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Tool Box for Mother-in-Law/Daughter-in-Law Relationship

June 23, 2019 | by Emuna Braverman

A crash course on how mothers-in-law can build a good relationship with daughters-in-law.

Since so many letters to Dear Emuna focus on the mother-in-law/daughter-in-law relationship, I like to keep my ears open for tips on how to navigate this tricky situation. It does take two to tango but I generally believe that if the older, more mature party (hypothetically the mother-in-law) behaves well, her daughter-in-law – if she is reasonably healthy – will follow her example. So far, so good, right?

But we can still get bogged down in the details. What exactly does “behaves well” mean? Although it’s hard to credit, I can imagine that there are those mothers-in-law who believe that calling their son to come over every night after dinner to visit them and help change the odd light bulb and fix the leaking faucet is an example of behaving well. They believe that he is a son first and a husband second.

They may be correct chronologically but they are wrong philosophically. Their son’s first responsibility is to his wife. This is not just a matter of conjecture or wishful thinking; it is explicit in the Torah, right after the creation of woman: “Therefore a man shall leave his parents and cling to his wife.” It doesn’t get much clearer than that.

Yet too many of us let our emotions get in the way. In our frantic desire to hold tight to our sons and not to lose them, we end up accomplishing the very thing we dread - pushing them away. If we push too hard for a relationship, particularly one that excludes our daughter-in-law or if, or in an even worse scenario where we actively criticize our daughter-in-law, we put our son in a position where he has to choose. If he has his priorities right he will choose his wife and we are at risk of seriously damaging or even destroying our relationship with him. If he mistakenly chooses us, he will destroy his marriage. Can any parent really want that outcome?

Those are the typical mistakes we need to shy away from. But let’s assume we are not at risk of being too demanding or critical. How do we make a good relationship with our daughters-in-law, a relationship where she will be desirous of spending time with us and, more importantly, of having her children spend time with us?

The typical advice given is to open your hand and close your mouth. I think this is a good starting place. However a friend added to this something that I believe is very wise. She said that you need to be “value-added”. Our daughters-in-law (I actually don’t have any yet but I’m trying to be inclusive) need to feel that the relationship benefits them - be it financially, be it in the form of babysitting, emotional support, physical support - you name it. The older, more mature party alluded to above, has to take responsibility to be the giver - and conversely, not to worry about taking. If we are perceived to be givers, to be “value-added”, our daughter-in-law will want us around (we don’t really care about her motivation; we just want her to want us around!).

If we are perceived to be takers, to be focused on the benefits to us, our daughter-in-law will be less enthused about our visit. Of course, in an ideal world we want to have a relationship of commitment and love but the starting place is with us, with our placing ourselves in this position of added value. This relationship is inherently challenging. That’s why it’s mentioned at the beginning of the Torah. There are even laws in the Talmud that are determined based on the idea that the relationship with a son and daughter-in-law is much more fraught than one with a daughter and son-in-law. The potential for struggle is definitely there. But I’m creating a toolbox for when that day comes, please God and I’m adding my friend’s advice (thank you Ellen).

While I await that day and pray for it to come soon, I can work on all the ways in which I can make myself value-added. Would she want me to cook for her and fill her freezer? Buy clothes for the kids? I think I’m jumping the gun...

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