How can I win round my frosty future mother-in-law?

The question I’m due to marry later this year and would like advice regarding my mother-in-law to be. My relationship with her tends to be strained. She lost her husband before I met my partner. I know he did an awful lot for her – I can’t help but think she feels I am taking her son away from her. Her behaviour towards me is often petty, she rarely even tries to make small talk. The way she behaves makes me feel I want to spend as little time with her as possible. She has a tendency to make the atmosphere sour. She seems increasingly selfish and she hasn’t offered to help with our wedding at all. She is spending a great amount of time and money on her appearance, she is obsessed with dieting. It makes me feel as if she is trying to compete with me.

I get upset when I hear about friends getting on well with their mothers-in-law. It is unlikely we will ever have a close bond, but I don’t want my partner and I to start our married life in this way. He seems oblivious to it all. What can I do to help ease the tension?

Philippa’s answer It is quite possible she is worried that she will see less of her son and maybe such fears are not without foundation. She might well be harbouring resentment about this possible loss of time with him and it won’t be her beloved son she’ll begrudge – so her antipathy might well be coming your way.

How are you going to ease the tension?

In a situation like yours most of us can all too easily see ourselves as being the goodie and the other as being the baddie, and then we naturally select the evidence to fit. We intensify our feeling of dislike by cherrypicking only the evidence that backs up our hunches. This makes us feel right, or even self-righteous, and we thus construct a negative lens through which to view the other – making them into the bad guy. So, your first job is to put aside the dynamic of one of you being good and the other bad. This task becomes easier when we become aware of how we interpret the other’s behaviour.

Say you are not at ease and would like to get on better with her
If you look at her actions in a positive rather than a negative light you can get different meanings from them. For example, “She hasn’t offered to help with the wedding” rather than selfishness, could be interpreted as not wanting to interfere. And her not wanting to make small talk might not be because she is in any way bad but because she is shy, or awkward or doesn’t know what to say. Shyness can easily be mistaken for haughtiness. She spends a lot of money on her appearance and diets – she might not think her appearance is good enough, she may feel inadequate, insecure or even unacceptable. Quite often people who may appear vain because they obsess about their appearance are really the opposite.

To get to the nub of the matter of your relationship I would recommend a different sort of talk than the small kind. I wonder whether you would feel able to risk saying something like: “I feel nervous around you, I guess it’s because I really want to get on well with you and know you, yet I don’t feel it’s going so well. What is it between us that seems to stop me being friends with you?” I don’t want to put words in your mouth – use your own words, but speak in “I” statements, which define your own experience and not “You” statements. So never tell her what you think she is like, but you can say how you are not feeling at ease and would like to get on better with her. When a step is taken to be more vulnerable and open in a relationship, the other person often follows suit. It is a risk. I wonder whether you will take it.

Bear in mind that it might be sad for her that her son is getting married. She may feel it’s another loss and compounds the loss of her husband. The wedding might be an occasion where she will miss the support he would have given her. If you don’t think she would find it intrusive, check out assumptions like these with her, too.

I hope you will be able to find a way to talk to her about your relationship with her – maybe the two of you could get to the point where you could share what you would wish from your relationship going forward. Perhaps she might confide that she fears losing one-on-one time with her son; perhaps you could reassure her that you would not want to get in the way of that.

Or it might be easier to start by asking her for advice, follow the advice and then tell her it was great advice, and ask her for some more. “How can we honour your husband at our wedding?” Most people love giving advice (or maybe that’s just me).

To recap: try to see her in a positive rather than a negative light, don’t fall into the trap of the good-bad dynamic, and swap your small talk for more meaningful talk. Your fiancé is oblivious to it all – he would be, whatever his mother is will be normal to him. But how about showing him your email and my reply and see what he has to say, too?

Here’s wishing you a wonderful wedding, life and a positive relationship with your future mother-in-law.