Overcoming Conflict With Your Mother-In-Law
Mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law are family partners fused together by circumstance and law. To be thrown into a close family relationship without giving consent or being consulted is a daunting challenge. But it’s a challenge that can be overcome. The mother-in-law/ daughter-in-law relationship is without question, complicated.
So much changes for a family when the adult children fall in love and marry. Suddenly there are new members who, by decree of law and circumstance, are expected to be embraced and included into the fold. By all means, the challenge is a daunting one, especially for mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law.
Even though the mother-in-law may have had no direct input into her son’s decision of who and when to marry, other than years of intense prayer for her child’s mate-to-be, the fact remains that the family experience is definitely impacted by the soul-mate selection made by her offspring.
In the same way, the daughter-in-law who may have chosen to join with her husband in holy matrimony has to face the challenge of being joined in a holy alliance with the rest of his family. By the sheer nature of the relationship she is expected to melt into a household of folks that are often unfamiliar and at times very different from her family of origin.
The reality is that every holiday, every special occasion, even the continuance of the coming generations pivot on the choice to unite families through marriage. Whether the parents-in-law or the adult children realize it or not, the choices that are made are life-altering for the entire family.
For most parents, the grace to love and enfold these new family-members-by-law is a mere continuum of the parental love they enjoy with their own kids. However, there are those situations that may require an attitude adjustment. Inevitably, embarrassing moments and even outright conflicts occur in in-law relationships. Sometime the problem happens not out of a vindictive, hateful motive, but simply out of ignorance or insensitivity.
The following is an account of an older-but-wiser daughter-in-law who has struggled with her share of conflicting situations with an alcoholic mother-in-law. There are principles of conduct illustrated by the restraint and the positive actions of this woman named Amelia that will help in dealing with conflicts.
When my mother-in-law would come to visit us, I never knew who was going to show up. It all depended on how much she’d had to drink. Since she was an alcoholic, we soon discovered that her personality varied, thus her behavior was greatly influenced by how much liquor she’d consumed. In a strange way, it really helped to have something else to blame rather than to just assume she didn’t love her son or his family.
My mother-in-law was a very complicated person. Although I found it terribly irritating when she introduced me to her friends as her “fat daughter-in-law,” I tried to look past her steely, gruff, ill-mannered ways. It was mostly out of respect for my husband’s feelings that I was willing to put up with so much mistreatment.
I made a concerted effort to look behind the scenes at her behavior. Even though there was no excuse for being so rude, I had to acknowledge that she had lived a very hard life. She was widowed twice, raised by a mean, hateful father, and neglected by a distracted mother. Her children had all moved away from her, and understandably so. Still she was a sad, lonely old woman who had put up a thick wall to keep out the hurt. But to her detriment, the barriers that she erected to protect herself from harm unintentionally deflected any love that happened to come her way.
It wasn’t until after she died that I realized she’d never let any of us get to know the person she really was. Sadly she died very suddenly. We went into her house to tend to her affairs the same day she died. To our astonishment, we found posted notes all around the house. Over the kitchen sink was a notation reminding her to pray for her grandson. In the bathroom, tacked to the mirror was a reminder to pray for her granddaughter. On and on the notes were placed. Everyone in her family had a special spot, were she would lift them up to the Lord in prayer.
It’s so strange, we thought. As many times as we had visited her, we had never seen what was gong on in her heart and in her home after we left. Even though she put up a facade of distance, we now realize she really did love her family the best way she could.
After hearing Amelia’s account, I asked her, “What did you do over the years to overcome the conflicts you experienced with your mother-in-law?” She shared what I’ve come to call the 3 keys to overcoming conflict.
KEY 1: KEEP YOUR DISTANCE:
“As much as I desired for my mother-in-law to be a part of our family, to know her grandchildren and enjoy her life, I came to realize that there are some people you just have to keep at arm’s length. Try as you might when that person is a destructive presence in your life you have to take measures toward self-preservation.”
Amelia’s first step toward making peace with her mother-in-law was an excellent example of the biblical model found in Romans 12:14-21. That passage offers some incredible wisdom for all who encounter ongoing conflicts with others. It reads:
“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. Be of the same mind toward one another; do not be haughty in mind, but associate with the lowly. Do not be wise in your own estimation. Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. “But if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
This admonition from God’s Word offers some incredibly important wisdom for anyone who encounters ongoing conflict with others. God acknowledges that there are some people who will refuse to be pleasant and peaceable. This verse is not an excuse to stop trying to show love toward a disagreeable in-law. An individual can do all the praying in the world, but if the other person refuses to listen to God, then the fact must be faced that there is a limit to what can be done to reach her heart.
