How To Get Along With Your Son-in-Law

Can mothers-in-law and their sons-in-law get get along? With these expert tips, it just might be possible to have a strong, healthy relationship.

By Julie Halpert

My mother-in-law is a well-balanced person. She's got a chip on BOTH shoulders.

How many mothers-in-law does it take to change a light bulb? One. She just holds it up there and waits for the world to revolve around her.


Mother-in-law jokes have survived for generations, perpetuating the stereotype of overbearing, controlling mothers-in-law. Television shows from Bewitched to Roseanne have embraced the stereotype, often hilariously. But in the real world, conflicts between mothers and their sons-in-laws can divide families with anger and hurt.

Fran Goldstein, 77, a grandmother of three in St. Louis, lost her mother many years ago. Her husband, Bernard, is deceased as well. Yet she still cannot forget or forgive the way her mother treated him. When Goldstein's mother first met Bernard, she told her daughter she shouldn't wed him because his parents were poor and uneducated. The couple married anyway, and for the next 25 years, Goldstein's mother made her disapproval clear every chance she got. "She was very cold and critical of anything he did," Goldstein says. Even on her deathbed, "She never accepted him."

Thrown Together

Psychologist Carl Pickhardt of Austin, Tex., author of Stop The Screaming (Palgrave Macmillan), describes the mother-in-law and son-in-law dynamic as an "appendage relationship," in which two people who don't love each other are forced to come together. It can be difficult for mothers when someone else becomes their daughter's primary confidant and source of support. That tension is amplified when the daughter is an only child (like Fran Goldstein), or when she marries someone with different standards or values than her mother has.

The experts see signs of improvement, however. St. Louis psychologist Diane Sanford believes relationships between sons-in-laws and mother-in-laws are better now than in past decades because of men's evolving roles as fathers and as household partners. "I see more men interested in having a good relationship with their mother-in-law," she says.

Mothers may also be lowering their standards for potential sons-in-law. Many are so eager to see their daughters marry, especially after they reach age 35, says Greenwich, Conn., psychologist Ann Caron, author of Strong Mothers, Strong Sons (HarperCollins), that they're accepting of flaws in the girls' fiancés. Or as one of her patients said she told her daughter, "Just get a man!"

Shela Dean, 61, a grandmother of two in Richmond, Va., says she has always tried to make her son-in-law, Bill Fisher, feel part of the family. "The most loving thing a person can do is support their children's marriage," Dean says.

Fisher, 35, says Dean has done much more than that: "She's been more of a mother to me than my own. She provides the same kind of unconditional love one would expect from a mother."

Can you make your relationship with your son-in-law, the father of your grandchildren, more like Dean's and less like Goldstein's? With some work, it's possible, experts say.

Be welcoming, respect your daughter's feelings (he is her husband and she loves him!) and maybe most important, spend time with your son-in-law to get to know him.

Psychologist Fernando Colon of The Ann Arbor Center for the Family in Ann Arbor, Mich., suggests that the time mothers-in-law and sons-in-law spend alone with the children can be especially valuable, as they show the mother-in-law how devoted he is to her grandchildren and how committed he is to making their grandparents a part of their lives. Seeing each other interact with the kids should build mutual respect and, if all goes well, even admiration.

And that's no joke.

Comments

I have tried every which way to get along with my son-in-law. I spent 6 weeks living with him, my daughter and two grand-kiddies last year. For the first 5 weeks & 2 days, I listened to him berate my daughter to their children behind her back, sit idle while their 3 yr old son screamed at me and told me he hated me and the son-in-law sat still & laughed, & constantly he made snide remarks at me and was rude. Occasionally, he would be nice like when I was vaccuming the house one day he told me I shouldn't be doing that as I was on holiday, only to follow this up a while later with more abuse. I never knew how he would be or what awful comment was going to be said next. For this period of time, I said nothing. 5 days before my departure, I could take no more and stood my ground. What astounded me was my daughter stood beside him. I spent those last 5 days in my room upset and torn. Now, because of my actions, I don't hear from my daughter nor do I speak to my grand-kiddies on Skype (we live in different countries), and I find this very sad. A couple years into their marriage my daughter rang me crying saying she was going to leave him ... I went over to their home (they lived in the same country then) to talk to her about her grief. I was tempted to pull her away as she wanted but I did not. I encouraged her to stay and make things work, because she loved him. Somedays now I wished I hadn't; he is so difficult and when my daughter confronted him about his actions towards me and the things he'd said behind to back, to their children, about her, he denied them and said I was lying. I'm afraid that I will never see my daughter or my grandchildren again. Somedays, I wished I'd kept completely quiet as I'd done for 5 weeks, 2 days ... am I meant to be a punching bag? How sad I feel!

