Snippy comments or curt replies from a daughter-in-law typically prompt one of two things from a well-meaning mother-in-law: You either turn on the frost and snap back, or you take it in stride and avoid a relationship landmine.
The first reaction gets you nowhere but into trouble—even if you WERE only trying to help. The second reaction signals you’re a laid-back MIL, a woman who’s learned the most important family lesson: Never fight a fight you can’t win—especially when you don’t know all the facts. Is it easy not reacting? “Of course not, “ says Susan Abel Lieberman, Ph.D., author of The Mother-in-Law’s Manual. Is it essential to peaceful co-existence? “Only if you want a good relationship with your son and grandkids,“ she adds.
If you’re not sure which MIL you are, see how you identify with the following scenarios and pay attention to Lieberman’s tips.
Scenario #1: The Open-Ended Comment
You’ve invited your son and DIL to dinner and have made her favorite dessert—apple pie. You’re proud of your efforts until she takes the first bite and says, “This tastes just like the apple pie at Kmart.”
Reactive MIL: Inner voice: You little b#t@h! Outer voice: “Really? I never knew Ina Garten got her recipes from Kmart.”
Laid-back MIL: “Do you like the apple pie at Kmart?” If DIL says yes, you’ve just hit a homerun. If she hesitates, say, “If you have a favorite apple pie recipe, I’d love to make it for you. Can you send me the link?”
Why Being Laid Back Trumps Reactive: Everyone makes assumptions, says, Liberman, but the reactive MIL tends to assume the worst: “I’ve just been insulted big time.” It’s all downhill from there. The LB MIL‘s inner voice says, “Who knows? Maybe she just gave me the compliment of my life.” No jumping to conclusions—just a sincere neutral response.
Scenario #2: The Communication Failure
Your DIL shoots you a quick email inviting you to the kids’ recital in three days. Only problem, she forgot to include where or when. Attempts to gather that info go unanswered and time is running out. You’d ask your son but he’s out of town and won’t be back until after the recital. You’d really like to go.
Reactive MIL: You leave a message every hour about needing info. By the last one, you add a little zinger: “Well, If I don’t hear from you, I guess I’m not really invited.”
Laid-back MIL: You leave one final message stating you’d love to go and will wait to hear. If nothing happens, you make other fun plans or stay home and read a book.
Why Being Laid Back Trumps Reactive: The laid-back MIL mentally acknowledges that her DIL has a lot on her plate and can be a little scattered, so this situation is not atypical and it’s not personal. It’s also probably not fixable, says Lieberman, no matter how much the MIL wants to help. Knowing that a barrage of messages will just create more stress, the laid-back MIL does the “adult” thing and accepts that she may not hear. Instead of obsessing over her DIL’s actions, she finds a pleasant way to spend her afternoon. And she does NOT bring it up when her son returns. (Never, ever, says Lieberman, put your son in the middle.)
Scenario #3: The Parenting Comparison
Your dear son was a bit of a slob growing up and he’s not exactly Mr. Clean as an adult. Your DIL complains about his messiness and then says, rather defiantly, “I’ll never let my kids think it’s okay not to pick up after themselves!”
Reactive MIL: “OUCH! Let me know how that works!”
Laid-back MIL: “Maybe I wasn’t as tough on him as I should’ve been. But I will support you in getting the kids to pick up.”
Why Being Laid Back Trumps Reactive: The laid-back MIL hears frustration rather than accusation—and she can relate because her son’s messiness drove her crazy, too. So, instead of baring fangs, she sees this as an opportunity to confess her own shortcoming and also to be flattered that her DIL felt comfortable enough to share a complaint about the guy you both love to pieces.
Scenario #4: The Absence of Gratitude
Because your son and DIL have busy lives, you drop off dinner once a week—mostly because you love to cook and the family eats a lot of take out. You know the food gets eaten because there are periodic comments, like “Next time, make more applesauce,” but in general, they almost never say “Thanks, loved it, make that again.”
Reactive MIL: You decide, “Screw it. No more dinners for those ingrates.” They’ll know something’s up—but not the real reason-- when the next meal isn’t delivered.
Laid-back MIL: You keep making dinners unless/until it becomes too much work for you. (Nobody likes a martyr.) And in the spirit of goodwill, you always attach a little love note to the family.
Why Laid Back is Better Than Reactive: The Laid-back MIL is always in touch with her true motives: She does this because she loves cooking and feeding others. Maybe the fam doesn’t goo all over her, but that’s not important. It’s a gift of pure love. The reactive MIL may be doing it for kudos or as an indirect comment about her DIL’s overuse of fast foods. Bad motives generally lead to bad responses, which can fuel a simmering fire.
Scenario #5: The Social Slight
It’s holiday time and you and your hubby, your son and his fam, plus the other set of in-laws always get together. You like everyone and the celebration will be pleasant, except your DIL and her mom stick together like glue. Try to enter the conversation and they’ll acknowledge you briefly, then go back to something you know nothing about.
Reactive MIL: You go into a corner, cross your arms over your chest and pout. Charades, anyone?
Laid-back MIL: You play cards with the kids, or talk to others who are also not part of the rat pack. You make your own fun.
Why Laid Back Trumps Reactive: Here’s the deal: every family has its own dynamics. And some of those dynamics may include lack of empathy and poor socializing skills, says Lieberman. Case in point: the DIL and her mom. But while the reactive MIL takes it personally and pouts (never a great way to make friends and influence people), the laid-back MIL, who generally enjoys these gatherings, knows she can never barge her way into this dynamic duo, so she socializes where she’s welcome. Grandkids generally like an attentive grandparent; her son may enjoy the opportunity to get to talk to his mom alone. She contributes to the festivities rather than contaminates them.
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