questioning.

4. If you feel aggrieved, don't let incidents sit.
Once, my ex- MIL, who pretty openly thought I was a little too chubby, gave me a pedometer and a costco-sized box of Splenda. She did it as we were leaving from a visit under the "I got something for you." I was so surprised and insulted, but I called her other daughter in law to ask if she'd gotten the same "package". She had not. I went on and on and on about it and got myself so worked up to my friends, my ex-husband, etc. I never felt I could confront her in the past and so instead I simply always complained about her. This time I had to do something. When we visited next, I brought the Splenda back and left it on the counter and told her "Thank you for thinking of me, you should know I don't use artificial things when cooking at my house." To be honest, we got along much better after that, because I realized I didn't need to stew on issues with her as long as I handled them respectfully and she realized I would stand up for myself.

5. When frustrated, rest in Gratitude.
Even at it's most vexing, you can always know that you and your MIL share one thing in common -- a love for the person you married. It's hardly likely that's the only thing you share, but in those moments it seems like it is, rest in gratitude that this woman birthed the person you LOVE! And then remember that the person you love would be crushed if you and his/her mother had an all-our fight.

Remember, your relationship with your mother-in-law is one that is going to last a long, long time. The more you can do to make it blossom, the better! (This post originally appeared on Always a Blogsmaid)