Dear Dr. Gail: My son has recently become engaged to a wonderful woman. I really like her and am very happy for them. I already have two married daughters and good relationships with both of my sons-in-law. But I’m finding things a little different with my future daughter-in-law.
She doesn’t seem to want to communicate with me, always saying she’s swamped or overwhelmed with school, work, etc. She doesn’t return e-mail messages. I’ve sent gifts and received no acknowledgement other than an e-mail to one of my daughters saying that she got it and to thank me.
I don’t want to be one of “those” mother-in-laws, the “nobody is good enough for my son” types who are judgmental and critical. But how do I handle her apparent aversion to communicating with me? When I call, I get her voicemail and she doesn’t return calls. They live far away so we don’t see each other much, and I’ve spent time with her only once before they got engaged and once after.
I want to have as close a relationship with her as possible given the distance. I don’t want to be overbearing but I’d like to get to know her better and at least be on friendly terms. Am I expecting too much too soon? — In Touch In-Law
Dear In Touch: Yes, it sounds as though you are. You don’t say how often you contact her or what kind of gifts you send. But even if you think you are not in touch very often, it sounds as though your future daughter-in-law thinks otherwise.
A mother has a different relationship to a daughter-in-law than to a son-in-law. One thing the two women grapple with is competition, whether they realize it or not. Who is going to be the number-one woman in this man’s life? This young woman is trying to stake her claim to her husband and her nascent family. Right or wrong, she may feel threatened by your interest in being so involved in their business.
At the same time, it’s possible you feel threatened by her. After all, she is usurping your role as the main woman in your son’s life. If he is an only son, your feelings are likely to be even more intense. So, as the time comes to let go, you hang on even more tightly. Such feelings may be driving what sounds to me like mutual discomfort.
In addition, this young woman, like many, may be struggling with torn loyalties. Embracing a mother-in-law feels like a betrayal of her own mother. She may also feel overwhelmed with school and work, at a time when she is undergoing big changes in her personal life. She must deal with gaining not just a husband but his whole family. What’s more, not everybody is a great communicator. Some people are slow to warm up. You two barely know each other — after all, you have spent time together only twice. So try not to take her lack of response personally. It has much to do with the delicate dynamic between a daughter-in-law and mother-in-law. It says nothing about whether she dislikes you or is trying to brush you off. It will take time for both of you to settle into comfortable roles with each other. Still, I can detect your annoyance with her lack of response. I suspect your frustration is coming through, so you have reason to be concerned about coming off as a judgmental and critical mother-in-law. That is not what you are trying to do, but it arises out of your fear of being marginalized.Don’t set yourself up for so much disappointment. I suggest you rein in your actions and reduce the quantity but increase the quality of your contact. You say this young woman doesn’t reply to your e-mails, but you have not mentioned the kind of e-mails you send or how often you send them. Some people send corny jokes, inspirational sayings or chain letters on a daily basis. Or they send lengthy, chatty, conversational notes that are hard to respond to. E-mail is a difficult medium for really getting to know someone. I suggest you e-mail with a specific purpose, with concrete information being exchanged. Overall, speaking is a better medium for building a relationship.Similarly, you don’t say what kind of gifts you are sending. Unsolicited gifts put pressure on the recipient to be constantly appreciative. Possibly they are not to her taste, or are not useful. She is obligated to “like” the gift. But it is awkward for her to tell you not to send gifts. So you become resentful at the lack of an enthusiastic thank-you. If you refrained from sending gifts, again, you wouldn’t set yourself up for this disappointment.As for the phone, you don’t say whether you call once a week or twice a day. If it’s the latter, this may explain her avoidance. Again, you are putting yourself in the unenviable position of waiting by the phone. And returning your call just adds another chore to her “to do” list. When you do catch her on the phone, ask if there are days or times that are better for her to talk. Or ask your son about these times. It may be awkward for her if you are calling just to say hello, so let her know what subject you would like to discuss with her. This gives her some control, and makes clear you are not going to encroach upon her life whenever you want.You should also get your son more involved. For example, when you finish talking to him, he can then hand the phone to her. I suggest you also be more direct to your future daughter-in-law, which does not mean being more intense. It might mean saying, “We have met only twice and live far apart, but I would like to get to know you better.” Ask about her family, her studies, her goals. Tell her about who you really are.But your relationship might be better served if you let it develop naturally over time than if you try to force a premature connection.Dr. Gail’s Bottom Line: By its very nature, the relationship between a mother and a daughter-in-law can be fraught, and often needs time to develop.
Dr. Gail Saltz is a psychiatrist with New York with New York Presbyterian Hospital and a regular contributor to “Today.” Her latest book is “Anatomy of a Secret Life: The Psychology of Living a Lie,” by Dr. Gail Saltz. She is also the author of "Amazing You! Getting Smart About Your Private Parts," which helps parents deal with preschoolers' questions about sex and reproduction. Her first book, “Becoming Real: Overcoming the Stories We Tell Ourselves That Hold Us Back,” was published in 2004 by Riverhead Books. It is now available in a paperback version. For more information, you can visit her Web site, .