Ten “Rules” for Mothers-in-Law | How to Be the Best One You Can Be

Empty Nest Blessed by Suzy Mighell
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I’ve decided that there should definitely be rules for mothers-in-law; or at least some kind of instruction manual! I’ve been a mother-in-law for about two years now, and I can assure you that I’m still learning how to do it. Like most worthwhile relationships, being a mother-in-law takes intentionality, thoughtfulness, and effort. Whether you have a wonderful daughter-in-law that makes it easy, or whether your relationship with your daughter-in-law is challenging, I believe that there are a few “rules” you can follow that will help you nurture and grow that relationship. Today I’m sharing ten “rules” for mothers-in-law. I believe these “rules” apply whether you have sons- or daughters-in-law, but because I only have a daughter-in-law so far, I’m primarily going to refer to that relationship throughout this post.

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1. It’s Not About You

The first thing to remember? It’s not about you. You have been replaced as the primary woman in your son or daughter’s life. Step aside with grace. The couple comes first. Research shows that good in-law relationships are a key determinant of marital happiness. That means the way you treat your daughter-in-law or son-in-law can help or harm your child. When a young adult gets married, it’s another step toward independence and adulthood. (Remember, this is what you worked to get them ready for!) Unfortunately, some parents can feel rejection when the loyalties of a child turn toward their spouse. Maybe your son used to ask you for fashion advice, and now he defers to his wife, or your daughter used to ask for decorating advice, and now she’s looking to her husband for his opinions. Try reframing any feelings of rejection you might feel. This is appropriate and healthy behavior for a married couple!

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2. Honor their Commitment to One Another

Your kids and their spouses need to make their own choices. This will undoubtedly be true in everything from financial decisions to parenting choices. Do not interpret their choices as a rejection of yours. The day they got married, they became their very own family unit. It’s important to honor that and let them establish their own identity as a family/couple. (Remember, it’s not about you, it’s about them!)

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3. Be Intentional

If you want a good relationship with your daughter-in-law or son-in-law, it’s going to take some effort. When my son married, Sarah, I (only half-jokingly) told her that his table manners weren’t perfect, and I was grateful to hand over the reins for her to take it from here! Be warm, welcoming, and friendly. My own mother-in-law did this well. The first time I spent Christmas with Bob’s family I was amazed that I got the same number of Christmas gifts as everyone else! It sent a message of inclusion that no mere words could.

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4. Build Them Up

Words are powerful. Use them to bless, encourage, and build your relationship. Our daughter-in-law, Sarah, is an only child who was raised by incredible parents who did an amazing job. She’s a second-grade teacher, and she’s gentle, loving, and kind. (Yes, all of her students are in love with her!) I take every opportunity to ask about Sarah’s life, upbringing, family, job, friends, church, etc. and I always follow up with a compliment. (“Do you think the parents of the kids in your class realize how blessed they are to have you teaching their children?”)

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5. Give It Time

Even if it seems that you and your daughter-in-law don’t have a lot in common, you share one critical thing: You both love your son more than anyone else! As an only child, Sarah was raised in a calm, quiet environment. When she married into our family, she married into all of the noise and chaos that go along with a family of five. Be sensitive to adjustments like these and to the family dynamics that are at play. This can be especially challenging if your daughter-in-law marries into a family where there are already close mother/daughter relationships. It’s up to you as the mother-in-law to set the tone and example by inviting your new “daughter” into the family with love. One of my friends has three daughters and one son. When her son got engaged, she gathered her daughters together and laid the “ground rules” for welcoming the new daughter-in-law into the family. She reminded her daughters to be inclusive, welcoming, and non-judgemental, and told them she would not tolerate gossip or criticism of this girl who was (bravely!) entering into what could be a challenging family dynamic. Our daughter-in-law, Sarah, had always wanted a little sister, and my daughter, Becca, had always wanted a big sister. I encouraged their relationship by urging them to do things together, even if it meant I was left at home alone, wishing I was with them! (Remember, it’s not about you!)

