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Ellie: Desire for control often at root of discord with in-laws

Dealing with a tricky relationship with your in-laws? Ellie Tesher’s advice is to tread lightly and carefully build up trust and respect.
Advice columnist Ellie Tesher.

I’ve probably been involved with more mothers-in-law than any of you who are my readers — and it’s not because I married many times.

I used to be “the talent” in a TV series called Outlaw In-laws, where I listened to couples who had negative relationships with their mothers-in-law. It was my job to resolve their issues.

Of course, there are good mothers-in-law as well as bad ones. I’m now a mother-in-law myself, and I hope, and think, that I am a good one.

But I’ve heard through all my years, both as a young wife and mother, and through all my relationship advice work, that there are many similar stories of in-law interference and negative attitudes, happening in the lives of young working parents and throughout lengthy marriages.

I learned a lot during the three years I was involved with Outlaw In-laws. The experience taught me to recognize when an older adult, who’s not necessarily a wise one, was seeking the upper hand in the relationship.

In one episode of the series, for example, Adam, a future bridegroom, feels “pushed aside.” I realized that, if he didn’t adapt or take charge himself, by the time his self-appointed wedding planner/future-mother-in-law accepted his ideas, there may not have been any wedding at all.

I also learned through my relationship column of readers’ questions about difficult in-laws, to challenge those unfair moves when the in-law parent has insisted on taking over. For example, one hard-working mother of a nursery-age youngster found that, despite needing caregiving help from her mother-in-law, some negative exchanges between them left a sour feeling and she hated relying on her in-laws.

This mother had to work to pay for her family’s expenses. She was grateful for the childcare help, but not for the disturbing reception she would often receive when she returned home.

Obviously, she and her husband need to focus on improving the home-based atmosphere, and ensuring that their youngster is well supervised and treated lovingly.

The couple could also consider whether they and the mother-in-law need to undergo some therapy, and both women need to reassess their relationship.

The grandmother, responsible for her grandchild’s home care, is unfairly worrying her daughter-in-law with negative attitudes, while this mom is already feeling guilty for missing out on her child’s early years while unable to afford a different arrangement.

Meanwhile, in all my relationship columns and TV experiences with Outlaw In-laws, the most common element of discord is the desire for control.

Strong personalities may seem admirable at times, but when long-term relationships involve a dominant adult parent, and a young couple, my advice is for both to tread lightly and carefully build up trust and respect for one another.

On the other hand, if the relationship seems to be impossible, or unbearable, seeking help from a relationship therapist is worth your time and your children’s well-being.

Across Canada, where diverse populations are very common, in-law relationships can be very different from what both sides were once used to experiencing in other cultures.

In-laws dealing with such disputes need to try to understand each other better. It’s essential to their own well-being, as well as to the children involved.

Families can improve their relationships if they recognize the important value of respecting one another.

Outlaw In-laws showed me and the weekly audience the impact of some of the research and goals.

In one episode, one of the standout tasks that the TV crew assigned to a negative mother-in-law revealed her fear of heights. She was to accept a rock-climbing challenge in a gym to reach a particular rock level, while her daughter-in-law watched from the gym floor.

Within a few moments, the older woman was calling out to her daughter-in-law, saying that she couldn’t go further, she was “stuck” and terrified.

The younger woman encouraged her mother-in-law, climbed up to reach her and touched her hand, reassuringly. They walked out holding hands. That clear change involving respect, trust and partnership was worth all the effort, and what we strove toward in each episode.

It’s what I wish for all families struggling to find equal footing when adult children marry, and two families (sometimes more) need to come together in a healthy, cohesive, loving way.

Ellie Tesher writes about relationships for the Star.