She’s smart, attractive, accomplished. She’s the first woman he ever loved. Chances are she’s a professional woman, and she may have been a single mom. Over the years, she’s developed an easy confidence. In some ways, she even reminds you of your own mom. But there is one big difference: This woman is about to become your mother-in-law.
Competition between the two most influential women in a man’s life is as old as the institution of marriage itself. But today’s mother-in-law is a new breed. And while there’s still the potential for conflict—meddling, rivalry for attention, she-or-me arguments—it’s less likely to stem from the sorts of domestic issues that prevailed in the past.
"Home-bound housewives no longer, many moms today are busy with their own careers and outside interests, so the areas of contention have changed," explains Frances K. Goldscheider, Ph.D., professor of sociology at Brown University in Rhode Island. The sources of tension may change, but the song remains the same: Strained relationships with mothers-in-law are still a sore spot. So, where does the potential for conflict lurk today, and what steps can you take to establish a positive connection with the "other woman" in your man’s life?
Today's brides-to-be are as likely to meet their future mother-in-law over a laptop and a cell phone as a casserole. For Lisa, 35, an interior designer at an architectural firm in Portland, Oregon, meeting her mother-in-law meant being introduced to the CEO of a property development company in St. Louis.
"My mother-in-law had to work her way up as a female in a man's world," says Lisa. "She was divorced with two kids to raise, and she did the family thing along with fighting for her career. She's the kind of woman that, well, there's just no stopping her."
Even though Lisa's own mom is a V.P. in a brokerage firm, she had to admit that her mother-in-law's accomplishments were a bit daunting. "I don't know if I was intimidated by her success so much as just knowing that this dynamic woman was going to be my mother-in-law," she says.
Whereas women in your mom's generation may have wondered whether their banana bread or housekeeping passed "inspection," you may feel pressure to match your mother-in-law's career smarts—and be a good homemaker. Even if she appears all-doing, chances are, either home, hobbies or work prevails. Consider what you two have in common or in which areas you both excel, and go from there. Lisa decided that professional respect and mutual career interests would be a good foundation on which to start building their relationship.
"I thought hard about where my mother-in-law was coming from and made an effort to develop shared interests with her aside from her son," says Lisa. These days, the two women keep in touch by e-mail and Lisa's firm and her mother-in-law's company have recently entered into negotiations on a development deal. Lisa says that she's "thrilled to have a mother-in-law to look to as a mentor."