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6. Back Off

A young marriage has it’s share of issues to work through, and your kids don’t need another party involved in their relationship. If they come to you for advice, or even just a listening ear, proceed carefully, knowing that anything you say can and probably will be reported to the spouse at some point. Guard your tongue! One of my friends didn’t like the way her new daughter-in-law seemed to boss her son around, but she told me she just had to trust the way she’d raised him, and know that he’d push back if needed — without her help. When I married my husband, I suspect my mother-in-law thought the same thing about me! Sensing this, one day I told her that, although she might not like everything she saw in me, I wanted her to know that no one would ever love her son more.  🙂

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7. Always Invite & Include

Whether your relationship with your daughter-in-law is strong or needs work, make it a point to invite and include the couple in all family events. (Although there may be a few exceptions to this, it’s generally the right thing to do.) When you start leaving people out, there’s potential for hurt feelings or resentment. We always invite Weston & Sarah to join us for something that involves other family members, like performances, graduations, birthday celebrations, etc. This is true whether or not we think they want to attend/can afford it, etc. Our motto is, let the “no” be theirs to say. Our job is to invite and include.

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8. Be Generous

When Bob and I first got married, my parents told us that whenever we came to visit them, they would pay for it. Wow! As poor newlyweds, this was such a generous offer, and it allowed us to use the money we’d budgeted for vacations to do other things while getting family visits in as well.  As in-laws, we try to be generous with Sarah & Weston. Sometimes that generosity is financial, but many times it’s not. Here’s what it’s looked like at various times over the past two years:

  • “Sure, we’d love to help you move!
  • “It would be so fun for us to keep your puppy while you go out of town!”
  • “We miss you guys! How about a double date so we can catch up on what’s been going on with you two? Our treat!”
  • “I’d love to give you a ride to pick up your car in the shop. It will give us a chance to catch up!”
  • “It’s no problem for us to take you to the airport and pick you up when you get back. That way we can hear all about your trip!”

Did you notice the enthusiasm in each of those statements? The bonus for us is time with them. It’s a win-win. 🙂

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9. Be Yourself and Let Your Guard Down

As in any new relationship, it’s normal to be on your best behavior at first. But nothing is more endearing than vulnerability and authenticism, so at some point, you’ll have to be yourself. As you can see, my daughter-in-law is a natural beauty. Me? Let’s just say that it takes awhile for me to coax my natural beauty into emerging! Her style is easy breezy and casual; mine is curated, cultivated, and fully coordinated. ( I so wish I were more like her!) As the mother-in-law, your willingness to be authentic will set the tone. I’ve found that if I can just be myself, Sarah feels more comfortable letting her guard down too. Make it a point to notice and express appreciation for what your daughter-in-law brings to the family. When it comes time to make big family meals, I’m so grateful for Sarah’s skills in the kitchen, which far surpass my own. I tell her that constantly!

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10. Don’t Make Assumptions

Even when intentions are good, offers of help can be seen as criticism. One of my friends told me that after she had a baby, her mother-in-law offered to clean out her refrigerator and organize her pantry. Even though she welcomed the help, the “offer” felt like a criticism of her homemaking abilities. Tread carefully! Even though you’re more experienced and may have good advice to give, hold off on sharing until you’re asked.

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Recently, Bob and I went on vacation with Weston and Sarah. Before we left, we sat down with them and thoroughly talked through plans, expectations, activities, etc. It was so helpful! We loved having them all to ourselves, and being in one condo with just the four of us for a week strengthened and solidified our relationship. I’m always looking for fun things to do with Sarah, so I asked her if she would be open to doing a photoshoot together. She agreed, and we had such fun shopping and shooting together! Our outfits are no longer available, but we had such fun together! Recently, Bob and I took a fun weekend trip with Weston & Sarah, and I somehow talked them into doing a photoshoot on that trip too! You can check it out HERE and HERE.

Are you a mother-in-law? I’d love to know your tips! Got any additions to my rules for mothers-in-law? Please leave me a comment and share your wisdom!

