She Said, He Said: How best to make sure your in-laws don’t make you feel like an outlaw at holidays

Lori Ann Kret and Jeff Cole
She Said, He Said

Dear Lori and Jeff,

Thanksgiving is coming up soon and I’m feeling really stressed. I’ve recently gotten engaged, and can’t wait to get married. But I am at my wits’ end with trying to figure out how to have a positive relationship with my future mother-in-law. She constantly compares me to my fiance’s ex-wife, whom she adores, and still has a relationship with. It seems every time I’m in the same room as her she makes backhanded comments to and about me. He reassures me how much he loves me and that his mom just needs time to get to know me, but the more I’m around her, the less I want a relationship with her. He has a really close family, and it’s important to him that I make an effort. Help!


Future MIL Hates Me

Dear FMHM,

Jeff: Our families of origin (parents, siblings and sometimes grandparents, aunts and uncles) are often self-sustaining systems that don’t like change. They develop their own dynamics and styles of interaction/functionality with each member playing a certain role. From the outside, it can be difficult to know what’s real and what’s imagined. It may be that what looks like dysfunction from the outside is really just a loving family doing what they’ve always done. Or, it could be that you threaten to reveal the dysfunction and they might not want to have to face how bad it really is.

I know it’s a bit of a cliche, but sometimes men can have a difficult time fully individuating from their mothers. If this is the case with your fiance, you may be in for a bit of a challenge. Without strong boundaries — which are an essential part of the individuation process — adults can often get sucked back into their childhood patterns. When they are away from their parents, they may feel comfortable and somewhat confident in their own identities but when they come home, they can revert back to the more dysfunctional aspects of their family’s behavior.

In the midst of family chaos, your fiance may need to be reminded that you need his support but don’t go as far as asking him to make the choice between his mother and you. It’s not an either-or scenario — it’s finding the middle ground where he can have your back while still maintaining the relationship with his mom, regardless of its level of perceived functionality.

Lori: The MIL-DIL relationship can be tricky because of the number of factors in the equation. First, you have two women, each with a lifetime of experience of being sifted through the female social strata. Most of us have the memories of wanting to be accepted into the popular posse or of how insecure it felt being on the fringe. It might be easy to see yourself now in an adult rendition of “Mean Girls” with FMIL as the queen bee. What’s harder to recognize is the very likely possibility that FMIL is feeling just as vulnerable as you are. If she has a close relationship with his ex, it means she also feels accepted by her, and had her as an ally during that marriage. Now a significant aspect of that relationship has been cleaved, and in the place of her ally is someone who keeps her at arm’s length; someone with the power to create distance between her and her son.

You have to remember she has been with your man for his entire life; loving, supporting, and molding him into the man you adore. And you are a powerful new presence and influence in his world. It’s OK for MIL to have some trepidation. She’s sussing out if all of the years of hard work is going to be undermined by a force she has no control over. Instead of pushing her away, find what you respect about her and have in common with her, even if it’s just the love each of you have for your man.

Lori and Jeff: We all want to feel brought into the fold of our partner’s family — to be loved and accepted by them the way our partner does. But for many couples, building a healthy relationship with the in-laws takes time. Connect to the appreciation you have for her for raising your fiance, but also keep hold of your own self-respect. Be kind and appreciative but also politely call out her actions that are hurtful or cross boundaries.

Lori and Jeff are married, licensed psychotherapists and couple-to-couple coaches at Aspen Relationship Institute. Submit your relationship questions to and your query may be selected for a future column.


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