How to get along with the in-laws

Just in time for the holidays, a psychologist delivers some useful containment strategies
Julia McKinnell

“I have been married for two years. For Christmas, I received a girdle from my mother-in-law. I opened it in front of the whole family. Um, thank you, I guess,” writes an insulted daughter-in-law on a forum devoted to the worst gifts from a mother-in-law. A response comes back: “For Mother’s Day, don’t hesitate to give her really slinky, tiny, tacky lingerie as a present.” The British psychologist who moderates the forum, Dr. Terri Apter, has advice for dealing with problematic relatives in a new book, What Do You Want From Me?: Learning to Get Along With In-Laws. Many women, Apter writes, “complain about subliminal insults, such as being given a size ‘large’ sweater by a mother-in-law who explains, ‘You probably didn’t realize the ones you have are too tight.’ ”

Apter’s advice is to get your husband onside. Tell him, “It would be helpful if you could say, at least once, in your mother’s presence, ‘I think my wife looks just fine as she is.’ ” Gently solicit his help. Do not insist, “You should support me and not your mother.” Do not make a global complaint, “You never stand up for me.” Tell him, “When I feel uncomfortable with your mother, I’ll reach out my hand for you. Will you take it? That’s all you have to do to make me feel you’re supporting me.”

Apter surveyed 150 couples in the U.K. and U.S. and found that housekeeping is the No. 1 bone of contention between mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law: 80 per cent of mothers-in-law admit “the standard of cleanliness in a home was an important issue in whether they could warm to their daughter-in-law.” Many of those mothers-in-law, writes Apter, “say in all sincerity that they are keen to raise sons to be new men who are as responsive to children and as domestically responsible as their partners. Yet, on a deeper level, they may want a daughter-in-law who puts her husband first.”

Take Sammi, 34, who is thrown into self-doubt every time her mother-in-law visits. “She’s always rushing around muttering to herself as she cleans up. ‘Let me save you a job,’ she says as she picks Tim’s clothes out of the dryer and starts folding them. I tell her, ‘Marge, it’s Tim’s job to iron his own shirts, so you’re not saving me a job, you’re saving Tim a job and I hope he thanks you.’ I never know if she gets it, or if one more thing has flown out of my mouth to put her in a sulk.”

When both parties suppress the conflict, Apter calls this “the good-behaviour syndrome.” The challenge, she writes, “is to learn how to speak out, without setting off the alarms that lead straight back to silencing.” Appeal to your mother-in-law’s understanding, advises Apter. Say, “I sometimes worry that my home is not as well organized as yours. But it would mean a lot to me if you realized I did my best.” Avoid accusatory mind reading. Do not say to your mother-in-law, “You’re angry.” In turn, Apter warns mothers-in-law, “watch out for the bias toward your own son. There is nothing wrong with a parent seeing her own son’s career or comforts at twice their normal size. But if this parental bias minimizes the achievements of your daughter-in-law, it will generate conflict.”

Sometimes in-law conflicts arise between siblings-in-law. If a sister thinks her brother is “bending toward his spouse at the expense of a parent,” writes Apter, “then they may step in to shift the balance.” Apter talks about Kelly, whose husband, Jared, promised her she’d “love” his older sister Gail—they were “two peas in a pod,” he said. “You can imagine how intrigued I was to meet Gail. Who was this woman who was, in my lover’s eyes, so much like me? I tried at first,” says Kelly. “But she seems to resent every single success I have. My mother-in-law is really proud of me and I’m not sure Gail likes that!” Gail’s mother is ill. Gail believes that Kelly keeps her brother away from her mother. Gail told Apter, “Kelly’s favourite stupid line is that he needs to separate. But that doesn’t stop her from being on the phone to her mother three times a day! That selfish streak of hers is taking him away from our mother and from me.”

Discuss the situation with your spouse, advises Apter. Don’t forget there’s always hope that “over time, people learn to appreciate and respect their in-laws.” Even in-laws who “initially believe that a son or daughter could have done better and are disappointed in their choice realize, many years on, that the chosen partner has qualities that ‘lasted,’ ” she writes. “For many people, in-laws become a combination of friend and relative.”