You don't have to have seen the movie Monster-in-Law to understand the tumultuous relationship that some brides have with their future mothers-in-law. In fact, you may have even been a firsthand witness to these kinds of interactions between your mom and paternal grandmother. Of course, the movie is an exaggerated version of what some women go through, but there's no denying that this female-to-female relationship is fraught with challenging dynamics. "When a man decides to get married, his mother knows that she is no longer the number one woman in his life," says Sophia V. Antoine, a certified life and relationship coach. "Suddenly, her baby boy will turn to another woman for comfort and care."
When a mother's grasp on her newly-engaged son is so tight, the bride-to-be may struggle to find her footing in her new role as wife. "Both mother- and daughter-in-law can find themselves in the midst of long-standing, discreet, and indirect attacks, which are primarily used to exclude and criticize in order to maintain status," explains Julienne Derichs, LCPC, a licensed clinical professional counselor. "This pattern repeats itself over and over again until one woman becomes aware and tries to make a change."
This opportunity for change can happen at any time, but there are certain points when it might be easiest. The very first window comes when the women are introduced. Experts agree that this first meeting shouldn't be spontaneous, so it's best if her son (your boyfriend or fiancé) plan the event. "The bride-to-be should recognize the importance of her appearance, grooming and manners, since first impressions are lasting impressions," says Kathy McMahon, psychologist and president of Couples Therapy Inc. "Patience, good graces, and keeping your sense of humor is essential."
Experts say that this introduction serves as an opportunity for each woman to size the other up, giving each a chance to determine whether or not they could see the other serving an important, permanent role in their life. The next major turning point is the engagement. "Getting engaged is big! It signifies that you will be the new woman in her son's life," says Paulette Sherman, Psy.D., psychologist and author. "Although moms are often happy about a son getting married, they may also be sad or scared about this change."
More often than not, your future mother-in-law is thrilled to welcome you into the family, but don't assume that the tension and battle for the upper hand is now a thing of the past. Wedding planning brings about a whole brand-new set of circumstances that can get sticky between the groom's two leading ladies. Whether or not you'd prefer to include your mother-in-law in the planning process or not is up to you, but experts recommend giving her at least one or two special responsibilities, like helping with ceremony decisions or curating a portion of the guest list. "This will give her a sense of purpose and she will feel included and respected, but you won't have to deal with the ongoing negotiations and compromise that may become an issue if she is involved in all aspects of planning," says " says Charlynn Ruan, Ph.D., Licensed Clinical Psychologist and founder of Thrive Psychology.
Of course, any point in your relationship with your mother-in-law can be a turning point. "If you find avenues to get to know one another, especially in ways that allow for challenging your assumptions about each other, those moments can be turning points in the relationship," says Derichs. "Try to find frequent opportunities to get together. These moments will help develop trust between the two of you, and you'll have some privacy to develop a level of intimacy." It can be something as simple as grabbing coffee or texting her when you read or see something in the news that reminds you of her, or something as meaningful as including her in wedding dress shopping or visiting wedding reception venues.
But Derichs suggests trying to spend time with your mother-in-law without your fiancé present. "Inclusion is key. Not taking things personally is essential and learning how to forgive and let go is central to maintaining healthy long-term relationships," she explains.