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Navigating the Rapids of a Mother-in-Law Relationship

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I first met my mother-in-law the day I graduated from college. I was excited to meet her and felt that I would gain a better understanding of my compassionate, giving, loving then-boyfriend, now-husband.

Fast forward to the arrival of our first born and everything seemed to change in a moment. I slipped into an uncomfortable position of feeling like I was being examined under a magnifying glass. I became angry, defensive, and very reactive. And I did the fatal worst thing: I complained about my mother-in-law to my husband.

Twenty-three years later, I can still bring to mind memories of my mother-in-law doing and saying things that seemed beyond tolerable. What I didn’t know then was that probably 90 percent of my mother-in-law’s behavior towards me had nothing to really do with me.

It was more about her relationship with her son, with her mother and even some with her husband. It had to do with the stories she wove in her mind. I was just another source that had potential power to trigger her unresolved issues and traumas.

But time has provided me with the luxury to reflect and explore this complicated relationship. I learned the hugely valuable lesson from my mother-in-law (or at least from decades of interaction with her) that patience is a gift you give yourself and those around you. When you think you at your last straw, that you can’t take another critical, judgmental, insulting comment, take a few deep breaths. Remember why this person is in your life and try to go to a place of gratitude.

But for those of us still in the throes of a mother-in-law relationship (including, at times, myself), what’s key is learning to set appropriate boundaries that you and your partner equally agree upon. For me, with my husband, establishing firm boundaries gave us a foundation to respond from when needed, such as why we were giving our kids certain food, values we shared with them, to even what time they went to bed.

A few other simple steps include:

· Start with deep breaths. Remember you are not your mother-in-law’s daughter or son. You know she loves you, but you’re not really quite sure she likes you.

· Remember to keep your mouth shut other than to eat, drink or ask how she is doing (and preferably not how she’s “feeling,” as that can set off a torrent you don’t want to contend with).

And remember what your responsibility is NOT:

· Reminding your spouse to call his or her mom

· Nudging your spouse about their mother’s birthday

· Urging, begging, pleading or guilting your adult children to call or text their grandparent

· Acting like you are her friend

Now, when it seems the world has shifted on its atlas during this pandemic, I feel an even greater clarity regarding this fraught relationship. I realize I may have signed a marriage contract many years ago but I did not sign a contract about my relationship with my mother-in-law. It is not my job to be her daughter nor decide what I think her son’s job should look like.

So, I frequently take my own advice. I stop, breathe and check in with myself. I noticed if my body has responded with tension, for example, my stomach pulling my attention to some pain. I gently put my hand on my heart, close my eyes, and ask myself what am I feeling. I stay quiet, drawing up some courage to tolerate the uncomfortable thoughts rising to the surface.

This clarity allows me to not personalize the arrows my mother-in-law slings my way. I can hear the sheer fear in her voice as she declares she is fine. I give her the space she demands, and possibly needs. And finally, finally, I’m able to love with no expectations.

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Nancy Kislin, LCSW, MFT, is a leading expert in helping parents, educators and communities cultivate resilience in an age of uncertainty. With more than 28 years of experience as a therapist and educator, Nancy specializes in helping individuals struggling with anxiety, depression and trauma. She is the author of Lockdown: Talking to Your Kids About School Violence, a book that examines the psychological and emotional impact of “lockdown culture” on kids.

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