We have been lucky to marry men who come from great families. Our own mothers-in-law are good moms and friends, so this article is not a reflection of our own personal lives. However, we have received notes from brides who’ve been concerned about the family dynamic they are entering into. We wanted to alleviate concerns and empower couples, which is why we’ve asked Boston-area licensed therapist, Mimi Licht, to contribute her expertise on the age-old relationship between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law. The advice she offers is for brides who feel their man’s mothers are out of control and a burden in their marital relationship.
Michelle came to see me crying, “My mother-in-law is my problem. She has no boundaries.” If you have a MIL who likes to drop by without warning, expects to see you every Sunday for dinner, or has taken charge with planning your wedding, you are not alone. You also need to realize that she’s not going away. When you say “I do” to your beloved, your MIL is an integral part of the deal. You can wish all you want for her to leave you alone, but wishes will not change her intrusive personality. Michelle has tried to politely let her MIL know that after a full day of work she would like private time with her husband, but is often ignored and MIL drops by anyway. Michelle is plagued with angst, worrying about how to convey her misery to her husband and how to let MIL know how she feels without being disrespectful or rude.
Where is the man in these situations? After all, it’s his mother! That is the primary issue. If his life-long strategy is to either avoid or ignore his mother’s domineering ways as a means of survival then don’t expect him to rush to the rescue to back you up. His tactics are probably so ingrained that he is completely unaware of what comes naturally to him at age 30.
In Michelle’s case, she needs to feel like her guy is a trustworthy teammate. Becoming a successful couple means knowing that your guy has your back when dealing with his mother. He will need to face the fact that avoiding her will create heartache and frustration between the two of you. If you are in this situation you must find a way to join together to develop a powerful strategy. The mother-in-law is not going to change her ways unless boundaries are clearly drawn. You and your guy need to assert your needs for privacy, involvement, and criticism. This is not an easy task. Some sons need all the help they can get to feel empowered. Motivation to confront this sensitive matter will come from their wish to have a happier bride. Couples counseling can enable him to see when his head is in the sand regarding his mom and that together you can take control of the situation.
I work with couples, suggesting that they compile a short list of priorities relating to mom. Then we develop a plan with the goal of concrete, lasting change in family dynamics. The list is usually topped off with, “No unexpected visits!” Role-play in these sessions sets the stage for possible scenarios. Together, we anticipate probable reactions from the MIL and prepare responses. I encourage couples to take plenty of time rehearsing until they are confident about standing up to a formidable opponent. Change of this kind is an ongoing process. Couples keep from getting discouraged when I predict that often it is one step forward and a half step back before change is solidified. In the end, sons realize that asserting themselves feels right and their mothers will survive as they grow into stronger men. My female clients have been relieved to find that their partners could be counted on to embrace a united front, effectively handling mom as they develop their own personal routines which will form the foundation for their new marriage.
Mimi Licht, LICSW, BCD founded Wisely Wed as a special place for engaged couples to freely share their hopes and fears about getting married. Mimi believes that couples owe it to themselves to spend time nurturing the emotional side of their new marital partnership. Her Brookline office, located in a lively urban neighborhood, brings back warm memories of her Brooklyn roots! She also has fun sharing a love of plants with her husband, Jeff, at their home-based nursery and hiking at Acadia National Park. Mimi is excited that her daughter is now guiding inner city youth toward discovery of outdoor adventure. You can reach Mimi at www.wiselywed.com, 344 Harvard Street, Suite 2, Brookline, MA 02446, (508)358-5706.