Laura* and her mother-in-law talk openly about private matters and nothing is off limits—not even sex. They vent to each other about their marital problems and they sometimes vacation together without their spouses.
“I can talk to her about anything—she gives me advice and doesn’t just take my husband’s side,” she says. “Our friendship doesn’t feel weird and my husband isn’t bothered it.”
Laura’s closeness with her mother-in-law works for her but is being that close beneficial to everyone or does it create problems? A relationship with your daughter-in-law minus tension may sound nice, but keeping a little space between you can be good for you both.
According to Deanna Brann, Ph.D., author of Reluctantly Related—Secrets to Getting Along With Your Mother-In-Law or Daughter-In-Law, you’re too close if your daughter-in-law is revealing personal information about her marriage, money and job stress, and if the two of you spend time together while excluding your husbands. You shouldn't have a peer-type of relationship. “By talking about personal things regardless of what they are, you run the risk of blurring boundaries with your daughter-in-law and this leaves you open to her misinterpreting what you have said to her,” says Dr. Brann.
“It isn’t beneficial for you or your daughter-in-law to open up excessively because your relationship is more fragile than you may realize,” says Dr. Brann. “If you hear about your son’s behavior, it can be hurtful, especially if it’s derogatory in nature, and then what do you do with that information?” You can’t very well go to him and talk about it. Plus, if you give her advice on how to handle things, it may hit a nerve. And there’s the risk your son may feel betrayed or like you’re choosing sides. There are things at this point in his life that he may not want his mother to know about.
“If your daughter-in-law reveals details about her marriage, it’s a betrayal to her husband and it can significantly affect their marriage,” says Dr. Brann. “Men need to separate from their parents, particularly their mothers; if your daughter-in-law shares private marital woes or matters, it can impede your son’s development in this area.”
Spending too much time together or sharing too much information isn’t healthy for anyone. “It’s important for your marriage that your husband be the primary person with whom you share personal and detailed information,” says Terri Orbuch, Ph.D., a psychologist and research professor at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research and author of 5 Simple Steps to Take Your Marriage from Good to Great. “He should also be the person you go to if something happens to you like a medical scare or losing a job.”
According to Dr. Orbuch’s long-term study of 373 couples funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), when a wife feels close to her in-laws the couple is 20% more likely to divorce.
And a study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships reported that people feel like part of the family when parents-in-law share personal information including family history. However, disclosing too much, such as discussing their own marital problems did not lead to feelings of closeness.
When you’re close to your daughter-in-law (especially early in marriage), it interferes with her time to bond with her husband. Also, your daughter-in-law may find it difficult to set emotional boundaries with you. If she’s asked questions like, ‘Why are you working out of the home at this point in your life?’ or ‘Are you sure you want to feed your child that?’ she may interpret it personally and as interference, says Dr. Orbuch.
Here’s how to get along without feeling smothered:
*Name has been changed for privacy
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