Do Mothers-in-Law Deserve Their Bad Rap?

Do Mothers-in-Law Deserve Their Bad Rap?

We are all familiar with the persona of the stereotypical mother-in-law -- a woman bedeviled with an intrusive and critical nature. Mothers-in-law are derided in comedy sketches, in soap operas, in books, and in real life. Do all mothers-in-law live up to their nefarious reputation? Obviously not. But enough of them seem to play so powerful a role in the dynamics of their son's marriage as to warrant mention in this book (The Second Wives Club). Many may have had misgivings about their son's divorce and remarriage. Their reservations may manifest as anger, bitterness, and outrage toward the second wife.

The following questions will help you to assess whether or not your mother-in-law has become a serious concern in your relationship with your husband.


Mark T for "true" and F for "false."

__ 1. My mother-in-law constantly visits unannounced.

__ 2. My husband refuses to listen to me when I have a problem with his mother.

__ 3. My mother-in-law insists on knowing what I pay for things -- down to the dishtowels.

__ 4. My mother-in-law immediately asks for my husband when I answer the phone.

__ 5. My mother-in-law probes our children with personal questions about me.

__ 6. My mother-in-law is a loving presence in my life.

__ 7. My husband has become his mother's maintenance/repairman for her home.

__ 8. My mother-in-law tells other family members about problems we discuss.


1. My mother-in-law constantly visits unannounced.

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If your mother-in-law visits unannounced, it could be indicative that your mother-in-law has a problem with boundaries. In other words, her need to pop into your home whenever she chooses is primary in her mind. It may not occur to her that you and your family have other needs and certainly a right to privacy. It would seem that her boundaries merge into yours. Separation from her son, and realization that he has his own priorities as an adult may be at issue here. You and your husband need to establish a set of guidelines for visits. On one hand, you don't want to offend her; on the other hand, friendly specified visits or phone calls should be encouraged.

2. My husband refuses to listen to me when I have a problem with his mother.

Yes, it is a great benefit to your marriage if your husband has an open mind when problems relate to his mother. However, when you involve your husband to the extent that a two-person problem escalates into a three-person problem, a triangle is formed. And this triangle can lead to big trouble! It is far better to restrict any conflicts between two individuals to the individuals themselves and not broaden the base of the difficulty. After all, why make a skirmish into World War III? In other words, discuss the problem directly with your husband's mother before involving him.

3. My mother-in-law insists on knowing what I pay for things -- down to the dishtowels.

Answering "true" may indicate one or both of the following problems: Just because a person "insists" on knowing something does not mean that you have to comply with their demands. Please ask yourself why you are not able to say "no" to your mother-in-law. Do you have this difficulty only with her or with others in your life as well? If the latter is true, it may indicate that your need to please others -- and thus win their approval -- outweighs your need to please yourself. Why not practice enlightened selfishness? This term does not encourage you to be selfish in the greedy, self-absorbed sense of the word, but it does urge you to take good care of yourself and your needs. To illustrate, a hungry waitress cannot do her best work if her own stomach is grumbling. She has to be satiated, that is, she must take care of her own needs prior to helping others. Another possibility for your problem with your mother-in-law's inquisitiveness simply may be that she has a need to be intrusive and controlling for reasons particular to her. The satisfaction of her need, however, is not your problem. Take it from the Second Wives Club: There is no sense letting her problem be the catalyst for rifts in your marriage!

4. My mother-in-law immediately asks for my husband when I answer the phone.

If you answered "true," change things around a bit the next time she calls. You might say, "I'll put Tom on in a minute. I was looking forward to having a chat with you first." If that doesn't work after a few tries, you might take her out to lunch and ask her why she insists on speaking only to your husband. If there is a problem, usually it is far better to find out in the beginning rather than let it get out of hand. Sometimes there's a simple answer that portends a simple solution.

5. My mother-in-law probes our children with personal questions about me.

Some people feel that they can use children to their advantage in order to glean personal information about adults in their household. It's unfair. It's unnecessary. But it's common practice. It is always best not to put children in such a compromising situation. No child should be put in such a position. Therefore, the best approach, again, is the direct approach -- talk to your mother-in-law. Speaking with her on a one-to-one basis does not necessarily mean a confrontation. Use diplomacy. Explain that her inquiry of the children into private family matters has made them uncomfortable. Suggest that in the interests of continuing to be the loving mother-in-law/grandmother, it would be best to circumvent the kids and speak to you instead. This is a delicate situation, and you have to keep your head about you.

6. My mother-in-law is a loving presence in my life.

To answer this affirmatively, you have to be one of the luckiest women alive! How wonderful to feel so highly about your husband's mother! This kind of relationship is a sparkling and wonderful asset to your marriage as well as a tribute to you and to her.

7. My husband has become his mother's maintenance/repairman for her home.

If your husband is his mother's maintenance / repairman, this can be a test of your patience with the mother-son relationship. Such a situation is common not only to second wives but to first wives as well. If your husband's role before marriage has been to be his parents' "keeper of the home", it seems that the job continues and continues. This is exacerbated when the parents are elderly or when the mother lives alone. Of course, in good conscience, you would not want your husband to withhold his help from his mother. After all, you married him partially because he is a giving and loving man. But conflicted feelings emerge when his mother's demands on his free time become excessive to the point of sacrificing your family's needs. In order to prevent ill feelings and resentment between all parties concerned, it would be advantageous to work out a schedule of necessary chores agreed upon by everyone and, barring emergencies, to uphold it. The Second Wives Club shows you ways that this situation can be worked out satisfactorily for all!

8. My mother-in-law tells other family members about problems we discuss.

If your mother-in-law tells others about the problems that you discuss, this unfortunate situation can be precipitous to a strained relationship between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law. A reserved attitude toward your mother-in-law can be unpleasant for you and can impact your marriage negatively. If your dealings with your husband's mother generally are positive to the point where you really desire a sincere and loving relationship, why not openly discuss your concerns with her? Always state your case in positive terms, such as, "I'm really eager to have a great relationship with you and have you be a meaningful part of our lives. However, it is important to me that our private discussions remain just that -- private." Approaching your husband's mother in that light should ensure a successful membership in the Second Wives Club.

What about Fathers-in-Law?

Needless to say, some of the comments above may be relevant to fathers-in-law as well as mothers-in-law. Traditionally, however, it appears to be the mother-in-law with whom these issues emerge. In order to sustain the key elements of a wonderful marriage, establishing and maintaining a good relationship with in-laws is well worth your efforts. Please keep reminding yourself that your ultimate goal with your husband is to remain LOVERS for life. Getting past any problems with your mother-in-law is an essential part of achieving this wonderful goal of lifelong love.

Article Source:

The Second Wives Club by Lenore F. Millian and Stephen Millian. The Second Wives Club: Secrets for Becoming Lovers for Life
by Lenore F. Millian and Stephen Millian.

Reprinted with permission  of the publisher: Beyond Words Publishing. ©1999.

Click here for more info and/or to order this book.

About The Authors

Lenore Fogelson Millian, Ph.D. and Stephen Jerry Millian,  Ph.D.

LENORE F. MILLIAN, Ph.D., is a second wife and a licensed clinical psychologist. Over the past twenty years, she has counseled hundreds of cases of second marriages as well as numerous Second Wives Club counseling groups.

STEPHEN MILLIAN, Ph.D., M.S., is an internationally recognized virologist and the author of approximately sixty-five scientific publications.

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