“The overbearing mother-in-law” is a cliche for a reason. In therapy we see the same problems arise again and again. Even seemingly small issues can be detrimental to your relationship with your partner if they fester and are never addressed. Here are some common patterns that often pop up along with tips on how to tackle these complicated, deeply-seeded dynamics.
When a “Mama’s Boy” Fails to Launch
With most in-law-related conflicts, there is an unwritten rule that each partner is responsible for addressing issues with their respective parents. Establishing stronger boundaries between mother and son is no exception. In extreme cases, the mother-in-law might still be helping take care of her son’s laundry, meals and medical appointments. It’s not the wife’s responsibility to prove she is the new woman in her husband’s life. It is the son’s responsibility to help the relationship evolve to a healthier place. Deeply ingrained patterns are difficult to change, but it all comes down to communicating new boundaries and sticking to them. In extreme cases where the husband refuses to grow up, it could be time to move on, but a couple’s therapist can provide perspective and suggest scripts if he is ready to establish independence.
The Competitive Grandparent Conundrum
Grandparents are great and are an important part of children’s lives, but there are a couple problems that tend to come up. First, their excitement can quickly develop into obsession, and they might attempt to insert themselves in your life in ways that you don’t have the time or emotional bandwidth to manage. If your relationship with your in-laws is great and you love handing over the baby when you need some rest, no problem. But if your in-laws have made you feel as though you’re merely a baby-making means to their grandchild-obsessed goals, or they simply get on your nerves, you might not want them around as much as they’d like. This can be complicated when you really do need their help with childcare, they’re providing it for free, but that service comes with the caveat that they can offer unwanted advice or employ undesired parenting techniques. In these cases, it is helpful to start conversations with the positive: “Mother-in-law, we love you and we’re so excited for you to be a part of little Sophie’s life, but it would really help us if we can stick to this schedule, etc.” You might have to forego free childcare to save your sanity and sense of control. White lies about logistics are permissible here.
Same goes for scenarios where both sets of grandparents seem to be competing for time with your children, even keeping track of visits and urging to be called “the favorite.” Here, an information diet can help. You might have to be strategic about what is shared on Facebook, and if that’s impossible, you might have to flatter the less frequently visited grandparents with activities that emphasize quality over quantity, and again, blame logistics. (It can be frustrating when one set of grandparents lives far away and is jealous of the grandparents that live nearby.)
Unannounced Visits and Extended Stays
First of all, think twice about sharing keys with your parents, because you would be surprised how often I hear of in-laws popping in at the most inopportune times. Secondly, don’t be afraid of suggesting they stay in a hotel when their visit is more than you can handle. You need to be clear ahead of time how many days and nights work for you, and be clear about how much time you can spend entertaining them during their visit. They might have to fend for themselves when you have other commitments, so suggesting activities or food options they can do independently shouldn’t be a problem. As with foregoing strings-attached childcare, you might have to pay the price (of a hotel) in order to maintain your sanity. You can even find a nice AirBnB nearby and characterize it as a getaway and family visit-in one. If they resist, remind them of times when being around each other too much caused tension, and highlight times when a little space and distance made things better for everyone.