As a relationship writer, I get my share of slightly strange books crossing my desk. This one by Anne Kathryn Killinger caught my eye, though: A Son is a Son Till He Gets a Wife: How Toxic Daughters-in-Law Destroy Families. It’s the story of a woman cursed with a stinky ol’ daughter-in-law, and how baffled she is by her own son’s abandonment at the hands, she claims, of a man-stealing, mom-hating harpy.
Far from eliciting my sympathy, the book set off more warning flags than getting a “wink” from a guy named “sheenfan.” For one thing, never does the author seem to wonder what she might have done wrong herself that her son would let someone get in between the two of them. (In fact, it literally does not occur to her that he might have desperately scoured the globe looking for someone who would enable him to make a break with her overbearing presence.) Also, one of the culprits is, apparently, feminism. Uh… yeah.
Even the nicest people can have difficult family members
But at the same time, the very presence of this book (and so many others like it) simply underscores the difficult nature of the in-law relationship. And although you’re probably just dating for now, at some point — if things go right — you’re going to meet your man’s first love: his mother. When you do, you want things to go right from the very start.
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This is still true even if your meet-the-parents moment has you wondering how your Prince Charming could have come from the Queen of Mean. Believe me, the nicest people can have crazy family members. (Not me, of course; hello, family members with Internet access!) In fact, I’ve dealt with my share of difficult boyfriend-moms, for want of a better term.
One of them was sweet, but a bit batty: She boiled her tricolor rotini pasta in three batches because she really felt that the green ones needed an extra minute, the red ones needed a minute less, and she wanted all the pasta to be done just so. Another one was just plain weird: she used to stalk around our apartment muttering, “dusty, dusty, dusty” as she whacked at lampshades with her handkerchief. Yet another had her son deliver the news that I could only wear a certain outfit to her home, as my usual mode of dress was too risqué for her — and then made me change anyway when I got there, because she hadn’t noticed the offensive leggings the first time around.
What’d they all have in common? They all seemed nuts. What else did they all have in common? Me. And I could have made things so much easier on everyone involved by trying to be less nuts myself.
To avoid disaster, choose your battles wisely
You can head off such issues (the worst of them, at least) by putting your best foot forward when the time comes to meet the parents. “I hear from a lot of people in bad relationships with their in-laws, but very rarely is it truly a toxic situation,” says Alisa Bowman, author of Project: Happily Ever After: Saving Your Marriage When the Fairytale Falters and founder of the accompanying site ProjectHappilyEverAfter.com. “It’s more common for people to feel perennially slightly uncomfortable.”
The very nature of the relationship is overwhelming, and the odds can seem stacked against you from the get-go. “It’s early in the relationship. You’re in transition. And the mother-in-law is not only getting used to you — she’s getting used to the new relationship with her son,” explains Bowman. “She’s getting used to the idea that there’s a new woman in his life. It’s hard for all mothers; many are going to end up having control issues.”
That’s what it really comes down to: control issues. No matter how famously you get along, you’ll hit a snag at some point — and no matter what you disagree on, the underlying culprit is really a control issue. Of course, you can declare all-out war. Plenty have gone that route. But is that what you want for yourself — not to mention your new love? Here’s how to keep your sanity in those situations:
Step 1: See her side of things. “Understanding the mindset of a parent by saying to yourself, ‘I know what’s going on here: She’s fearful that her son will love me more than her’ can at least [help] make sense out of seemingly senseless acts of random rudeness,” says Bowman. In other words, compassion should come before anything else.
Step 2: Create healthy boundaries early on. Right now, you’re all on your best behavior. But if things develop into something long-term, pretty soon, you’ll be hearing things like: “Whose house are we going to on Thanksgiving?” and “That’s not how we’re toilet-training this child!” So when you do need to say no, be very tactful, kind and upfront about it. “Being proactive and talking about these issues ahead of time can save people a world of hurt,” says Bowman. “And most people don’t do it. They just draw a line in the sand.”
Step 3: Do the right recon concerning his family dynamics. “My mother-in-law needs to be in charge of her kitchen, and if you do the dishes the wrong way, you’re going to hear about it,” says Bowman. “That was important to know in the beginning.” You’re used to your family dynamics, so the unfamiliar underpinnings of your mate’s relationship with the family can blindside you if you’re not prepared. Find out important details before you make a misstep by asking the right questions: Is someone going through a hard time? Are there potholes to step gingerly around? Forewarned is forearmed (or something like that).
Step 4: Keep your expectations realistic. “Some people paint too rosy a picture,” says Bowman. “If your hopes are set too high, they’re bound to be dashed.” The same is true of your romantic relationships, now that I think about it. If you enter the situation knowing it’s OK to have challenges and you’re determined to move past them, the odds of success are increased.
Step 5: Find common ground. There’s always something you and this woman have in common: you both adore her son. And she raised him, so she’s at least partially responsible for that. Remember this when she sets your teeth on edge, and then back down. (Never mind that he’s complained about her, too — she did her best, and the result is the guy you’re head-over-heels for now.)
Step 6: Don’t fall into bad habits. And if you do, nip them in the bud. There are some best practices regarding manners that you’d put into place with any new acquaintance, such as being polite, cleaning up after yourself, and saying “please” and “thank you.” If you had to stay in a stranger’s home, in their child’s room, you’d tread carefully. And if you had a fracas with a coworker, you’d try not to resort to backstabbing, sarcasm, or passive-aggressive behaviors. Or maybe you would engage in them, in which case: Stop! When the going gets tough, summon your resolve and say something; talking it out usually works.
The bottom line is that you’re not meeting an adversary; rather, you’re meeting a potential new family member. So there’s no need to win. You’re all in this together. Besides, “you never win,” says Bowman. “You have to give up wanting to win. That attitude won’t take you where you want to end up.” Instead of feeling like you to be right, just shoot for being understood. If that’s your goal, your relationship with a new boyfriend’s mother should be more about fun than friction.
Amy Keyishian has written for Cosmopolitan and other national magazines.