If you have a fraught relationship with your mother-in-law, you’re not alone.

Across online mommy groups, you’ll find some variation on the ‘my mother-in-law is nuts/overbearing/clueless/evil’ refrain. During the holidays, expectations are heightened, which adds pressure to an already strained in-law relationship (especially when there’s a sudden increase of hours spent together). Resentments from throughout the year can bubble up at the most inopportune times, casting a shadow on the most wonderful time of the year.

Conflicts can arise out of seemingly innocuous statements; “You’re still breastfeeding?” to clashes in values; “but every little girl wants a Barbie!” to overstepped boundaries; “we’ve decided to stay an extra week!” The hurt and confusion often runs both ways, leaving both women feeling undervalued and disrespected.

A lot of the conflict starts with our shifting roles. “Back in the day, women just accepted their roles; I’m the mother, this is my mother-in-law. We all had our roles to play, and we played them. That’s not the case anymore,” says Dr. Deanna Brann, who has written several books on the tricky in-law relationship. “We have blended families, single families… those roles are not as defined as they used to be.” She also points to our increasingly mobile society: years ago, we married those in close geographic proximity to us; this made it easier to squeeze in family visits without having to schlep across the country. “It’s always a tug-of-war; who are we going to spend the holidays with? The mother-in-law will feel slighted, because often times they will go to the daughter-in-law’s family; so she’ll get pouty or passive-aggressive; there’s some acting out,” says Brann. “That puts the the daughter-in-law in an awkward position, because she has to be that guy and set the boundaries.” 

Kids make it worse. “That’s often when the trouble really begins,” says Brann. “You’re bringing this little baby in, and no woman wants to be told what to do, or have another woman come in; trying to take over or have an opinion. There’s a territorial piece with that child, as well as this sense that ‘we’re not going to be like you, we’re going to do it our way’. It’s a power struggle.”

Doting grandparents are common, but a mother-in-law may overspend for the kids without consulting what the parents want. “It’s really a respect thing that comes out in behaviors like that,” says Brann. This lack of respect often comes out of an inability to accept shifting roles. “When you have a child, I don’t care if he’s five or fifty, he’ll always be your kid,” says Brann. “But you have to shift your purpose; you’re not the influencer anymore. You used to be in the driver’s seat, then they became teenagers and you’re in the passenger seat, then they get married and you’re in the backseat. It’s that emotional piece of letting him go; you still have expectations of him that are unrealistic. And often, a mothers-in-law will come along and treat [her daughter-in-law] like one of her own children, but she’s not; she’s an adult woman.”

To avoid unnecessary conflict, it’s important to set your expectations for the holidays in advance. Registered Psychotherapist & Counsellor Bonnie Skinner recommends having a conversation in advance to understand each other’s views. “Talk with your partner about how you want the holidays to look for your immediate family. Are you going to establish new traditions? Are you feeling torn between sets of parents? If you’re not on the same page as a couple, all of a sudden your partner is caught in the middle when the in-laws arrive.”

Once you’ve had that conversation about your vision, then it’s your partner’s job to communicate this with their own parents (though it can be helpful to be present when that conversation happens). “If they do it together, then it shows her that they are together on this,” says Brann. “It allows them both to hear what the other is saying, so there’s no distortions.”

In terms of gifts, upfront communication is also key. “If the grandparents are not asking what the kids want for gifts, the parents should hint; you can spend x amount of dollars, one or two gifts,” says Brann. “They need to set the rules in advance, that way it’s all clear.” 

When it comes to extended stays, Brann recommends having an exit strategy. “Know how long you’re planning to stay; if your husband is planning to stay longer, take two cars, or let him get a ride back with someone else. Let them know in advance ‘I’ve got to leave at such-and-such time’, then you can leave when you want, and he can stay.”

If you’re feeling tense or reactive, take a break and try to evaluate what’s really going on. The emotions we feel are often based on our history rather than what is unfolding at that moment. Skinner recommends pausing to ask yourself: ”If I am very defensive about something that my mother-in-law says, is that coming from the fear that my partner is going to think that I’m insignificant, or I can’t do this the way it ‘needs to be done’? Is it a competition?” While family get-togethers are generally chaotic, even pausing for a minute to try to understand the root of the conflict can prevent emotional outbursts or hurt feelings.“Find out what’s really happening with you that you’re so upset. When everybody does this, then we can have a real conversation about what our needs are, instead of arguing about what gift was given or who visits more often.”

Asking questions can also help you understand your mother-in-law’s motivations, “What need of hers is coming out?” adds Skinner. “If your MIL is insisting on cooking the turkey, is she doing this because she thinks I can’t cook? Or is it because she wants to feel needed and included? I think it’s a case of mattering.”

Deanna Brann, Ph.D. author of the award-winning Reluctantly Related: Secrets to Getting Along with Your Mother-in-Law or Daughter-in-Law and Reluctantly Related Revisited: Breaking Free of the Mother-in-Law/Daughter-in-Law Conflict, is the leading expert on mother-in- law/daughter-in-law relationships. 

Bonnie J. Skinner, RP, CCC is a Registered Psychotherapist and Certified Canadian Counsellor. With proven expertise in high demand & evidence based interventions (including Cognitive Behavioral and Trauma Informed therapies), Bonnie’s primary goal is to ensure her clients get the knowledge and professional support they need to make positive, lasting changes in their lives.