What Mothers-in-Law Say About Their Daughters-in-Law

For a mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, the benefits of maintaining a close relationship cannot be overstated, as Michael Woolley and I wrote in our just published article in Social Work. Based on survey data from 267 mothers-in-law who are part of a Qualtrics panel, we looked at the factors that mothers-in-law noted in being close with their daughters-in-law.

In the U.S. each year, more than 2 million couples marry and join the already 60 million married couples. These new couples help to form and re-form three families: their own family and each of their families-of-origin. A marriage, whether between a man and woman, two women, or two men, thus results in a great deal of adjustment for millions of Americans each year. How families open up to a new member can make or break the relationship when a child-in-law joins the family: where are the boundaries formed? How many family secrets are shared? How inclusive are each partner's parents? For our research we focused on the mother-in-law's perspective on her relationship with her daughter-in-law. Other research we have worked on focuses on the son-in-law and father-in-law's relationship as well as how gay and lesbian couples are accepted by their in-laws.

From a 114 item survey, we used the item, "My daughter-in-law and I have a close relationship" as a dependent variable. What is related to their relationship being close?

1. the mother-in-law perceives the daughter-in-law as being helpful;

2. the mother-in-law perceives her son is happy with the relationship she has with the daughter-in-law;

3. the mother-in-law perceives she and the daughter-in-law share similar interests;

4. the mother-in-law feels close with her son;

Read books together every day. Get started when he's a newborn; babies love listening to the sound of their parents' voices. Cuddling up with your child and a book is a great bonding experience that will set him up for a lifetime of reading.

5. the mother-in-law does not feel left out by her daughter-in-law and son; and

6. the mother-in-law spends time with her.

For those mothers-in-law struggling with their relationship with their daughter-in-law, a few takeaways emerge from the findings.

First, a mother-in-law should engage her daughter-in-law in ways where she can be helpful. Are there opportunities that are not being plumbed where some level of mutuality can be built?

Second, similar to the first, a mother-in-law should try and find shared interests with a daughter-in-law as such joint activities can help to build a relationship. This can also increase the time the two spend together which, for some mothers-in-law, helps her to feel closer to her daughter-in-law.

Third, look at the relationship the son/spouse plays in the relationship with the daughter-in-law. It goes without saying that most mothers want to be close with their son; when they are close they are more likely to be close with their daughter-in-law also. To help build closeness with the son, the mother-in-law should recognize that building a relationship with her daughter-in-law may facilitate closeness with the son who is an extremely important person in this relationship.

Fourth, the mother-in-law should work to explore her own feelings of inclusion or exclusion. Feeling left out is not pleasant. If there are ways to try and understand what is leading to these feelings (remembering the demands that couples, especially those raising children, are experiencing), a path may be found to experiencing them left often. Building a relationship with the daughter-in-law along the lines already suggested may be one way to feel more included and to be more included.

Plan not-so-random acts of kindness. Kids need to know that helping others is an everyday practice, not a visit-a-soup-kitchen-at-the-holidays grand gesture. Challenge yours to complete small tasks every week, like throwing away another kid's trash at lunch or raking a neighbor's lawn. Training your children to focus on others helps curb entitlement. "Gratitude becomes woven into who they are," says Jeffrey J. Froh, a coauthor of Making Grateful Kids.

These are highly complex relationships for mothers-in-law that include other family members—a spouse; a son; other children; and the parents of the daughter-in-law. By understanding some of the characteristics of those relationships in which the mother-in-law feels close to her daughter-in-law, it is hoped that mothers-in-law that are struggling can bridge any gaps they are experiencing.