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34 Comments

    1. Cynthia,
      Thank you so much! That means the world coming from you – one of the best I’ve ever seen! xoxo Suzy

    1. Katherine,
      Aw, thank you! I’m so happy you liked it! Hugs to you!!! xoxo Suzy

  1. We were both only children so when our oldest married the youngest of five girls, we intentionally planned to like and encourage our new inlaw relationship (meaning “sit on our tongue and be encouraging”)!! I’d prayed for our son’s future spouse since he was three so it was easy to tell our new daughter in law that I’d been praying for her for a long time – that God would prepare Matt a godly spouse – but I’d never asked for such an accomplished beautiful spouse – she certainly improved our gene pool!
    I would jokingly tell her when she’d thank me for something that “I was running for M-I-L of the year and wanted her vote”! I also was intentional about praising her to people I knew would report the comment back to her.
    What I realized was she was the door keeper to our grandchildren. And my job was to model a godly M-I-L because hopefully she’d be one someday and needed to know how to be. I can honestly say that all your advice is right on target. After twenty years of marriage, sweet Jen has been so encouraging in finding us a property next to them in Colorado for us to retire – she’s a fabulous decorator and has taken me to all the cool places to shop and is so happy and excited to have us close. I have honestly told her all I want is to have my house to look like her’s ???????????????? It has touched our hearts to have her want to have us next door.

    1. Susan,
      Thank you so much for sharing your story! The Lord blessed you in such a special way with incredible Jen! I love your practical tips – and especially the way you bragged on her to others who you knew would report it back to her! BRILLIANT!!!! Thank you for leaving a comment and for your encouraging words! xoxo Suzy

  2. I think my mother in law followed all of these rules and then some. She is amazing and I love her to pieces.
    I am a new mother in law and because I’ve had such a good model, and because it was always a desire to be a good MIL, I’m treading this path with grace. Things are going well.

    1. Nylse,
      Wow! You are so blessed to have had such a great MIL and role model! That makes it so much easier, right? I’m so happy that you’re a new MIL too!!! Congratulations. I know you will do it well because you’re thoughtful and full of grace. I always love it when you comment on my posts! Thank you so much! xoxo Suzy

      1. Hello / this is a great article and I often wish there was more around on being a mother n law. I have two sons in law and my only son recently married and now I have a daughter n law. I’m constantly thinking about the all dynamics of the family and wanting to cultivate good family relationships. One of my daughters has two little children and now I’m thinking ahead to how to best help when one day my daughter in law has children because I know mothers and their own daughters do have a strong bond esp when babies arrive. And I see the times my daughter gets “annoyed” by her mother n law! I keep making mental notes about what not to do or do. Love your page Susie and I’m following you all the way from New Zealand. Blessings .

        1. Elizabeth,
          Wow! Thank you so much for following me all the way from New Zealand! You made my day!!! Isn’t it interesting that some things – like the mother-in-law relationship – are universally A THING. It doesn’t matter what country you live in or what language you speak…it can still be a tricky dynamic to navigate, right? I think it’s great that you are spending time observing and thinking about what to do and not to do as you watch your own daughter. Ohhh, yesssss – grandparenting add a whole additional dimension to everything, doesn’t it? (Check back with me on that one in a few years!) Thanks again for reading Empty Nest Blessed, sweet Elizabeth. Hugs to you! xoxo Suzy

  3. Suzy,
    Great read and so timely as I’ll be seeing my daughter-in-law and son tomorrow as we head to a family reunion. I feel so blessed with my daughter-in-law and I feel we have a great relationship. She’s about to have our first grandchild and the point you made about Don’t Make Assumptions – glad you mentioned that!
    Thanks!

    1. Nancy,
      Congratulations on your impending grandmotherness! How special! I’m so happy you have a good relationship with your daughter-in-law. There are lots of dynamics at play, and it takes caution and thoughtfulness, but it is a really special thing when it clicks, right? Have a wonderful time at your reunion. Thanks so much for your comment! xoxo Suzy

  4. What a thoughtful article! I do not have any married children yet but all of these tips are spot on for your new children or children in their 20s-30s. I am definitely going to share this with my friends!