kiwiquail@paradise.net.nz on 2014-11-15 13:46:04

I feel somewhat like Brilanka. My son-in-law's parents moved back to Portugal many years ago. So, I am the only grandparent here. I am divorced many years and my ex-husband died a few years ago.
My daughter and I were always so very close. According to my other daughter (who lives with me) she "always stayed close to me, to get what she wanted". I was a single,working mother for many years, receiving no child support. This man my daughter married is a systems engineer, working from home. The couple now have two daughters, age 3 years and 6 months old. I love these girls and they bring me so much joy to my life. My daughter has always called me, whenever she is ill,even coming to my home, before the two had children. Just before Christmas, she called, she had the diarrhea for a day or two (she's breast-feeding), asked me to come and bring her some things and look after her. I dropped everything, (even though I had work to do - I work from home too). I cared for her and cleaned her home from top to bottom (considering there was a lot needed doing and I wanted to ensure no one else caught this "bug"). My daughter was always a good housekeeping. When she lived with me, she was organized and always helping with housework. She claims she has no time for housework, since the babies. It seems odd to me. Sadly, her husband has different ideals. I never thought there really were men you literally thrown their clothes on the floor, but this one does! I have seen it all. This sil has never shown me any respect. He talks like a real "know it all" and everyone around him sees him this way. Back to the story....the day I went over to clean, my daughter was not much better. I suggested she let me feed the baby with a bottle, but she is quite adamant and states, she is "a trained nurse, with some experience in neonates" - she worked for a couple of weeks when she graduated (about 6 years ago). Anyhow, it turns out she really would have liked me to stay the night. Next day, I planned on going down again, but it was four days before Christmas, there were still things I had to pick-up and jobs to do of my own). My other daughter and I were out doing some last minute shopping for her and so we called my daughter (the baby mom). She implied that "mom seems to be sitting on the shelf on coming over", which I overheard. This was not the case. Flashing forward. We did go down to help her out, but she was so rude when she answered the door to me. I was trying to take over some preparation of food for the 3 yo, but she was just up and down, doing things herself. I threw my hands in the air and told her to get on with it, that she didn't need me. My daughter stayed with her and I got a cab home. A day later (Saturday), she called me, in tears, could I come down? She had called a doc' to make a housecall. I had one errand to do, to pick up their gift, on special order, by noon. After that, along with my daughter, we drove on down. En route, my daughter discovered a text message - she was in the hospital. Apparently, the sil had suggested they go to the hospital. Didn't bother calling - they know we rarely use the cell phone, but have a land line. When we arrived at the hospital, they were all (4 of them) in an isolation room in Emerg, and not wearing any gowns either! This is turning into an epistle so I will get to the point. I was disgusted that, once again, communication with us seemed unimportant. That my sil could not have called me or apologized for not keeping in touch. Even thanking us for helping her would have been nice! I took him aside at the hospital and gave him some stern words. He basically said, his "wife and family are most important"...whatever that means and I told him he should then, "be a husband!". I/we are so sick of being used by these two. I don't know what changed my daughter, or why she tries to play us all. They both have more money than sense. She goes out every days, spending money and never stays home. The 3 yo was enrolled in Lycee Francais school before she was even 3. It looks like an excuse just to get her out of the way, so my daughter can have time to do things around the home.....which she still never gets time to do. When we were in the hospital, the doctor suggested her giving the baby a bottle (she was admitted for two days, btw). Top and bottom of this is that I receive no respect, neither of them listen to any advice I have to give. I despise this sil right now and I am waiting for an apology from both of them. As long as they don't need anyone, I fear it will never come. There was a point where I even starting to care about this sil. Then, he treats me like a crazy person and walks away from me. Thanks for listening. It's heartbreaking and miserable to be in this situation. We had a massive ice storm in the city. We had not hydro when my daughter was in hospital. Two days later, she was discharged and they found their house without power too. They went up the street to another house (of his dead brother's ex-wife) - they too had no power, but apparently a gas fire in the basement. I sent texts to them, telling them they could have my bedroom and en-suite, as we now had power back on. They ignored us. A day later, she called to say their power was on and they would come visit on Boxing day. I said it was inconvenient on that day, but next day plans were rearranged and I called to invite her over. She pretty much accused me of lying, now asking my I changed my mind. Four days after Christmas and we have still not seen them.

Trishanne on 2013-12-29 14:36:25

I so enjoy my SIL. Really, he's the best thing that ever happened to my daughter. I feel very blessed.

debbierey75@yahoo.com on 2013-07-08 20:56:01

Brilanka, My daughter is exactly the same way. I tried, like you, to support my daughter, but now openly dislike my future SIL because of the things he and his family have done and said. I just hope to God that this wedding is called off.

sadmom5 on 2013-06-05 15:55:18