Maximizing Grandma: How To Get The Most Out Of Your Mother-In-Law

Couples therapist Dr. Suzanne Burger wants you to have a healthy relationship with your mother-in-law, even if it means ignoring that Werther's Original on your kid's breath.

by Michael Howard
Originally Published: 
parents and inlaws

2-Minute Therapy is a regular series providing simple, effective advice on how to make sure your spouse thinks you’re as awesome as your kid thinks you are.

Whether your mother-in-law is an overbearing “good idea fairy” or a blessing to parenthood, it’s important to maintain a healthy relationship with her, especially for husbands. One 26-year longitudinal study of 373 married couples found that men who felt close to their in-laws at the time of marriage were 20 percent less likely to get divorced in the next 16 years than the overall group.

But according to Dr. Suzanne Burger, a certified Gottman Method couples therapist and clinical psychologist of over 25 years, “about one-third of couples experience moderate to severe conflict with one or both of their in-laws, and that generally gets compounded when people become parents.”

Here are 5 tips from Dr. Burger on how to get the most out of Grams and her wonderful hearts for eyes:

Photo Credit: You Again / Disney

1) Talk To Your Partner Before Addressing Issues With Grandma

It’s futile to address a problem with the mother-in-law if your significant other is — perhaps inadvertently — working against you on whatever the conflict may be. “If Mom’s okay with it, then it doesn’t really matter if Dad is having a conversation with Grandma, because Mom is not going to be helping him out with his cause,” Dr. Burger says.

This doesn’t mean your partner has to act as mediator between you and the in-law. Whoever is most comfortable speaking with Grandma should do so, after you’re both on the same page.

2) Don’t Ask Grandma To Stop Doing Something; Do Ask For Her Help

Even after both parents agree that, say, Grandma’s method of discipline isn’t working for either of you, don’t lash out. Framing the conflict in a negative light will only make her defensive instead of inspiring self-reflection. “You don’t blame the person; you don’t criticize them,” she says. “You just talk about what you need, and you make a request at the end for that need to be respected.”

Grandma’s entitled to her own opinions about raising children, and if she raised the love of your life, she’s probably not incompetent at it either.

Instead, focus on those basic principles of constructive criticism: sandwich the problem you’re looking to address between 2 positive observations; focus on the behavior not the person, and leave out anger. The last thing you want to do is make her feel threatened or unwelcome.

3) What To Do If Your Mother-In-Law Loves Giving Unsolicited Parenting Advice

First, remember that Grandma’s entitled to her own opinions about how to raise children, and if she raised the love of your life, she’s probably not incompetent at it either. Second, try to chew on that thought for as long as possible before letting it eat your soul. Lastly, if it’s truly out of hand, have a sit down where you express admiration for Grandma’s parental prowess as a couple but request that she respect your values as a parents, especially when they differ from hers.

4) Consider The Motive

Resist the urge to tell grams to piss off. A grandchild might have renewed her sense of purpose. If she’s been dealing with issues of loss, Dr. Burger advises gently offering suggestions of your own for developing other networks or activities or hobbies.

Photo Credit: You Again / Disney

A persistent presence around your family could also be her effort to compensate for not being home enough when she was a young parent. If so, keep “supportive approach to resolution” the theme. Assure her that she’s a fantastic grandmother, but there must be boundaries. “The more you can understand where she’s coming from, the more you’re going to be able to get out of this gridlocked place with her,” says Dr. Burger.

5) Compromise And Customize Your Solution

Dr. Burger gives the example of her former client, a father and husband whose in-laws, since the birth of his child, visited often and unannounced. He found this “extremely trying and upsetting,” but his wife loved having them over. Per the therapist’s advice, the couple talked to each other to understand and solve the problem.

The wife grew up in a multigenerational household that included the grandparents, so this felt normal to her. The husband was raised by a single mom in a house that was quiet, except when frequently hostile boyfriends would visit, so visitors forever triggered a mental threat system for him. In the end, the couple made rules to accommodate each other’s wishes: In-laws were still allowed to visit unannounced but only at specified times when the husband was away.

When it comes to mother-in-laws, pick your battles, try not to abuse her as an emergency babysitter, and “don’t assume she’s the wicked witch,” Dr. Burger says. Remember it’s every grandparent’s right to spoil grandchildren and let the parents handle any discipline problems that may cause. So don’t get wound up when Junior smells of Grandma’s Werther’s Originals right before bed. You’ll be returning the favor to your kid in about 30 years.

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