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Listen to ten of your married female friends, and you'll soon discover that at least six of them struggle in their relationships with either their mother-in-law or their daughter-in-law. How can it be that in 2008, the mother-in-law/daughter-in-law duo is still one of the most maligned and feared relationships for more than 36 million married women? As 2.4 million women say "I do" each and every year, statistics suggest that more than a million of these new recruits join the army of malcontents waging war against their husband's mother every year. That is such a shame, given that the two women at war were brought together in the first place by their shared love for one man — the son of one and the husband of the other.
What's a Mother (in-Law) to Do? Five Essential Steps to Building a Loving Relationship with Your Son's New Wife began for me on vacation, in a hotel room in Boston, during the 2004 World Series. My husband and I knew that our son, Erik, was going to propose to his girlfriend, Amanda, because he had flown home to California two months earlier to go ring shopping with us. They called us from their home state of Virginia and told us the all details of "popping the question."
I began calling everyone I knew to tell them the great news that my oldest son was engaged. And that's when it all started: first the congratulations...then the warnings. Advice came from all sides — from older women whose sons had wives, from younger women struggling with their mothers-in-law, and from the men who were caught in the middle. From all of them the refrain was the same: enjoy it now, because in time you will become the "monster-in-law."
According to research, nearly 60 percent of all marriages suffer from tension between mothers-in-law and daughters-inlaw. Interestingly, the complaints coming from daughters-inlaw are far more varied than those of the mothers-in-law. In fact, the overwhelming response of mothers-in-law was that they did not understand why their daughters-in-law had issues with them.
Knowing that the odds were stacked against me, I was determined not to screw things up but rather to learn how the successful mother-in-law/daughter-in-law relationships had been built — and maintained. Finding answers to my questions would begin with taking advice from the experts. It seems there are zillions of relationship books written by psychologists, psychiatrists, and other relationship gurus who analyze our reasons, methods, and motives in dealing with family members. Rather than just reading about it, I chose to obtain my education first from those who had flourishing and happy relationships with their mothers-in-law. I wanted to hear directly from the women who have figured out how to tackle the thorny issues of everyday in-law life and come away still liking each other. After all, even if a whopping 60 percent of women have troubled relationships with their mothers-in-law, that means 40 percent of them have figured out how to have good ones. And I wanted to learn from them!
I began my search for answers by contacting WeddingChannel .com, a leader in the wedding industry and a wholly owned subsidiary of The Knot, Inc. With their assistance I posted a request to interview women who had great relationships with their mothers-in-law.
I received responses from all over the world, ranging from women who were newly engaged to women who had been married for more than forty years. Input came from women of all economic and ethnic backgrounds. It gave me hope that the early "friendly" warnings could be overcome.
I also read Internet postings by women who are anxious to build healthy, loving relationships with their sons' new brides and by those who are already well seasoned in their motherin-law status but want to improve the dynamic with their daughters-in-law. The audience for this topic is certainly out there, and like me, they are eager to figure out how to navigate these sometimes tricky waters.
After distilling and analyzing the huge volume of data collected from a survey I posted on WeddingChannel.com, it became clear to me that there are five key elements to a successful relationship between a mother and her son's wife.
I then turned to the books and literature on relationships currently available to mothers-in-law. Reading everything I could find on the topic and extracting the professionals' advice further confirmed that these five principles are key to building a successful relationship with your daughter-in-law. With a wealth of personal stories and expert advice in hand, I was ready to write this book and share what I have learned with you.
And, just as important...I am ready to assume my new role!
As I was thinking about mother-in-law and daughter-in-law relationships that had gone right, I remembered a Bible story featuring this very topic. So I went back and took a look at the book of Ruth, one of the shortest books in both Christian and Jewish Scripture. The condensed version of this story goes like this:
During a famine, an Israelite family emigrates from Bethlehem to the nearby country of Moab. After her husband dies, Naomi is left with two sons, who marry two Moabite women, Ruth and Orpah. Then both of Naomi's sons die.
Naomi plans to return to Bethlehem, in Israel, but before she leaves, she tells her widowed daughters-in-law to return to their Moabite homes and remarry. Naomi isn't trying to send them away for selfish reasons but because she knows that she is too old to remarry and doesn't want to be a burden on the younger women. They insist on going with her anyway. Naomi orders them not to follow her, and Orpah finally leaves; but Ruth stays with her, vowing, "Where you go, I will go, and where you lodge, I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried" (Ruth 1:16-17).