    1. Pam,
      Wow! Thank you so much. That is so sweet of you. I’m thrilled that you liked it and found it helpful! Thanks so much for reading Empty Nest Blessed! xoxo Suzy

  5. Such a good post with practical and important suggestions. I love your main focus, it truly isn’t about us. I also think about how I felt and wanted to be treated as a young wife. That is a good reminder when we need to keep opinions/suggestions to ourselves! Great subject for you to cover!

    1. Martha,
      Thank you so much! It DOES help to remember how it felt when we were young wives! You know, the older I get, the more I realize that pausing to think before I speak is a tremendously important thing to do – in all situations! Considering others as more important than yourself helps you be thoughtful, patient, kind, don’t you think? I do! Thank you for your kind words! xoxo Suzy

  6. This is a great post with excellent advice. I\\\\\\\’ve tried to go \\\\\\\”above and beyond\\\\\\\” my sweet mil\\\\\\\’s actions but often feel unappreciated or taken for granted. You didn\\\\\\\’t really address this in your post, any ideas for this problem? Do I stop being so available or helpful? My 2 dil and one sil are all so different, its hard to keep track of the likes/needs/wants of each one. I LOVE them all, but it is often challenging!

    1. Teri,
      All of the situations you mentioned can be very challenging! I think the important thing to remember is that you aren’t responsible for anyone’s actions but your own. I hope you don’t stop being completely helpful or available if you think that’s the loving and kind thing to do. (I’m not encouraging abusive or unhealthy behavior – I don’t know your specific situation, so I’m not sure exactly what types of things you’re dealing with.) In the end, I think you want to know that you have done your best. (That always helps me in a challenging situation!) You can’t control and aren’t responsible for other people’s actions or attitudes toward you, so all you can really worry about it that you truly believe that you’ve been the person the Lord would want you to be in the situation. Then you can rest peacefully and not worry about it. My dad used to say, “Don’t let the turkeys get you down!” Hugs to you, Teri, and thanks for your thoughtful question and comment. xoxo Suzy

      1. Thank you, I need to remind myself of this more often, as I have generally lived by “do your best so there’s no regrets” throughout my life. I’ve appreciated the comments on this post as well. Thank you.

        1. Teri,
          I’m so glad you enjoyed the comments! I love it when Empty Nest Blessed readers share their wisdom! Hugs to you. xoxo Suzy

  7. Great advice!! My own parents have been a huge example to me and my husband and I joke that my mom likes him better than she likes me! His mother was a good example to me as well. I’m only a couple of years into the mother-in-law experience myself, but I try to do many of the things you suggested as I’ve learned them from my mom and many are just common sense too. 🙂 One thing I’d add is to cultivate a friendship with your daughter-in-law’s family, if possible. I first met my daughter-in-law’s mom when our granddaughter was born, and although it was awkward at first, I made every effort to get to know her and to defer to her whenever I could because it was HER daughter that had just given birth! Last year we all celebrated Christmas together – son and daughter-in-law hosted and both sides of their family were there, and we all had a wonderful time. As a grandmother, I’m less likely to be jealous and competitive over seeing my granddaughter when I have a warm friendship with the other grandma. 🙂 I am trying to think ahead this way with friendships I have with the moms of potential mates for my younger children too.

    1. Kym,
      You are a thoughtful and precious friend and I wish you lived near me so I could be your friend too! (Maybe our kids could get married!!!) Seriously, though, that was great advice! We love our daughter-in-law’s parents and couldn’t be more grateful for the lovely daughter they raised. In our situation, our son and Sarah live near us, but her parents live several states away, so that complicates the situation and makes me want to tread even more carefully there! I’m so glad you brought up the grandparenting issue and how you always defer to her mom. I’m going to file that good advice away and remember it! Thank you for reading Empty Nest Blessed and for your wonderful comment!!! xoxo Suzy

