Family Relationships

Join other women in the sandwich generation - share ideas and solutions as you learn to nourish family relationships without starving yourself.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Mother-In-Law Strategies for Healthy Relationships

We are happy to welcome Dr. Susan Lieberman back for more questions and answers about her book. In The Mother-In-Law’s Manual: Proven Strategies for Creating and Maintaining Healthy Relationships with Married Children, Susan uses the same strategy she found so helpful when her children were growing up - talking to other women going through the same experiences. She deals with all facets of the in-law relationship, including how to handle difficult family members, how to discuss what seems like impending disaster and how to approach our babies having babies.

We've posed some questions you might want to ask her if you came to one of her book signings. And feel free to send us in your own through the comment link below.

Nourishing Relationships: Some mothers-in-law have confided, "My child’s spouse shuts me out. How do I handle this?"

Susan: I wish we could stand on the balcony together and watch what is happening…whether there is something you are unintentionally doing that pushes a button, whether his or her behavior doesn’t seem so cold to others or whether, in fact, you are, indeed, getting the cold shoulder.

There isn’t one best response. In many cases, you might find some quiet moments with your own child and ask for advice – which is different than criticizing the partner. "You know, I don’t seem to be getting it just right with X, and I so want us to have an easy relationship. Could you give me some advice about how to do this better?"

Now, if you get the advice, all you can do is LISTEN. You can't get defensive, counter, or argue. Breathe, breathe, breathe.

Maybe you can talk directly to your in-law, but you have to have enough comfort to feel centered and relaxed to this. If you are angry, hurt or in any other way off balance, these conversations are more difficult. The best approach is to ask questions, ask advice, not make statements.

It is possible that others in the family can offer advice – but then you have to take it…have to consider what you are being told and try out the suggestions and see how they work.

And, in some cases, we may have to make do with a relationship that is less than we wish. Here is what I discovered for myself. When I have judgments about my daughters-in-law, they pick up the vibrations. What I have to change is my own attitude, not theirs. I have to be the person I want them to be, treating others with the same respect and affection I want for myself and hope for the best. How things are in the beginning does not mean that is how they will always be.

One last comment: no matter what you think or feel, do NOT discuss this with your married child. This is the person he or she chose to marry. NEVER expect your child to chose between you and a spouse because if you raised the child well, the choice will be the spouse. Keep believing the relationship will get better, keep being a good, kind, uncritical person and there is a chance, in time, things will thaw.

Nourishing Relationships: Other MIL's have said, "I like the person my son married but she is so messy. Her house is always chaotic. My son works so hard and she doesn’t even tend to his laundry."

Susan: This is NOT your problem. Your son (or it could just as easily be a daughter) is now a grown up. If he doesn't like the way the house or laundry is managed, it is his job to discuss it and work something out. Being neat is easy for some of us, and we are likely to think it should be easy for everyone. And what is important to us is not necessarily so important to others.

More than one daughter-in-law told me that when her mother-in-law – or her mother – comes and starts picking things up and making neat, it doesn't feel like help, it feels like a rebuke. So we get to keep our houses however we want and our children and their partners get to keep theirs as they wish. And, no, you may not say, "But my child didn't grow up that way…" That was then and this is now.

Instead of focusing on what isn't right by your values, think about what really works for this couple and look for the good. If you can't find any, again, I am so sorry to say but the problem is yours.

Nourishing Relationships: Your book is called The Mother-in-Law's Manual. Is it just for mothers-in-law?

Susan: I like this question because my answer has happily been changed a lot since the book came out in May. When I wrote it, I thought my audience was just mothers-in-law. However, to my surprise, I am being told it works well for a broader audience. A woman emailed and said, "If you substitute 'step-parent' every place you have 'mother-in-law,' this book works perfectly."

Many young people have said the book helped them understand their parents and gave them a much healthier perspective. And an acquaintance who is neither a mother or mother-in-law, called to say the book was really useful in sorting through her own family dynamics.

My favorite bit of praise – and I know this might sound like boasting but it so delighted me -- came from a man I have worked with in Missouri on things completely unrelated to this book, the father of four teens, who must have bought the book out of some kindness. "Susan, I read the whole darn book. You have no idea how unusual that is for me. And, I learned stuff." That, for me, was really delicious.

