Managing MIL in many respects it’s a hot potato – a crazy thing to do. When I tell people about it they always say ‘you’re doing what?!’ But it’s a relationship that affects so many lives and can cause a lot of upset if it goes off track. Get it wrong at your peril!
I was interested to take the lid off, if you like and peek behind closed doors to find out how other daughters-in-law out there handle their MILs. I held secret ‘DIL Clubs’ – like book clubs only the chat is all about MILs – to canvas opinions. It was great fun and a real eye-opener.
Why do mothers-in-law have such a bad reputation?
It’s strange that all the well-known jokes are about his mother-in-law, when in my experience, the real difficulties seem to be with the other side. Things just wash off men; whereas women are more likely to cling on to grievances and drive themselves mad worrying about trivial aspects of the relationship. At least we care!
Both sides are programmed to be mutually suspicious from the start. We imagine they will be scrutinizing us for evidence that we aren’t looking after their son properly. They are on the lookout for attempts to cut them out of the deal altogether, or deprive access to grandchildren. It’s not surprising that tensions crop up.
The book is based on your own experiences so please can you expand on this for us?
Ha! Are you trying to get me into trouble? I have been very careful to protect my MIL’s feelings, whilst still exploring the relationship in full. She has been good enough to allow me to do this – she is a very decent person, big-hearted and generous and she certainly doesn’t deserve a beating.
Still, as I say in my book – in a decade of marriage, things do crop up. We have sometimes hit bumpy patches, perhaps due to misunderstandings or my being over-sensitive about things (my MIL is very direct!) and it always surprises me when we do. I don’t think DIL can ever be complacent about the relationship. It needs constant nurturing.
What are your top tips for managing a MIL?
Rule number one has to be to try to see things her way. Imagine raising a child for twenty, or thirty odd years only to hand him over to a flibbertigibbet who can’t even take up curtains and never makes his sandwiches!
Putting yourself out is absolutely crucial – make an effort to factor MIL in to school events, or birthday parties, rather than always turning to your own mother first. I think we’re not used to making that effort nowadays. Everyone lives for the moment and pleases themselves. Oh dear, I sound about 92 now but you know what I mean. I really believe that discomfort, awkwardness or even dislike are not sufficient reasons to cut MIL out of your lives. Obviously, in such cases, it’s far easier to go on as though she doesn’t exist and let it slide, until she makes overtures - and then find yourselves conveniently unavailable - but spare a thought for dreadful upset this can cause on the other side. You may not like her all that much but do you really want to hurt her?
Choose your battles – don’t prickle, or lash out over trivial differences. Spare it for things that count and even then, be measured, factual and polite rather than resentful and emotional.
Focus on her good points – everybody has them! Be charitable.
If in doubt get out! If you can’t stand it any longer, escape for a run or into a book and you will come back fresher and ready to hold that grimace for a wee bit longer; far better this way than bubbling over and doing real, lasting damage.
Please tell us about the process of liaising with relationship experts on this project.
I felt that I had gone as far as I could with unpicking the relationship and looking at it from every angle. The DILs had helped enormously with that but I wanted to take some of our key discussion points and find out what expert relationship counsellors might have to say.
Denise Knowles a lead family counsellor for Relate, was the perfect person to approach. She helped answer questions such as why the relationship is such a tricky one to get right, why MIL feels the need to interfere and how to stand up to a difficult MIL.
Regarding family feuds and contact disputes, Lynn Chesterman often finds herself dealing with distraught grandparents as chief executive of the Grandparents’ Association. She helped me understand just how much suffering there is on the other side when DIL withdraws contact with the grandchildren.
Does every bride have trouble with their mother-in-law or do some get on harmoniously?
I’m glad you asked! The book is not all negative – there are stories from appreciative DILs who cannot speak highly enough of MIL and her supporting influence in their lives. Interestingly, the best reports came from those whose mothers-in-law had experienced great difficulties with their own MILs and were determined not to repeat the same mistakes.
What are the most common complaints that exist around mothers-in-law?
Interference, interference, interference. Do I make myself clear?! Judgemental and controlling were close runners up. No-one likes to feel they are under scrutiny.
If a disagreement occurs, how can the relationship get back on track?
Someone has to climb back down that ladder! MIL is likely too old or too set in her ways to alter her behaviours; besides, you are not responsible for her, you can only work on your own reactions. Put yourself out and factor MIL in.
What is next for you?
My mum says her generation want a right of reply! It might have to be Managing DIL next… I’m also open to commissions – it’s chilly out here in freelance country, especially in the current economic climate and I hope the book will help bring me in from the cold. Is that too honest?!
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