  8. I love this post Suzy!! Thanks so much for sharing this with us! I will become a Mother-in-law on September 15th and to be totally honest with you I\’m scared beyond words!! I have never had a relationship with my own Mother and my Mother-in-law was a cold and cruel woman My husband passed away in 2002 of a massive heart attack, so it was just me and my 2 sons (We were always extremely close) , I then lost my Dad who was my best friend in 2010, my boys and I spent his last 19 days in the hospital with him!! We were each other\’s support system through that!! But then an unbearable tradgedy struck in 2015 when my youngest son Derek passed away very suddenly! My Eldest Anthony has lived with me for the last 10 years and our bond only became stronger!! We have been each other\’s everything ever since I can remember!! In September he met Christopher ( not close with his mother at all) and it was love at first sight! He wanted to meet me immediately, so we did and I loved him as well. He is such a kind,caring and generous man!! By Thanksgiving I was being asked for my son\’s hand in marriage, I happily gave them my blessing! I have never seen my son so happy in his 36 years! Christopher is such a wonderful man and treats my son with the utmost love and respect!! The two of us have a wonderful relationship where we can talk about anything and everything!! God help me but I can\’t help but feel as though I\’m being \”replaced\”! I am also very afraid since this will be the first time I will be living totally alone in my entire life!! I have discovered that this is not a topic that I can discuss with my son (another first)!! I was thinking of talking to Christopher about \”My feelings\” which of course have nothing to do with him! I feel as though I am losing the only person that I have left and it\’s throwing me for quite the loop!! My doctor has told me that after the wedding this will hit me like another death to me (Very scary) and that I should see a counselor to help me prepare since I already suffer from PTSD. I\’m not even sure why I\’m commenting on this post, since I know that I\’ll be a wonderful Mother-in-law and I love the relationship that Christopher and I have built so far!! But I don\’t have a husband,or any other children and I have no clue as to what my future will be like! Why is the word alone the only thing that I can think of?!?!? I would so appreciate any help or advice that you could give to me!!
    Sorry for the novel dear!!

    1. Margo,
      Thank you so much for your candor and honesty in sharing your story. My heart goes out to you, sweet one. First of all, let me say that you are going to be a great mother-in-law, and it’s clear that you’re already well on your way in that department.! The real issue is with the loneliness that you are anticipating once the wedding takes place. I want you to know that I think you’re so smart to think about this and try to begin working through it now instead of waiting until the time comes. However, I will tell you that I don’t know if you’re like me at all, but I know that I have a tendency to work myself up in anticipation of a situation before it happens – and rarely is it as bad as I expect it to be when I am actually going through it. (Think about all of the scary stories you heard before childbirth – then when you went through it yourself, your own experience was totally unique and not exactly like any of the stories you heard!) With a blog about the empty nest, I hear from a lot from people who are anticipating the empty nest with fear and anxiety. Most of the time when they actually make the transition and go through it, they begin to see that it wasn’t as bad as they expected it to be. That said, I am NOT trying to minimize your situation at all! I’m so glad you are thinking about this now. I would encourage you to take any action NOW that could be helpful to you after Sept. 15. I think counseling is a great idea (and I hope you start it NOW rather than waiting), and I also think you need to be intentional about reaching out to others who could be a support to you when you need it. Is there a faith-based group, a place you love to volunteer, or a group for widows or parents who have lost a child that you could join now to shore up your support system? I know from being your friend just on Instagram that you have a lot to offer to others, Margo! You are always so encouraging and kind. With all you’ve gone through and your sweet willingness to share your experience, I know you could be a huge source of inspiration and encouragement to others. Thank you, again, for sharing your story and for your vulnerability. I will be praying for you! Everybody follow @margog118 on Instagram and give her lots of love!!!! Hugs to you, sweet friend. xoxo Suzy

  9. Suzy,
    This is outstanding – like everything you write! I am thankful for you and your wisdom on many things. Keep up the good work!

