Getting To Know Your Mother-In-Law

Hip, wired, divorced, dating - the millennial mother-in-law is not easy to categorize. Read on for the new road map to this emotionally charged relationship.

A Family Affair

When Chrystal agreed to marry Jeffrey, both 23-year-old students in Houston, she had some initial misgivings about how she would fit into his close-knit, traditional family. Chrystal's own mom is divorced, and she was raised to be very independent. "I guess I stereotyped Jeffrey's family at first," Chrystal admits. "He was still living at home in his parents' big house and spending a lot of time with them."Profound changes in women's lives have led to equally big changes in the way they relate to their families, especially their sons. "Even in traditional families, boys have grown up seeing their mothers as whole persons, not just as someone who keeps house," says Dr. Goldscheider. "That means that two generations of women share similar attitudes about gender roles and expectations."

The engagement period has enabled Chrystal to get to know Jeffrey's family, especially his mother, much better—even intimately. To save money, Chrystal moved in with her in-laws before the couple's wedding. "This arrangement has required us to talk openly about keeping boundaries between our relationship and their relationship with Jeff, and that has been great," she says. "I am reassured by the way Jeffrey and his mom relate, the respect he has for her as a woman, and the respect his parents have for him, and me, as adults."

Attitude Check

If the secret to future in-law relationships is respecting everyone's role, what do you do when there is more than one "other woman" and many complicated roles?

"You decide to be inclusive rather than exclusive," says Emily, a 25-year-old editor in New York City whose marriage is only two months away. "Luckily, we're Jewish," she laughs. "Our parents and step-parents, siblings, half-siblings, and step-siblings, grandparents and step-grandparents are all part of the processional anyway!"

Extended families are a fact of life for couples these days. In Emily's case, her own parents are divorced and remarried, as are those of her fiancé Aaron, a 26-year-old graduate student at Princeton. But instead of seeing this as a sticky problem, she decided to use the planning period as an opportunity to build better relationships all around.

"Two mothers-in-law means two separate relationships. Aaron was raised mostly by his mom and is her first-born," Emily explains. "She is more protective of him than his step-mom is. Her concerns for him are more traditional, and her concerns about the wedding are more traditional, too: the guest list, the rehearsal dinner and family roles.

"There's a different dynamic between Aaron and his step-mom," Emily continues. "They have a friendly, casual relationship. She's up-front about how she feels and will discuss the minutiae of wedding planning with me in a way that no one else will."

A wedding can be a time of social ranking and classification, when mothers-in-law ask "Who am I in all this?" and "How important am I to you?" Says Emily: "I've realized that getting to the heart of what concerns everyone is much more important than just being polite. It may be difficult sometimes, but in the long run, I do think honesty is appreciated by the previous generation of women as much as it is by my own."

Your mother-in-law was the first woman in your fiancé's life, and she is forever part of him. As these brides-to-be have discovered, communication and understanding can help you make her an important, and positive, part of your own life, too.

Easy Now

Before you start addressing your future mother-in-law as Mommie Dearest—or worse—meditate on these mantras to promote parental peace.

• Respect her relationship with her son; don’t try to manage it, mediate it or intrude upon it.

• Love may come in time, but "like" is more important right now. Find interests the two of you share, and build a friendship based on them. Involve her in the wedding planning. Ask for her opinions and keep her abreast of decisions as they are made.

• Speak up if you feel she is being unreasonable or unfair. The price of avoiding conflict is deferred anger and resentment, which will only intensify and surface later.

• Keep your sense of humor! Nothing eases tension like a good laugh.