Q&A (8): How to deal with a tricky mother in law.

Dear Sarah,

I have been married six years to Pete. It is generally a good relationship but we argue a lot about his parents – well his mother to be more precise. I find her infuriating. She still fusses over him like he is a little boy and I always feel like she is criticising me, if not outwardly then inwardly. It has got worse since we had our daughter two years ago. She is always telling me how to do stuff or making suggestions or trying to take control. It drives me mad. I know I need to get on with her for Pete’s sake but I am telling you it is hard. How can I improve the way I relate to her?

Love Clare.*


Dear Clare,

I’ve had a lot of correspondence over the years from mothers complaining about their husband’s mother – for many the mere mention of the words “Mother-in-law” is emotive.

Not all Mother-in-laws are the same – they come in very different guises. Some grannies are fantastic, sensitive and caring, others interfere too much or not enough. It is the same with daughters-in-law – there are great ones and then there are the overly demanding ones, the mean ones or the ones who reject offers of help.

So what can you do if you struggle with your mother in law? I would say the key is to be united with your husband Pete. Talk together about the best way forward, find a solution together that you can both agree to and then support each other in it.  This is true of all family and in-law relationships – it really helps if the two of you are on the same page and can make decisions together.

Here are a few other general suggestions of things that might help anyone dealing with a tricky mother-in-law:

1. Be kind. She is your husband’s mother and while she may or may not become your friend, she deserves your respect. She did give birth to the man you love which counts for something – doesn’t it?

Remember that one day you may be a mother-in-law; so try thinking about how you would like to be treated. Think the best of her, focus on the things she does well, show your appreciation and try not to speak badly of her in front of the children – if you have them.

2. Be curious. Put yourself in her shoes whenever possible. Ask her about her life, her history, her hopes and disappointments. Discover how she found being a mother and compare notes on how things have changed. If you are an older mother or if you have to work full time (and she didn’t) explain what it is like, as she may not appreciate the different pressures you experience.

3. Be pro-active. Involve her in your lives. Most grandmothers want to feel included but “not used”. Keep her up to date with your developments and achievements. Send photos, texts, and pictures from the children and invite the grandparents to school plays and special occasions.

4. Be clear. Don’t fight her on everything but stand your ground on the issues that you feel most strongly about and then give her free reign on the rest. One woman who wrote to me called Louise remembers her mother-in-law giving her children jam sandwiches and cake for tea, “I disapproved but the occasional jam tea never did anyone any harm and I didn't mention it.”

Try not to leave her to guess what kind of help you would like, let her know but always give her the option to say “no”.

5. Keep forgiving and remember to say sorry yourself. Many daughters-in-law react badly when they feel controlled or judged. If that happens to you don’t simmer in silence or rant at your husband. Instead chose to let it go or if you can’t, gently explain to her how her words or actions made you feel.


6. Remember you are on the same side. You may have different methods and opinions but deep down you both want the same thing - for your husband to be happy and for your children to be loved, looked after and given the best start in life.

Hopefully these will help you start to improve the way you related to her. Please do let me know how you get on!

Much love

*Name has been changed.

Did you have any tricky moments with relatives over the Christmas period? If so please use the comment section below. And don't forget, if you have a question about how to live, love or lead more authentically then use the contact form here and we will try to include it in a future Q&A. If we use your question we will send you a free copy of my book "Inside Out – how to have authentic relationships with everyone in your life"