Bridging the In-Law Gap

When your daughter-in-law’s mom is her best friend—what about you?

By Julie Weingarden Dubin

*Denise* of Santa Cruz, California, has long-standing issues with her daughter-in-law, Katrina, who misses her mother in Europe. Denise tries to make Katrina feel welcome, but Katrina is distant. “It seems like she just wants a surface relationship,” says Denise. Katrina invites her mother to visit her for extended periods of time. “When I’m with them, I feel left out—they continually converse in their native language and I don’t understand a word.” Denise wants a close relationship with her daughter-in-law, but feels Katrina’s mother gets in the way.

On the flip side, grandmother Donna Maurillo lives in Scotts Valley, California, and her son and daughter-in-law reside in Alabama, but the distance doesn’t come between them. Either does her daughter-in-law’s mother. “I’m happy that she has a good relationship with her mother—it shows that she’s a mature person who doesn’t carry youthful resentments into adulthood—and for me, that’s a major positive.”

If your relationship with your daughter-in-law isn’t as evolved, don’t sweat it. Maybe your daughter-in-law’s closeness with her mother has you wondering where you fit in, or, (worse!) if her mother will get to see the grandkids whenever she wants? That’s okay—we’ve got the advice to make sure you’re not left out of the mix.

Tip #1: Honor their bond. Okay, maybe her mom is her best friend—the person she calls first thing every morning and then 20 times throughout the day. Accept that you’re not her go-to confidante and she’s not your daughter. Even if you’re feeling left out, you need to understand that their closeness isn’t a slight against you—it’s not personal. “It’s often difficult for mother-in-laws because they have a son and it is easy for them to see his wife as a “daughter,” but she’s not,” says Deanna Brann, Ph.D., author of Reluctantly Related—Secrets To Getting Along With Your Mother-In-Law or Daughter-In-Law. Elaine Shimberg of Tampa, Florida, who has three daughter-in-laws and 10 grandkids, says it’s key to remember that you are not her mother—even if she calls you “Mom,” adding that it’s the best way to bond. “She’s the woman your son loves and who hopefully makes him happy—it’s good to come in as a friend, be available, and offer advice if it’s requested.”

Tip #2: Don’t compete. Forget trying to one-up her mother—even if you want to deep down inside. “Trying to compete or take over will just create a lose-lose situation—your daughter-in-law will see you as trying to come between her and her mother and will likely put more distance between you,” says Dr. Brann. They have a long history that you can’t change.

Tip  #3: Create your space. You need to figure out what kind of relationship you want together. “What you’re building with your daughter-in-law is unique, just as her relationship with her mother is,” says Teresa Grella-Hillebrand, M.A., LMFT, director of the Marriage & Family Therapy Clinic at Hofstra University in New York. “Ultimately, your daughter-in-law will appreciate you more for the traits and talents you have that differentiate you from her mother.” Maybe she loves your taste and wants you to help her add more style to her home or wardrobe. Or, perhaps she never learned to cook and wants to come to you for one-on-one lessons. The idea is to create some special moments between you and build a history together.

Tip #4: Don’t feel threatened. If she values what she and her mother share, she may be more apt to perceive a friendship with her mother-in-law as important as well, according to Grella-Hillebrand. Let her see your warmth and merit.

Tip #5 Initiate thoughtful contact. Don’t just call her when you want to see the grandkids or when you need a ride to the airport. If you want to bond, identify areas where you naturally connect—buy tickets to a show or take a cooking class together.

Tip #6: Tune in. Your daughter-in-law may need you even if she doesn’t know it. Listen to what she has to say and follow up. If she tells you she is nervous about giving a presentation at work, give her a call and ask how it went. Treat your daughter-in-law as an individual and get to know her for who she is, what she likes and dislikes, just as you would any person that matters to you. “Whether you end up congratulating or consoling her is less important than taking the opportunity to show you care about her,” says Grella-Hillebrand. If she feels recognized, valued and respected—just for who she is and not for being your son’s wife—it helps her feel that she matters to you as a person and that goes a long way, says Dr. Brann.

Tip #7: Ban criticism. Even if your daughter-in-law is complaining to you about her mother, resist the urge to say anything negative or even to agree with her. “Family loyalty is powerful, so it’s better to lend an ear and offer non-judgmental support than chime in with negative feedback,” says Grella-Hillebrand.

Tip #8: Make a great offer. What if you want to spend more time with your grandchildren and your daughter-in-law is not receptive, because she has her mother? It’s not uncommon for men and women to reach out to their biological parents more than their spouse's parents for support when they have children, says Grella-Hillebrand. You can offer to babysit, or plan an outing with the kids for a specific date. Few parents are reluctant to turn down an opportunity to get time away from the children.

Tip #9: Open up. It might help to have a conversation about your relationship with your daughter-in-law. You can plan a time to talk. Use "I" statements like, "I feel sad because I feel that we could spend more time together, what can we do to change that?" Using the "we" infers that you are on the same team as your daughter-in-law and expresses your desire to problem solve the issue together, says Grella-Hillebrand.

Tip# 10: Include her mom. It might feel counterintuitive, but even if you feel excluded, try to make an effort to include her mother—at least some of the time. You’ll be role-modeling how things can and should be, says Dr. Brann, and you’ll be letting your daughter-in-law know that you respect her, her mother and their bond.

Tip #11: Hear her out. “In addition to sharing your feelings, you might also ask what your daughter-in-law feels is getting in the way on her end,” says Grella-Hillebrand. “It’s easy to become defensive, if you feel criticized by her, but it’s important to recognize that she’s as entitled to her feelings as you are.”


My son was adopted by us as a newborn. He has become a new father now, but his wife says we aren't the "real" grandparents because we aren't biologically related to our son nor to their baby.
We never saw this coming. However, we are not allowed to see the baby, who we consider to be our grandchild. We know that there is nothing we can do about this sad situation. Have other "adopted" grandparents had to deal with this problem?

grandmalarissa on 2013-06-20 06:21:53

Also, ladies, if you're new here (or if you'd like to help welcome other newcomers), I'd love to have you come and talk to us in Club Newcomer! You can find it in the Community section (just click Community, above), under Just for Fun or by keying in this link:

Hope to see you there soon! :- )

rosered135 on 2012-10-10 07:32:30

@alkigirl - So sorry to hear about your unfriendly daughter-in-law and the fact that she and your son may be getting a divorce.

@ olderwiser - Glad to see you've worked out such a lovely relationship with your daughter-in-laws. It doesn't always go that way but when it does, it's great, no doubt!

@alkigril and olderwiser - Hope you both come over and join us in Mothers-in-Law Anonymous. Just key in the link that I provided in my post below!

rosered135 on 2012-10-10 06:48:15

In my case, one daughter-in-law has not been friendly with any of our family since marrying my son. She has made negative comments about us to my son, doesn't like him to visit, and doesn't join us for holidays or birthdays. My son is considering divorce after eight years. on 2012-10-09 13:56:12

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