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Ask Dr. Zoe – Why Can’t I Please My Mother-in-Law?

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‘Florida Girl’ Asked:

My husband and I are temporarily living with my mother-in-law, in her house, and at her request. We often ask her if we can help, to do our part, and she will assign us a task (cooking, cleaning, whatever) and give instructions for the job. Even if we follow her instructions to the letter, we’ve done it wrong! “What are you doing?” “Why did you do that?” Or my favorite, “You’re doing it wrong.”

Not to mention, she is the queen of clutter. If the others of us attempt to tidy up (even just straighten stacks without moving anything) she becomes defensive and angry. The result is that the house is cluttered and dirty and nothing can be done because we don’t know how to help. She is the primary homeowner so there is the “it’s my house, I’ll do what I want” issue, too.

How do we handle this situation tactfully? It seems we can’t do anything right!

Dr. Zoe Answered:

You’re right; you can’t do it right in her eyes. Mother-in-law/daughter-in-law issues are universal, so join the club. This unique relationship is born from a place of dissonance. You both love the same man in a very different way. He loved her first. Now he loves another woman—you.

There are unique dynamics to the mother-in-law/daughter-in-law relationship.

It’s tough for a mother to witness the turning of the tide when her son’s love expands to another. Can you tell I have boys? Despite all knowledge and logical understanding, a mother wrestles with herself to not feel threatened by another woman.

You are living with the residue of her wrestling. She asked you to come live with her because there is a part of her that wants a healthy relationship and wants to connect with you. Or, possibly, she just wants to maintain a sense of control.

It may help to understand that many of her behaviors may be subconsciously driven. She may not even fully understand why she feels or reacts the way she does. Either way, it’s clearly not working—at least not as well as you hoped.

Focus on your marriage first.

When it comes to dealing with your mother-in-law, the first thing on your mind needs to be your marriage, not your relationship with her. Your marriage comes first. It’s the whole reason why you have a relationship with her to begin with. She is secondary.

This means that as long as your relationship with her continues to be difficult, you must choose your responses to her based on how it will affect your marriage.

When it comes to dealing with your mother-in-law, the first thing on your mind needs to be your marriage, not your relationship with her.

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Ultimately, if arguing with her or even being her best friend is hurting your marriage, you need to evaluate your choices. So, as you move forward in your relationship with her, you need to consult with your husband so that you two are on the same page regarding how to deal with her.

You cannot change other people—no matter how hard you try!

The second thing to recognize is that you will never, ever change her. She is critical and judgemental

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towards you, which speaks volumes about how she sees your relationship. Maybe she is having second thoughts about you living with her. Maybe she wants to make sure that you know who’s boss.

It may help to know that there is nothing you can do or say to make her change, but there is a lot you can do to make the situation easier for all involved.

Recognize that she’s the main hen. When you and your hubby have your own place, you will be the main hen. This doesn’t mean that you have to accept bad treatment. You shouldn’t. It just means that you need to respect her choice to do things her way—even if her choices are ridiculous (i.e., don’t touch her clutter).

Remember, when in Rome, do as the Romans do. You shouldn’t contribute to her clutter, but you certainly shouldn’t be fixing things she doesn’t want to be fixed.

Address the issues clearly and head-on.

But clearly, there are issues, so the most adult thing to do is to address the issues head-on. This means going to her and letting her know that you feel, based on her statements, that nothing you do is good enough for her. Let her know that you want to make things work as long as you are living with her. Suggest that making clear rules and designating regular tasks may be the best option so that you don’t have to keep asking for direction or how you can help.

If every Saturday your husband empties all the trash and she is clear about where and how to do that, and every other day you do the dishes, etc., there is less conversation that needs to be had around household chores.

It may help to know that there is nothing you can do or say to make her change, but there is a lot you can do to make the situation easier for all involved.

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And lastly, get out as soon as you can. Although the financial benefit can make a co-living situation seem ideal, the emotional cost on yourself and your relationships is often not worth it. Your relationship will likely improve when you are living separately. I don’t know a mother- or daughter-in-law that doesn’t desire to have a good relationship. Unfortunately, unresolved and unexamined feelings and emotions often are the barrier to making that happen. Keep the lines of communication as open as possible, be in agreement with your husband, address things head-on, and make the best of it.

You’ve got this! It just takes a little grit and grace.


Looking for more articles addressing healthy relationships? Start here:

Ask Dr. Zoe – Healthy Boundaries with Your Mother-in-Law
Why You Should Just Have That Hard Conversation (And How to Do It)
Establishing Healthy Boundaries in the Grit and Grace Life
4 Tips That Can Heal Your Mother-Daughter Drama
A Strong Woman Can Respect Other Opinions (Even If She Disagrees)

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You’ll love this podcast episode from This Grit and Grace Life: This Is How to Handle a Hard Relationship With Your Mom – 089!

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Dr. Zoe is a licensed psychotherapist and relationship expert who recently jumped out of a perfectly good plane just for the experience.

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