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In praise of mothers-in-law

They might be the three most dreaded words in the English language: Mother-in-law. But some lucky women actually have great relationships with their husband's mom. How do they do it? Common interests, a clean slate and a healthy amount of space.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

When Amber Gilmore met her future mother-in-law, they bonded over a love of bargains.

They began plotting yard sales on a map together with tactical precision. It grew into a side business selling vintage toys, rare china, free furniture and collectibles bought for cheap.

Her mother-in-law, Arlene Zacher, taught Gilmore how to sew curtains and clothes for her 4-year-old daughter. And she doesn’t have the maternal instincts that can cause Gilmore’s own mom to interpret her daughter’s thriftiness as a need for cash. Zacher just enjoys the hunt.

“We have so many interests in common,” said Gilmore, who runs a tiki bar in Panama City Beach, Fla. “In this family instead of ‘guess how much I paid for this purse, it cost hundreds of dollars,’ it’s ‘guess how little I spent.’”

Gilmore is a woman you rarely hear from -- the one who has nary a bad thing to say about her mother-in-law.

“I talk to her on a very frank level,” Gilmore said. “In some ways it’s easier because she’s not my mother and she can just be my friend.”

The mother-daughter-in-law relationship can be derailed by any number of unsolicited opinions, perceived slights, miscommunications and expectations about how families ought to behave.

But in reality, plenty of women out there love their mothers-in-law, chatting and texting daily about everything from husbands to cooking to UFOs to raising kids.

“So much of it has to do with how willing the two women are to being open to welcoming each other,” said , a psychologist, author and frequent guest on TODAY.

Often, it’s the mother-in-law who has to do the most adjusting, Atkins said.

“These are two women who love the same man and ideally want the best for him, but one is giving up the role of the primary person in his life and the other is coming in.”

The relationship works best when each woman recognizes what the other has to offer, a whether it’s a different way of looking at the world or a new mashed potato dish for the Thanksgiving table, Atkins said.

Stacey Harper lives on the same Malibu property as her mother-in-law Kate Snow, an artist with an uncanny ability to get to the core of issues and work through them, she said.

“When I met her, it helped me realize that there are so many ways to live life,” said Harper, a 40-year-old graphic designer. “It’s made me look a little deeper into how I want to be.”

For instance, she encouraged Harper to launch a small business of butterflies, rocket ships and guitars.

Instead of focusing on potential problems or questioning whether the business will succeed, Snow frequently suggests stores Harper might approach or blogs she could contact.

“She just thinks if you do it, it’ll work and you’ll be successful,” Harper said. “She has a freer way of looking at things.”

One of the best ways for a daughter-in-law to strengthen the relationship is to get to know her mother-in-law as someone other than her husband’s mother, Atkins said.

It can be as simple as asking about her childhood, her career or what book she’s reading. And it never hurts to ask her opinion.

Mothers-in-law, Atkins said, need to hold back when they’re tempted to offer unsolicited advice or pass judgment. Instead, they should recognize that people have different backgrounds, parenting styles and family traditions. 

“It’s not about whose is better,” she said. “It’s about which do you want to have in your life, and the couple has to decide these things on their own.”

said mother-in-law Debbie Cotz is the family’s chief “sunshine spreader.” (Got a 5-hour layover in Denver? More time to squeeze in a speed walk! Air conditioning broken? It’s good for a body to sweat!)

Cotz is very present in Munroe’s life, offering to babysit her seven-month-old grandson, help paint the house or be a running partner. But she doesn’t smother them.

And that makes for the perfect blend of connection without contention, Munroe said. Unlike her close relationship with her own mother, Munroe doesn’t feel free to get snippy or talk back.

“With my mother-in-law there is a buffer between us—the space she gives, the love she freely gives and the distance between our DNA,” Munroe said.

Cotz, a teacher and triathlete from Issaquah, Wash., said she knew that her daughter-in-law was going to be the most important woman in her son’s life. As much as she loves him, that was okay.

“My job was to raise a good enough person that he could be a good husband and a good father, “ Cotz said. “And then I had to hand him over.”