Laura* and her mother-in-law talk openly about private matters and nothing is off limits—not even sex. They vent to each other about their marital problems and they sometimes vacation together without their spouses.
“I can talk to her about anything—she gives me advice and doesn’t just take my husband’s side,” she says. “Our friendship doesn’t feel weird and my husband isn’t bothered it.”
Laura’s closeness with her mother-in-law works for her but is being that close beneficial to everyone or does it create problems? A relationship with your daughter-in-law minus tension may sound nice, but keeping a little space between you can be good for you both.
How close is too close?
According to Deanna Brann, Ph.D., author of Reluctantly Related—Secrets to Getting Along With Your Mother-In-Law or Daughter-In-Law, you’re too close if your daughter-in-law is revealing personal information about her marriage, money and job stress, and if the two of you spend time together while excluding your husbands. You shouldn’t have a peer-type relationship. “By talking about personal things regardless of what they are, you run the risk of blurring boundaries with your daughter-in-law and this leaves you open to her misinterpreting what you have said to her,” says Dr. Brann.
“It isn’t beneficial for you or your daughter-in-law to open up excessively because your relationship is more fragile than you may realize,” says Dr. Brann. “If you hear about your son’s behavior, it can be hurtful, especially if it’s derogatory in nature, and then what do you do with that information?” You can’t very well go to him and talk about it. Plus, if you give her advice on how to handle things, it may hit a nerve. And there’s the risk your son may feel betrayed or like you’re choosing sides. There are things at this point in his life that he may not want his mother to know about.
“If your daughter-in-law reveals details about her marriage, it’s a betrayal to her husband and it can significantly affect their marriage,” says Dr. Brann. “Men need to separate from their parents, particularly their mothers; if your daughter-in-law shares private marital woes or matters, it can impede your son’s development in this area.”
Spending too much time together or sharing too much information isn’t healthy for anyone. “It’s important for your marriage that your husband be the primary person with whom you share personal and detailed information,” says Terri Orbuch, Ph.D., a psychologist and research professor at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research and author of 5 Simple Steps to Take Your Marriage from Good to Great. “He should also be the person you go to if something happens to you like a medical scare or losing a job.”
According to Dr. Orbuch’s long-term study of 373 couples funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), when a wife feels close to her in-laws the couple is 20% more likely to divorce.
And a study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships reported that people feel like part of the family when parents-in-law share personal information including family history. However, disclosing too much, such as discussing their own marital problems did not lead to feelings of closeness.
When you’re close to your daughter-in-law (especially early in marriage), it interferes with her time to bond with her husband. Also, your daughter-in-law may find it difficult to set emotional boundaries with you. If she’s asked questions like, ‘Why are you working out of the home at this point in your life?’ or ‘Are you sure you want to feed your child that?’ she may interpret it personally and as interference, says Dr. Orbuch.
Too close for comfort?
Here’s how to get along without feeling smothered:
- Set boundaries with your daughter-in-law—especially when asking questions about her marriage and personal or parenting decisions. Off limits: How is your sex life with my son? How are you and my son getting along these days? Are you and my son making enough money to afford that private school you want to send my grandchild to? You can talk about money and marriage in general, but don’t pry into their personal affairs.
- It’s okay if your daughter-in-law says “No,” or “I can’t do about that.” Don’t take it personally. She still feels comfortable with you and likes you—she’s just maintaining a boundary.
- Tread lightly on giving advice to her about her marriage, working outside the home or parenting. The golden rule: Never give advice unless asked.
- Have realistic expectations of your relationship. Your connection with your daughter-in-law is not the same as your relationship with your daughter. Don’t be offended if she doesn’t call you “Mom”–she has a mother. You can invite her to do things, like you do with your own daughter(s), but remember that the closeness between you and her might not be the same.
- Keep a positive relationship without going for BFF status. Don’t expect her to open up to you or to come to you for advice or support like a friend.
- Ask yourself: How would my husband feel if I was sharing intimate information with his mother?
- Always be respectful of your roles—she is your son’s wife; you are his mother. As a mother, your words often have more impact than they would with a friend. A suggestion can be interpreted as an expectation, for example, says Dr. Brann.
*Name has been changed for privacy