My daughter “is engaged to be engaged” to a young man she’s been dating for eight years. She, he, and his parents live in California, while my husband and I live in New York. She was raised in what I’ll call a “northeast Jewish” style — lots of communication about emotions and expectations — and her boyfriend’s parents come from what I’ll call a “deep south African-American” style, in which expectations are often unstated and emotions are rarely discussed.
Trouble sometimes arises when my daughter’s future mother-in-law (MIL) expects things that aren’t made explicit. Future MIL might say, “Come over if you feel like it,” when what she really means is “Your presence is required.” (In my family, that would be unambiguously stated!) My daughter doesn’t go, because she doesn’t feel like it, and then finds out later that her future MIL was disappointed or hurt. Her boyfriend, with whom we’re close and generally admire, is not helpful on these occasions and can even seem to be siding with his mother over his future wife.
Because this situation perfectly mirrors what I went through for 30 years with my own in-laws, it kills me that I have no useful advice to offer my daughter. I feel like I’m watching history repeat itself and I can get frustrated, even depressed, about a dynamic that is clearly none of my business. Do you have any advice for me?
After being together 8 years, I assume that the future MIL’s use of vague communication is not new, but then again, maybe it is! “Engaged to be engaged” may have upped the ante for the future MIL in the sense that what was a distant possibility — your daughter being The One for her son — is becoming more likely.
Future MILs react in a variety of ways when the see their kids heading towards marriage or some independent permanent relationship. This change in status can leave the parents feeling excluded: on a continuum with “feeling threatened” on one end, up to “delirious with joy,” or on different points of the continuum at any given time.
Much has been written on both negative and positive mother-in-law behaviors. For example, Googling “reactions to becoming/being a mother-in-law” yields 191 million hits.
If this communication vagueness is recent behavior, I might suggest that the future MIL may be experiencing some new, confusing, and conflicted feelings about her new impending role as an MIL. Many MILs admit to initially going back and forth from wanting their future daughter-in-law or son-in-law to love and adore them to creating situations that sort of “give them permission” to not be kind and accepting of them, e.g., “See? My future daughter-in-law or son-in-law isn’t very considerate of me.” This behavior can be short-lived, or it can go on and on.
Even if the communication vagueness is nothing new, and regardless of its basis (e.g., geographically or ethnically cultural), now that “engaged to be engaged” is in play, I am going to make the same suggestions for advice you might give your daughter, if she asks for it, or if you initiate the advice giving. You know your daughter and what would be appropriate and/or appreciated in your relationship . . .
The What-Might-This-Really Mean Filter
As the newcomer to the son’s established family, I think it behooves your daughter to take the lead in addressing her future MIL’s communication vagueness. I know my suggestion is emotionally draining, but your daughter needs to run everything her future MIL says through a what-might-this-really-mean filter.
The future MIL says, “Come over, if you feel like it.” Your daughter runs it through the filter and replies, “Thank you for the invite. What would you like me to do?” Or, the future MIL says, “It might be nice to have Chinese take out tonight.” Your daughter replies, “Yes, that could be nice. What is your preference?” I know, exhausting! And frustrating: “Why should I have to be the one to be so careful?” But there is payoff in several ways for your daughter using this filter.
First, it becomes clear to everyone involved that your daughter is trying her damnedest to be respectful towards and accommodating of her future (and then actual) MIL. This helps shut down any intentional or unintentional attempts to make your daughter seem thoughtless or inconsiderate. Over time your daughter’s MIL may be “trained” by your daughter and take it upon herself to be more clear in communicating her intentions.
An even more important reason for your daughter to make all this effort is to make sure she doesn’t put her soon-to-be husband in the middle of something going on between her and his mother. Setting up a situation where the son is forced to choose by siding with either his soon-to-be wife or his mother is unfair, potentially relationship damaging, and hopefully unnecessary, if your daughter removes the dynamics that can lead to forcing
such a choice.
At the very least, your daughter has a lot to gain, and nothing to lose — unless she sees this situation as a win-lose and she thinks my advice makes her lose in some way.
Sharing Your Experience
I have to disagree with you that you have no useful advice to offer your daughter. You, more than anyone else, have very useful advice to offer because “this situation perfectly mirrors what I went through for 30 years with my own in-laws . . . ” If your daughter asks for your advice, or if you offer it, you are in a position to share your past and present experiences with your own in laws. Share your experience, perhaps using this format: “If I had it to do over again . . .
* Here is what I would do the same, and why.
* Here is what I would do differently, and why.”
And finally, you claim the situation between your daughter and her future mother-in-law is none of your business, but the fact that you even know about it and your future son-in-law’s part in it suggests your daughter has done some sharing with you. If this is true, ask her if you might share some of your thoughts and experiences with her.
If you keep your discussion focused on you — e.g., this is what I learned, this is what I wish I had done differently, this is how my choices positively and negative impacted my relationship with your father/ his family. My advice is to keep any sharing you do on you and your own experiences and avoid projecting them onto your daughter and her boyfriend.
If she pushes back on my advice, help her work through exactly what she is willing to do to help ensure her relationships with her boyfriend’s family members are as strong and positive as they can be. Help her keep her ego and pride in check.
Update on This Situation, Several Months Later . . .
A few months ago, my daughter took a job in a new city, where she’s very happy. Meanwhile, her boyfriend is finishing up med school and needs to apply for a residency which could be anywhere in the U.S., including where she now lives. So possible MIL issues are on the back burner while they try to figure out whether to stay together; because, although they love each other, it’s not clear that they ultimately want the same kind of life.
Ironically, they’ve grown closer through this process than they’d been for years before, and I’m grateful that they’re not asking my advice, because I have no idea what’s best for them!
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