Even with this passage in mind, Amelia continued to keep in touch with her mother-in-law. She said,
“Our family sent cards on her birthday, gifts for the holidays, called her on a regular basis, and visited her as much as we thought wise. When we went to see her, we tried to keep her limitations in mind. Since she was used to being alone, we knew that bringing small children into her homemade her nervous. She worried about her knickknacks getting broken, so we decided it was best if we met in a more ‘child friendly’ environment. The McDonald’s playground became a comfortable spot for a short, noisy visit. The children could eat, play, and make messes, and it didn’t harm our relationship. Sometimes we would choose to meet at a local park. There she was free to watch the children play without concern for her flower garden, her pets, or her possessions.”
This daughter-in-law must be commended for her unselfish efforts at bridging the in-law gap. Much to her credit, she had learned that “keeping her distance” physically didn’t necessitate cutting the mother-in-law off from their love.
KEY 2: KEEP YOUR TONGUE:
Thankfully, Amelia’s story contains a second step to overcoming conflict. Along with keeping a safe distance and taking precautions to make what time that is spent together pleasant, it is also imperative that we keep a watch over words. Amelia continued,
“After my mother-in-law died, I was especially glad I had bitten my tongue on more than one occasion. Believe me, I can’t count how many times I wanted to blast right back at her when she said things to me that hurt my feelings. Of course, I didn’t like her critical spirit when it was aimed my way, but nothing upset me more than when she would berate my husband. Keeping my tongue in control was, and is, one of the most serious lessons in humility I have dealt with. There were times when everything in me would want to scream, ‘You can’t talk to me like that.’ However, I discovered that when I was willing to hold back revengeful, cutting words, God then would supply the strength to control them.’”
Amelia was a living example of one who wisely accepted the truth found in Proverbs 18:21: “Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruit.” When we’re willing to humble ourselves before the Lord and submit to the authority of His Word by obeying it, then we are in the best position possible. Isaiah 66:2 says, “But to this one I will look, to him who is humble and contrite of spirit, and who trembles at My word.”
KEY 3: KEEP SMILING:
When it comes to family relationships, what Amelia finally chose to do reminds us that we have access to a divine alternative that has the potential to heal weary hearts. Ultimately, she realized she could either learn to laugh at her unpleasant situation or she could lambaste the one who was stepping on her toes during her tedious in-law dance.
Though not always easy to find, Amelia managed to root out some lighter moments in her relationship with her mother-in-law. By doing so, the heaviness of tension was relieved somewhat.
“My efforts to bring some levity into the situation was sort of one-sided. Not much humor came my way. Instead, I was regular in delivering ‘the goods.’ I began to cut out funny stories out of magazines, cartoons out of newspapers, and copied humorous e-mails that others would send me. When I’d go visit, I’d take an envelope stuffed with funnies and give them to her. Sometimes she’d read them while I was there and, to my amazement, I’d hear her quietly chuckle at a few of the things. It was somehow medicinal to hear her when she tentatively giggled. To be honest, the humor I found from it all was just knowing that I really did ‘get to her.’”
We all have the same choice that Amelia had. The book of Proverbs gives us some good reasons to keep a sense of humor. Chapter 15, verse 13 reminds us that “a joyful heart makes a cheerful face.” Forget about the laugh lines and go for it! Also we are told in verse 15, “A cheerful heart has a continual feast.” It’s O.K. to keep laughing because a “joyful heart is good medicine, but a broken spirit dries up the bones” (Proverbs 17:22).
Keep in mind this truth I once heard:
- We serve a God who is more than able to change our misery into a ministry.
- He is able to transform our every test into a testimony.
- And He is the Master of taking our helpless mess and turning it into a message of hope.
Don’t let a difficult situation with your in-laws rob you of your joy and sense of humor. Set up the boundaries of love and live by them, even if the other one keeps stepping over the line.
As we learn to get along with our extended families, we should be blessed to know that in-laws are another way God provides more folks with whom we can give and receive love.
The above (edited) article is found in the wonderful book titled, The Mother-in-Law Dance: Can Two Women Love the Same Man and Still Get Along? written by Annie Chapman, published by Harvest House Publishers. This book has so much more to offer than we could give you here in this article. I’ve (Cindy) always loved everything Annie has written but this is one of her best. I’d highly recommend this book to everyone to read who either is a mother-in-law or has a mother-in-law.
— ALSO —
The following is another article, which you may find helpful to read (posted on the Kubic.org web site) on this issue: