Mother-in-laws tend to get a reputation for being pretty terrible. The mother/daughter-in-law relationship can be one of the most difficult to navigate. They’re often fraught with drama and discord, and we all know someone (likely quite a few someones) who have nightmare mother-in-law stories to share. The struggle of this relationship dynamic is real for so many. And it was for me, until one day everything changed — when I came to mine for marriage advice.
I have to say that my mother-in-law is pretty great. Not only is she a wonderful human being, she is also incredibly supportive, kind, and someone who I can totally trust. But I didn’t always feel this way.
She wasn’t ever a mean person nor did she ever try to butt in, but for some reason I just didn’t feel totally comfortable with her. There’s just something about a mother-in-law relationship that makes it tricky to navigate. She raised the man I married and because she did a wonderful job of it, I feel this drive to achieve the same level of care for him. For example, she was a nutritionist, so the fact that I couldn’t cook when we first got married (like, at all) felt like a glaring sign that I was a failure as a wife. It’s completely ridiculous, because obviously my husband didn’t marry me to be his maidservant and he can cook for himself, but there was something so primal about this shortcoming that made me feel defensive. There were quite a few things like this that inadvertently made me feel like a failing wife, and as a result, I carried a bit of a chip on my shoulder.
I found myself trying to set myself apart from my husband’s mother, to prove that I could care for her son in my own way … a “better way.” I often tried doing things differently than her, just for the sake of it. In retrospect, it was a bit ridiculous — since my mother-in-law had never been anything but welcoming to me, but I couldn’t seem to shake it. It was like this ongoing internal struggle; feeling like I needed to prove myself.
When you feel like you are in competition with someone (even if it’s one-sided and in your own mind), it’s pretty difficult to have a good relationship with them. Though you may get along on the surface, the relationship can’t really go much deeper. This was the relationship for the early years of our marriage. I kept myself carefully measured, and didn’t show her my true self for fear that she would find out I really wasn’t measuring up as a wife for her son.
Then, my husband and I went through a rough time in our marriage. It wasn’t anything earth-shattering, but it was just a difficult time. We had our first baby and things were hard. I was an emotional mess and we were both trying to find our footing as new parents and settle into our roles. At a certain point, I just felt terribly frustrated. I loved my husband and didn’t want to give up on our marriage, but we were having fights about the same things over and over, and I was exhausted. I needed a sounding board. But who?
Though I’m close with my own mom, I didn’t want to talk about marriage stuff with her, because I didn’t want to cloud her view of my husband. And I know that no matter what, her nature would be to take my side. But I didn’t want to trash talk him to our friends, and they couldn’t really give me advice since we were one of the first in our group to have kids.
Then, I thought of my mother-in-law.
At first I brushed off the thought, because there was no way I was about to air our dirty laundry to her. What would she think? After giving it some thought, I decided that she might be the perfect person since she had known my husband far longer than I had. After all, she knew all his flaws and quirks. Maybe she could offer some insight that I couldn’t see.
So, that week, I met up with her for coffee. I remember feeling so nervous to open up, so I started out cautiously, unsure how she would receive it.
Though, over the course of our time together, I couldn’t help but pour out my heart. There were definitely a few tears involved. It was a bit uncomfortable, but such an amazingly cathartic feeling to unload the heavy weight I had been carrying around. And you know what? My mother-in-law actually gave me some truly insightful advice. She didn’t offer advice in an overbearing way, but was able to help me understand my husband a bit better and give me ideas for approaching the situation in ways he might be more receptive to. She also opened up a bit, sharing her understanding of marital challenges — apparently year 11 was a really rough one for her and my father-in-law — and it really helped me see that she wasn’t quite as perfect as I had built her up to be in my mind. She was a wife and mother with her own struggles, too.
While I did end up walking away from our encounter that day with a bit of good marriage advice, I also walked away with something even greater … a more authentic and close relationship with my mother-in-law. In the years since then, I have slowly been able to let my guard down, allowing her to see the “real me,” and I believe she has too. Our relationship is so much better for it and I truly count it as one of the great blessings in my life.