Naomi and Ruth return to Bethlehem at barley-harvest time. They have no money, so Ruth goes to work in the fields collecting the grain left behind by the harvesters. Ruth doesn't know it yet, but she happens to be working in the fields of Boaz, a relative of Naomi's dead husband. He invites Ruth to drink his water and collect the grain from his fields. She asks him why he's being so kind to a stranger, and he says that he is kind to her because he has heard of her loyalty to her motherin-law.
Ruth and Boaz eventually marry and have a son. The women of Bethlehem congratulate Naomi, telling her that her daughterin-law Ruth "is better to you than seven sons" (Ruth 4:15). Naomi becomes a second mother to the boy, who is named Obed, and in the genealogy that concludes this story, we see that Obed is an ancestor to David. The New Testament tells us that Jesus is descended from David, so we see that a high honor — having the promised Messiah come from your family — is bestowed upon Ruth for her kindness to her mother-in-law.
I figure there must have been mother-in-law and daughterin-law relationship issues dating back thousands of years if an entire book of the Bible is devoted to teaching such an inspirational lesson. Way to go, Ruth and Naomi!
Before beginning my own book, I decided to take a look at the reviews written by readers of other books that deal with the issues surrounding mother-in-law and daughter-in-law relationships so I could try to tackle some of their concerns. Keep in mind, however, that almost all of these other books are written from a totally different starting point: addressing relationships involving a sick, dying, or dead mother-in-law, the experts tried to give pointers, primarily to daughters-in-law, on how to give "relationship CPR" and try to make everyone better.
I was also amazed to discover the number of questions on multiple Web sites that revolved around the "bad mother-inlaw" and so few that focused on the "bad daughter-in-law." Take a look at this entry, written by a father-in-law defending his wife:
I do not know what kind of grandmother/mother-in-law you are, but I can tell you and anyone else who reads this that not every mother-in-law is the wicked witch of the west the world portrays. Do a Google search of mother-in-law/daughter-in-law problems and about all you find are a multitude of Web sites bent on showcasing how stupid, moronic, wicked, evil, disgusting, spawns-of-Satan mothers-in-law are.
Yes, there are bad mothers-in-law. Really bad mothers-in-law. We get it already. There are tons of sites that denigrate mothersin-law and psycho grandmothers. I am here defending the good ones.
I'm not sure whether my mothers-in-law "group" is oblivious to relationship problems or just not as vocal about them, but I had expected to find the good-versus-evil postings more in balance. I was wrong.
So, because I had much more to work with, I went back to the daughters-in-law issues. If I hoped to educate mothers-inlaw, including myself, on how to succeed in their new role, it was important for me to understand what they're looking for.
I decided to focus on the top five wishes of daughters-inlaw, who say they want a book that
provides a resource for anyone who has mother-in-law trouble and for those who want to know what to do before a problem starts;
is written in everyday language, not psychological or medical terminology, and that gives real-life examples;
describes how a good in-law acts;
gives guidelines that don't take a one-sided approach in favor of the mother-in-law; and
offers solutions, not a profile of angry women venting about their relationship problems.
The following statement, from a book review, summarized what I was beginning to feel as I embarked on this journey: "There is no way that one person in a relationship involving at least three people can possibly 'fix' it all by themselves."
But I do believe that the mother-in-law, being the older woman (in most cases) with more life experience, is in a position to take the lead. Experience aside, it seems we mothers-inlaw would benefit from a little guidance. We could use a tool to help us do a better job in our new role and, as an added bonus, set up the new family member for success in her role as well. A book with tips to achieve these goals — using input from daughters-in-law who weren't "broken" or bitter — was definitely needed.
I've done my best to provide just that. I hope you find this book a useful tool. Maybe you'll decide to share it with your son and daughter-in-law, and together, the three of you can not only prevent (or tackle) the issues that tear at so many families but also create healthy, nurturing relationships that would make Ruth and Naomi proud.
© 2009 by Jane Angelich
Introduction: How It All Began xv
Step 1 Hold Your Tongue (Let Them Find Their Own Way) 1
Step 2 Embrace Her! (But Give Her Room to Breathe) 27
Step 3 Keep Out (Or at Least Call First) 55
Step 4 Don't Ask, Don't Tell (They'll Start a Family When They're Ready) 83
Step 5 Be a Role Model (By Having a Life Independent of Theirs) 107
Epilogue: It Doesn't Just Happen 123
Afterword: Share Your Story 125
Appendix: Thoughts on Birth Order and Relationships 127