Relating: Mother-in-Flaw

For better or worse, she's yours - till death do you part

When my ex and I called it quits, I didn’t immediately realize that I was
breaking up with his mother, too. Though he and I agreed we weren’t meant to be, I had no such reassurances when it came to leaving his lovable mom behind: As I’d heard, the mother-in-law pool was filled with more potential for Chernobyl than the dating pool itself. By passing her up, I’d just chucked a winning lotto ticket.

[sidebar]Okay, so maybe I was a little pessimistic — it was that kind of time in my life. But I’d heard horror stories. Ladies who had endured the overbearing, the intrusive, the completely disinterested, the overly attached. A newlywed who swore her MIL inspired not only Marie Barone in Everybody Loves Raymond, but also Jane Fonda’s character in Monster-in-Law. Here, dear reader, are their stories — though not for the faint of heart — plus tips from our expert on how to deal with the most prevalent of mother-in-law woes.

Perhaps the most classic MIL is what we’ll call The Molder. She cares not for your taste, interior decorating or wedding-planning choices, and for one simple reason: Hers are better. She’s done this before, she knows what her son likes, and you, well, know nothing. Or so goes her logic, as she “molds” you. Over time, her sins accrue, stoking your quiet inferno. First, these unwelcome bits are meant to be sweet — like when she tearfully bestows upon you her dusty and not-quite-your-taste wedding veil. Then, it’s advice, couched and almost tactful — “You know, dear, if I were serving this, I’d add more salt.” And finally, words become deeds.

It was stage three for Danielle* from Newtown. Before they were married, her fiancé’s house was styled “eclectically” by her MIL. When Danielle moved in, she decided to make the space her own and set about, um, revising. “There was this urn,” says Danielle. “It was hideous, cheap, and had to go. My fiancé wouldn’t let me toss it, so I put it in the garage. And one day, after my mother-in-law had been over, it reappeared inside.” With the uncomely urn came another intruder: “Then I went to show the living room to a friend, and someone had installed curtains.” Handmade curtains. Unrequested “gift” curtains.

As far as MILs go, this archetype is common, says Tracey Ellenbogen, a Philadelphia therapist who specializes in life-transition issues and runs workshops to help brides cope with matrimony-related stress. According to Ellenbogen, Danielle’s MIL probably means well, but in a new relationship, roles and boundaries aren’t clear yet. It’s better to assume her intentions are good and communicate, gently, that you’d like to make these decisions as a couple. With unsolicited advice, says Ellenbogen, “You can always say, ‘I’ll take that into consideration.’ Don’t feel you have to accept or reject it on the spot.”