From Monster-in-Law to Mama: How to Improve Your Relationship with Your In-Laws

I vividly remember the first time I met my mother-in-law. I remember even more vividly the car ride on the way to meet my mother-in-law: all dressed up in my favorite blouse, hair and makeup done to perfection, practicing deep breathing techniques to keep from visibly shaking. “What’s wrong with you?” My husband (then boyfriend) asked in total bemusement.

I was nervous because I knew how important it was to make a good impression. I was nervous because I knew this was the man I wanted to marry, and I had convinced myself I would never live up to his family’s expectations. I shouldn’t have worried. My in-laws are thoughtful and kind, and went out of their way to welcome me into the family. Unfortunately, not everyone is so lucky.

In the military spouse community, in-law troubles have reached epidemic level proportions – particularly mother-in-law troubles. “WHY are mother-in-laws so bad?!” One poster in a military spouse Facebook group lamented. “How do you deal with awful mother-in-laws?” Another asked. A post inviting wives to tell their “monster-in-law” stories received nearly 200 comments from frustrated and well-meaning spouses struggling to get along with the “other woman” in their spouse’s life. “I think it’s the price we pay for good husbands,” one commenter remarked.

Is it possible to go from monster-in-law to mama? Below, I highlight the key characteristics of a successful in-law relationship, taken from real military spouses (identified by first name only) who have experienced this challenge firsthand.

RESPECT

There’s no getting around it: a positive relationship with your mother-in-law begins with respect. This is, after all, the woman who birthed your beloved significant other and raised them into the person they are today. Too often, however, what should be a treasured and revered relationship becomes a hostile competition for the number one position in the Service Member’s life. 

To improve your in-law relationship, ask yourself these questions: do I respect my mother-in-law, and the importance of her relationship with my spouse? Do I make a conscious effort to demonstrate my respect, through listening to her desires, concerns, and advice, allowing her ample time with her son or daughter, and minding my manners even when we disagree?

“My mother-in-law and I have always been really close,” military spouse Shayla shared. “Early on she knew how much I loved her son and that I respected her relationship with him. She is his mom. That’s an important relationship, and it shouldn’t be disregarded once you get married.”

EMPATHY

When a conflict arises with your mother-in-law, seek first to understand. What are the drivers behind her reaction? You may find animosity directed toward you is actually the product of your mother-in-law’s concern and protective instincts for your spouse. Understanding the context behind her decisions and empathizing with the situation can help to diffuse ill-will.

For Marisa, empathy was crucial in overcoming a difficult transition, as her spouse began to spend more time with her and less time with his mother. “My mother-in-law was spiteful and terrible because she was jealous of the relationship that her son and I had,” Marisa explained. “She was jealous of how much attention he gave me because it meant that he spent less time with his family. Before me, they spent every day together. I let her work through her separation anxiety and put in the effort to have a positive relationship with her, and eventually it happened.”

COMPASSION

When all else fails, kill her with kindness. It might be tempting to fight fire with fire, but if you’re serious about improving your relationship, it’s important to take the high road. Make a genuine effort to get to know your mother-in-law. Brag on her son. Show her in small gestures – whether that be flowers “just because” or a weekly phone call – that you care.

Jessica’s relationship with her mother-in-law started off on the wrong foot when she and her husband decided to elope rather than have a traditional wedding service. Despite several blowouts early on in their relationship, Jessica was determined to get on her mother-in-law’s good side by demonstrating compassion to the whole family.

“I changed our relationship by becoming close with my husband’s dad and siblings. If the rest of the family liked me, I figured she’d have to give in eventually! Over the years my husband and I would travel back and forth to California. Most of the trips I had to go alone. I went to plenty of awkward family dinners, and just sucked it up. Eventually, it began to get better.”

PATIENCE

If the situation has reached a boiling point and you’re seeing red, practice patience. Take a deep breath and consider whether this is an argument worth having. Even in disagreements of considerable importance – for example, spouses and mother-in-laws often argue over who should tap out the service member at BMT – you must decide whether what you are fighting about is worth damaging a critically important relationship.

Hollee sought to improve her relationship with her mother-in-law through practicing restraint and choosing her battles. “In order to keep a steady relationship with my mother-in-law, the biggest thing I have had to learn is how to hold my tongue! It’s important to take a step back and decide if it really is worth fighting about – usually it is not. We have been together since high school, and when he left for training he requested that I visit his family once a week until I left for college. So, I did just that. I swallowed my pride and practiced patience.” 

How have you managed challenging relationships with your in-laws? Share your tips and tricks in the comments section below!

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