Mother-in-law role often subject of jokes but deserves respect, honor, acceptance


May 1, 2019

By Leah Owens
Ed.S., M.A., LPC, NCC
Registered play therapist

Let’s be truthful. When someone says “mother-in-law” it is often followed by an eye-roll or groan. I think of the controlling, meddling character Marie on the sitcom “Everybody Loves Raymond.” She justifies her behavior with one of her favorite lines: “What I do comes from love.” 

My boys have jokingly said, “Mom, I hope you never act like Marie.” I do keep that in mind. I have been a daughter-in-law for more than 30 years and a mother-in-law for almost three, recently adding our second daughter-in-love, as I affectionately refer to them. 

I have made mistakes in both roles, but hopefully I have learned some things along the way.

The book of Ruth tells us the true story of a mother/daughter-in-law relationship. Ruth raised the bar high in regard to the way we should treat a mother-in-law. Naomi wasn’t a great mother-in-law by any means. She seemed to be a bitter, selfish and seemingly miserable woman. 

But even after Ruth’s husband, Naomi’s son, died, Ruth cared for and honored Naomi. Naomi’s behavior was no secret to people around her and they noticed Ruth’s kindness toward her.

Ruth left no room for excuses concerning the way we are to treat mothers-in-law, even the difficult ones. Why did Ruth do it?

She chose to honor and be kind to Naomi not of her own will but out of reverence and honor to God. As a result God blessed Ruth. She did it not through strength of her own but through God’s strength in her. 

Your effort in building a relationship with your mother-in-law is an expression of love toward your husband. It will bless your marriage.

In her shoes

It may help to try to understand a mother-in-law’s perspective when another person enters the scene and her position changes. She was in the picture long before you were. Women are nurturers and we want to protect our territory. “Mama Bear” can appear quickly and without warning if she believes her territory is being threatened even if it isn’t.

Let her see you loving and caring for your husband. Pray for her and the relationship. Show interest in her. Compliment her on something. Look hard — you can find something even if it’s just the fact that without her you wouldn’t have your husband. Honor her. Communicate with kind words and grace. That’s a hard one sometimes, but Ephesians 4:29 says we are to let no corrupt talk come out of our mouths, “but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.”

Pitfalls to avoid

1. Don’t put your husband in the middle of any conflict between you and your mother-in-law. There may be times when appropriate boundaries need to be set, especially in the early years of marriage. Discuss this with your spouse and have him firmly put those in place and follow through.

2. Don’t have unrealistic expectations of your mother-in-law. Respect her differences without being offended.

3. Don’t become discouraged. A good relationship may take time. It may never happen. We can’t change other people. Meet her where she is.

Suggestions for connection

  • If you have kids text or email pictures of the grandchildren. FaceTime is even better.
  • Send random texts of funny things throughout the week.
  • Share your hurts and concerns with her.
  • Make her feel welcomed in your home. 
  • Ask her opinion about something (make it a safe topic).
  • Invite her to do something with you. It doesn’t have to be something that takes all day, maybe just a quick trip to the store.

EDITOR’S NOTE — Faith & Family is a monthly look at important spiritual, cultural and relational issues facing today’s families. For more articles on contemporary topics like these go to PathwaysProfessional.org/blog. 

Leah Owens is a nationally certified licensed professional counselor and a registered play therapist serving in north central Alabama for Pathways Professional Counseling, a sister ministry of Alabama Baptist Children’s Homes & Family Ministries. 

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