Another great comment was the woman who said, "This is the only time I found a how- to book that reads like a novel."

I'm not sure, in fact, that this is a how-to book. It's a rumination on my own experiences abetted by the best advice of scores of women I interviewed. It isn't me saying, "Do this." Rather it's me saying, "Here's the corner I found myself in and here's what I have discovered about how I might get out."

Nourishing Relationships: Can you suggest any additional reading for MILs?

Susan: When I started to write this book, I couldn't find the books I needed but I now can recommend two other books that might be good collateral reading. I loved Deborah Tannen's You're Wearing That? Understanding Mothers and Daughters in Conversation. Her insights about mothers and daughters are, I think, very helpful in understanding the tensions between women and between women and men. And a new book by Terri Apter, a British psychologist, What Do You Want from Me? Learning to Get Along with In-Laws also looks at the mother-in-law relationship. It is more oriented towards human dynamics, less personal than The Mother-in-Law's Manual, less informal, but I think the two books complement one another well.

Nourishing Relationships: Thanks, Susan Lieberman for joining us. We have gained so much from your wisdom. Readers, this is just some of the helpful information Susan has compiled for you in her book. Click on the post title above if you want to get a copy for yourself. And keep your questions coming - we'll highlight Susan's answers tomorrow.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I want to thank Rosemary and Phyllis for this insightful and empowering virtual book tour. I have been struggling with my in-law relationships for years now. Finally a voice of reason - Susan Lieberman's sound advice will be put to good use. Janet

8:28 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Susan, your words really had an impact on me. I think I have let my disappointment turn into anger. What you say is true - I can only work on my attitude and actions. I can't control theirs. I'll try to remember that. Thanks for your good ideas.

8:33 AM  
Anonymous Susan Lieberman said...

Janet and Sandy:
THANK YOU! I did not come to this book as an "expert" but rather as a woman standing in a difficult place. I wrote the book I needed to read. I'm so grateful when others find it helpful. I can tell you that writing the book has helped me handle my own mother-in-law issues more skillfully. I can also, more abashedly, tell you that when you write the book and then find you are not following your own advice, you really feel like an idiot...but we all do the best we can -- including our daughters-in-law.

I've been trying to sneak into my DIL's head to figure out why I trigger her as I do. Of course, I have no way of knowing if my thoughts are accurate, but my hunch is that my voice brings up something about her own parents' voices and her feelings about bending to their will. Maybe I'm making up nonsense, but since it helps me be more tolerant of behavior I find hurtful, I'm sticking to it.

10:04 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Having a messy house wouldn't bother me, but some of the things my daughter and son-in-law do in raising their kids does. It's hard to ignore when I think it harms the kids. I try not to say anything but I want to protect my grandkids too. What do you suggest?
Concerned Grandmother

1:26 PM  
Blogger Susan said...

Concerned Grandma presents a pickle...I'm pretty sure whatever you say is not going to be appreciated. That said, I know it is next to impossible to stay quiet if you think the children are being harmed. So, I have been thinking about this and have a couple thoughts:

1) Talk to other women, not only the ones who are most like you, and describe as neurtrally as possible, the behavior that concerns you. Find out if others are as alarmed as you. If they are not, you might have to rethink your position.

2) Look for data, articles, books, etc that address the issue(s) that most concern you and present it as something to consider.

3) Make a date with your daughter. Tell her you are struggling and really don't know know how to go forward. On the one hand, everything in you says,"Don't meddle," and on the other, everything in you says, "There is something we need to discuss." Ask her is she would be willing to have a discussion with you in which you both try to hear each other and not follow into a defensive posture. If she rebuffs this effort, you are going to have to back off.

4)Is there someone else in the family...a sibling or favorite aunt who could take up the cause on your behalf.

My observation is that the more insecure our kids feel about their parenting skills...and the less skillful they are...the less able we are to speak. If you think this is serious enough, you may just have to speak out, but know that they may be a cost.

Good luck on this one.

4:28 PM  

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