    1. Carol, You are just the sweetest! Thank you so much – that means a lot coming from you! I’m so glad you liked it! xoxo Suzy

  10. Thank you so much for writing this blog post. I thoroughly enjoyed it and it was great advice for those of us who are new mothers-in-law.
    Keep up the good work!

    1. Deanne,
      Wow! That is so sweet of you. Thank you so much! I’m so glad you enjoyed it! Thank you for reading Empty Nest Blessed! xoxo Suzy

  11. Well I do believe I recognize that cute gal hanging out with you at the beach 🙂
    Sweet post!! Thanks for making her feel so welcome in the Mighell family!!

    1. Anita,
      We can never thank you and Clovis enough for raising such a precious girl. I know she misses having you two here, so we try to take good care of her! Big hugs to you! xoxo Suzy

  12. This piece was SUCH a blessing to me, and especially timely. My youngest moved out and across the country 1 1/2 years ago, and my heart still aches every day. I just miss her in the everyday. She is getting married soon, and my older daughter might marry a man in the service and move away. You wisely mention that it is about them and not us. I have made many mistakes as there were plenty of hurt feelings on my end with us all having been so close. I know you are right and it is true (I was young once too 😉 ), and would love to read a piece about what to DO with those feelings when it hurts to have it be all about them. Ya know? A mamas heart. My husband does much better than I, but I keep trying to grow and be the mama they need regardless of my hurt. It is a process Thank you!

    1. Christa,
      Thank you so much your willingness to be open and vulnerable! I hear from a lot of empty nesters who struggle with the grief of the empty nest years after they think they should. Please know your struggle is not uncommon. I think the most difficult thing about raising children is actually tied to our success as a parent! You’ve raised great girls who are ready to go out into the world and make a difference – yet somehow when they leave it feels terrible. Understanding that it’s not about us is key. So is realizing that you need to move forward and contribute significantly to something you are passionate about, Christa! Make those girls proud of you and impressed with how you’re using your gifts and abilities in the empty nest – or learn something new and leave them in awe of you and even a little jealous of your freedom to do what you want with your time as an empty nester! It sounds counterintuitive, but when you are a more interesting person, they will be more interested in you – and you won’t be as needy for them! Does that make sense? (I’m desperately trying to give you a pep talk!!!) Thank you for prompting me to write about this subject. I WILL do that soon. Big hugs to you, sweet Mama! (And please forgive me if I’ve come on too strong with you!) xoxo Suzy

  13. I really could use some advice here, and your post has been a good and helpful read. What advice would you share if the relationship started badly? Our son (my adult, live at home stepson) moved his girlfriend into our house without asking. We don’t even really like her. She’s lazy and messy. She’s paranoid about us spending time with him. She has no ambitions, but prefers to coast off of his life plans. And I haven’t been warm or welcoming either. Her living with us has caused so many problems, even in our marriage. She’s now lived with us for almost two years. Today, my son told me he plans to marry her eventually. I’m so disappointed. But it is his life. What can I do to turn the relationship around? I do not like her. But my son loves her. And my husband (though he doesn’t like her either) is angry with me for not being nicer to her. I’m so stuck, especially as the stepmom. Ugh ????

    1. Hannah,
      That is a challenging situation, for sure! I’m so sorry that you’re going through it.
      I think it’s important to remember that your relationship with your stepson is your first priority. If things do eventually fall apart with this girl, you want to be sure your relationship with him is good, so he can turn to you for support. By being unkind to this girl, you are not changing his mind about her. Instead, you are simply harming your relationship with him! I would go to him, ask for forgiveness for the way you’ve treated him and turn over a new leaf. If you want to tell him again ONE TIME (only) that you have serious concerns about the relationship, I would do that, but tell him that you won’t be saying that again. Then I would try to do a better job of treating her well. Remember, your main priority is your relationship with your stepson. Do it for him! Also, you might want to read the article I wrote about “parenting” boomerang kids who’ve returned to live at home after being out of the nest for awhile. You can find that article here: https://emptynestblessed.com/2020/03/05/boomerang-kids/
      Hang in there, sweet mama!
      xoxo Suzy

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