Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Daughter-In-Law Aloof And Uncaring

April 23, 2009

My daughter-in-law and I are having difficulties with our relationship. I have tried several times to get together with her and visit about it. She will not commit to a time or she is too busy with other activities in her life.

My son has requested that I continue to try because it is stressing their marriage. I want this to be resolved but when I tell her this she is aloof about it and appears uncaring. She tells him there is nothing wrong. I do not know what to do any more. Do you have any suggestions? - Reader from Iowa.

Sometimes it is the mother-in-law who is aloof, distant, or judgmental and set barriers for the relationship, but generally speaking, it is the daughter-in-law who chooses to distance herself.

I feel sad for you and for other parents who are involved with an icy, aloof daughter-in-law. Believe me, you are not alone. About 40 percent of daughters-in-law describe their relationships with their mothers-in-law as minimal. About twenty percent find genuine friendship and another almost 40 percent have a relationship that might be called a quasi-mother/daughter relationship. You, as most any parent, would have wished for something better than what you have.

It is a confusing time for her. Ideally, in her quest for adulthood, in her marriage she would have taken a step back from her mother just as your son has had to do. If her relationship with her mother is excessively important to her, she will not be looking for closeness and a Mom-like relationship with you.

It could be her personality - willful and stubborn. She is not yet in the kin keeping role and doesn’t understand how important family is or will be someday.

It may be nervousness about your power or influence with your son that is causing to her to be cool toward you. Once she feels comfortable with his allegiance and her role in his life, she may not choose to be so distant and aloof.

Don’t burn bridges. Leave the possibility of better relations open as she grows and learns to be more secure in herself. Things could be very different down the road.

It could be worse. She could be distant and hostile or distant and estranged. If you get into an all out fight with her, she has the power to withhold access to your son, control grandchildren visits or avoid family gatherings causing pain for your son in the process.

Don’t make things worse by confronting her and giving her ammunition to use against you. Cordial but distant may be the best you can hope for. Back off on the pace of the relationship. Your desire for a heart-to-heart talk with her may be pushing her before she is ready for closeness.

What can you do?

1. Accept the relationship as it is. Be pleasant, cordial and respectful no matter how she treats you. Treat her equally with the other in-laws in the family. You can't control other people's actions, only your own. When possible, show her interest, respect and kindness. Give complements and praise. Don’t expect her to reciprocate.

2. Capitalize on whatever works in the relationship, no matter how small. Figure out what you do have in common with her and work with that - even if it is sharing an interest in making cookies or some other activity. Find topics of mutual interest.

3. Focus on your relationship with your son. Keep an open line of communication with him. If he feels put in the middle, encourage him to honor his wife and be loyal to her. If his wife is too controlling or unreasonable, he will have to figure that out on his own and deal with it. Don’t get in the middle of their marital problems.

If ever your son turns cold, icy or judgmental of you, confront him about his behavior and let him know what you expect. Don’t bring your daughter-in-law or her behavior into the conversation. Focus on his actions and let him know that even though you don’t have expectations for his wife, you do for him.

4. Speak civilly and kindly about her in public and within the family. Hurtful or judgmental remarks spoken behind her back could get back to her. Rely on your own confidential friendships to vent your feelings.

Even though it is hard, don’t take her lack of engagement personally. Her attitude would probably be the same no matter who the mother-in-law happened to be. It is about her and not you.

5. Negotiate for holidays and family gatherings well in advance. Accommodate their wishes as much as you can without sacrificing your own priorities. Eliminate a sense of obligation and accept your secondary position compared to the priority she places on her own family gatherings.

6. Be patient. Grandchildren, when they come, may generate the close family connection you want. Your warm and loving relationship with your grandchildren may help build the common bond you are looking for. Find peace, meaning, and enjoyment in other activities and relationships and don’t preoccupy yourself with what is outside your control.