Marriage Issues vs. Mother-in-Law Issues: Tips on How to Know the Difference

Jun 26, 2013 | Updated Aug 26, 2013

Marriage, as wonderful as it can be, certainly has its challenges -- especially when you throw your relationship with your mother-in-law into the mix. Whether you get along with your mother-in-law most of the time, some of the time, or rarely, this relationship is like no other relationship you have. You may think you can turn to your husband for help maneuvering around the landmines -- after all, he knows you, and he knows his mother. But if you're not careful, you might end up like Donna and Michael:

"Why does she say those awful things to me?" Donna asks her husband. "She has no respect for me, and yet she wants me to respect her." Donna waits for Michael to say something helpful, something supportive. But he just sits and says nothing, feeling a bit trapped and not having any idea what to say or what to do.

"Why don't you do something?" Donna pleads, her voice escalating, clearly exasperated. "She's your mother!" Feeling Donna's rage, Michael continues to sit, frozen, almost panicked. If he didn't know what to say before, he is even more paralyzed now. All he can think is, "Donna's not only mad at my mom, but now she's furious at me!"

What's happening here is that two different issues have gotten mixed together. What starts out as one matter (a mother-in-law/daughter-in-law issue) often quickly moves into another (a marital issue) because like Donna and Michael, both you and your husband have unspoken desires and expectations. When issues get compounded like this, neither one ends up getting resolved, and they both often become worse.

To get unstuck, you must fight one battle at a time. Learning how to identify what part of the disagreement is a marital issue and what part is a mother-in-law/daughter-in-law issue is vital. Here are some pointers:

It is a mother-in-law/daughter-in-law issue when:

•Your husband clearly gets your issues with his mother, and you and he are both on the same page.

•Your husband can listen to your concerns without getting defensive or protective of his mother (even when he may not completely agree with you).

•You and your husband can come up with solutions together to make the situation with his mother better.

•You want your husband to be more of a sounding board than to fix the problem.

It becomes a marital issue when:

•You want (or expect) your husband to fix his mother or fix the problem.

•You start arguing about his mother, but then the fight spreads to other issues between the two of you.

•As you start talking about the issue you have with his mother, you become keenly aware of how much you're losing respect for your husband.

•You want to cut off all ties to his side of the family, and you're angry with him when he refuses to do so.

If you have a marital issue, addressing that first will put you in a better position to work on the mother-in-law/daughter-in-law issue. Here are three valuable strategies for doing that without starting World War III:

1.Figure out what you want from your husband. Do you just want to vent, do you want him to truly understand your emotional pain, or do you want something else entirely? (Sorry, he cannot fix it for you.) Get clear on this first, because after all, if you don't know what it is you want from him, how can he know?

2.Let him in on this early on. Begin the conversation by letting him know right up front what you want from him. How you word your request is critical to getting what you're after. If you're berating his mother or blaming him, you are not going to get what you want -- even if you think it makes you feel better.

3.Keep the focus on the two of you -- not on your mother-in-law. Remember, you are working on getting closer to your spouse right now -- his mother just happens to be the catalyst. For the time being, keep her out of it!

If you practice using these three strategies, before long your husband will start to feel more like your ally than your adversary. Not only will that improve your marriage, but it will also go a long way toward helping you resolve your in-law issues. It's a win-win!