A friend of mine recently asked my advice for dealing with an overly-critical mother-in-law. No matter what my friend does, it is never enough, and she is growing tired of even trying to make this woman happy.
What follows are a few guidelines I gave her for living at peace with demanding personalities. This strategy works equally well with difficult bosses, neighbors, or spouses, so give it try next time you find yourself dealing with anyone who seems impossible to please.
First, weigh her complaints. If they have no basis in reality, dismiss them. If amid all her faultfinding you discover a legitimate concern, address it. Apologize if you have wronged her, adjust your attitude, and mend your ways as needed.
Second, avoid conflict. As much as possible, try not to do things you know will upset her. If she hates to be kept waiting, don’t show up two hours late for lunch. If she resents the time your kids spend with their other grandmother, don’t flaunt the fact that your mother accompanied you on your last family vacation.
Third, forgive her. If you feel weary of even trying to please her, she has undoubtedly hurt your feelings. Let go of any bitterness you may harbor toward her for past cutting remarks. Wipe the slate clean and, in the future, approach her as if you had no bad history together, but were meeting for the first time. If it is necessary or possible to limit the time you spend with her, only do so to protect yourself, not to punish her.
Fourth, show consideration. Pick one or two things you know are important to her and make every effort to do them consistently. Birthdays and Mother’s Day are a big deal to my own mother-in-law. She wants to be remembered with a pretty card, signed by her son, and delivered precisely on the big day. The most important thing to her (getting the card on time) and the most important thing to me (including a long, newsy letter from home) are two different things. If I can’t do both, she’d much rather I send the signed and sealed card in a timely fashion and save the news for later, so that’s what I do.
Fifth, always be respectful. Someday when you are older, you may be a little cantankerous yourself, so treat your mother-in-law with the patience you’d want your daughter-in-law to show you. It may be impossible to keep her happy, but at least you can keep your conscience clear by behaving toward her in a way that is above reproach. Let your actions be based in love, your words be seasoned with grace, and your opinions be held in humility. Make it your goal to do right by her, whether it pleases her or not.
NOTE: This post was adapted from the monthly “Family Matters” column I write for THE NORTHEAST TEXAN. I also want to offer my apologies to the lovely lady pictured above, whoever she is. I picked the photo only because I loved this woman’s persnickety expression