The tense and tumultuous relationship between daughter- and mother-in-law is a tale as old as time. Anyone who's seen the movie Monster-in-Law, as wildly exaggerated as it may be, understands the familial stakes involved in gaining a husband and losing a son, figuratively speaking. It might give us a few good laughs, but it doesn't get us much closer to understanding how to forge a sincere and stable bond with your partner's mother. Why is it so tough? "Although your husband may have chosen you to spend his life with and to make all joint decisions, his mom had that role for the first part of his life and is used to having that influence and priority," explains Paulette Kouffman Sherman, a New York City-based psychotherapist and relationship expert. "And, although his mom may understand that her son is now grown and has his own family, it can be hard for her not to intervene in his health, happiness, struggles, and choices."
Although there is enough love to go around, she notes that both understanding and boundaries are needed from the mother-in-law and wife. In the same vein, both the mother- and daughter-in-law have to try and put in effort towards developing their own respectful and trusting relationship. "Each has to find a way to go from strangers to family, and eventually—and hopefully—friends." Not quite sure how she feels about you at this very moment? Read on for some clues that you're on your your mother-in-law's good side.
She respects your boundaries.
"A mother-in-law will ideally recognize that you are married to her son and you two are creating your own vision for your family," explains Dr. Sherman. This means she will step back and let you make the important decisions regarding your family—including everything from which home you purchase to how you choose to raise your kids. "She will recognize you are two different people with disparate wants, preferences, and needs and respect that her son will discuss decisions with you since you two are the architects of your family."
She speaks highly of you to others.
The last person who should be gossiping about you behind your back is your MIL—she should have your back. Whether she's talking to other family members at Thanksgiving or to her close friends at book club, she should only have good things to say about you. This goes both ways, however. Though it might be tempting to vent to your friends about her nitpicking ways, remember that she is now family, and that you should have her back, too.
She asks about what is important to you.
The conversations you have with your mother-in-law should be about more than just her son. They should be about your interests and passions, both personally and professionally, as well as your hopes and aspirations for the future. "If your mother-in-law asks about you as a person than she is showing that she takes an interest in you as an individual—not just in relation to her husband or grandchildren," says Dr. Sherman.
She remembers your birthday and other successes.
If she calls or stops by to celebrate your birthday or a job promotion, she is showing that she cares. If she buys you gifts and sends you sweet cards, even better! If she shows that she's genuinely happy for the good times in your life—especially the ones that don't necessarily involve her—that's a good sign.
She gives thoughtful gifts that hold meaning.
Whether it's a gift for your birthday or for Christmas, or simply just because, if your mother-in-law gives you presents that show she listens when you talk and that she knows your interests, it's clear that she cares. "If you love to read and she gifts you books in the genre you love, this is a sign that she's attuned to who you are as a person," says Chicago-based psychologist, Helen Odessky. "Being seen and validated in relationships for who we are is essential."