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Dr. Deanna Brann, a clinical psychotherapist from Knoxville, Tenn., draws on her professional and personal experience in her new book, Reluctantly Related: Secrets to Getting Along With Your Mother-in-Law or Daughter-in-Law. Richmond Bride checked in with her for a few questions about this eternal challenge. For more, visit drdeannabrann.com .
RB: What made you interested in this topic?
DB: It really started with my relationship with my own daughter-in-law. We initially got along really well, and then they started having children, and that's when things changed. It seemed like I couldn't do anything right; it was fine before, but it wasn't now. I really struggled with that for a lot of years.
RB: For our brides, how do you keep your own vision for the wedding and also be nice to your mother-in-law?
DB: You need to start a relationship with this woman before it gets to the wedding, if at all possible. Just small things, getting to know her. It will avoid a lot of problems if you can figure out just who she is and what she's about. One thing brides need to think about is that this woman doesn't really know what her role is supposed to be. She's trying to figure out all this, too. It's not just the wedding; it's beyond the wedding. That's probably the most important thing ― for the bride to take initiative and set the stage.
RB: In establishing what that role is, is it a good idea to give wedding tasks to the future mother-in-law?
DB: That's a great idea, but don't just assign them to her. Go back to her, ask her how it's going. If you give her a task and just send her away, she's going to feel bad. She wants to be included.
RB: Often the advice is, if there's a conflict between the wife and the mother-in-law, the wife should talk to her husband and get him to deal with it since it's his mother. How do you feel about that?
DB: I don't think it's a good idea. There are certain circumstances when that works. When your husband is on the same page with you about his mother, then yes, let him go deal with it. But if he's not on the same page or he doesn't perceive why there's a problem, then you really need to deal with it yourself. It's your relationship with that woman. If you're always going to your husband, you're putting him in the middle. If you do that, I will tell you, it will create marital problems across the board.
RB: How do you help your husband deal with that transition?
DB: It's a tough one, because part of the reason he's in the middle is because he hasn't completely emotionally separated from his mom. He's still trying to please everybody, and he ends up pleasing nobody. Everybody winds up mad at him. Part of the way to help him is to deal with his mom more directly on your own. Let him know what you're doing so that he's not in the dark about it, but if you're doing it in a positive way, as opposed to yelling at her, he's going to be somewhat relieved.
Men really view these things differently than women do. Just because he doesn't see it as a big deal doesn't mean he agrees with his mother. It doesn't mean he disagrees with you. He just doesn't get it. And that's just a difference between men and women.
RB: One lighter question: Do you think the mother-in-law and the mother of the bride should match dresses at the wedding?
DB: I would say no. [Laughs.] Both of them want to be seen for who they are. They want their own moment.
RB: With you and your own daughter-in-law, have things changed?
DB: We get along really well. We have for quite a few years. If things start to fall apart, you can get back on track. That's important for women to know, that it is possible. Sometimes the wedding can cause stress to the point where people are snapping at people. A lot of times ― and this is a woman thing ― we have a tendency to hang on to that stuff and holding a grudge. If something happens at a wedding on either side, there are ways to let go of that so you don't carry that on beyond the wedding. I mean, weddings are stressful.
RB: You live in the South, I live in the South. There's a lot of heirloom jewelry around, and sometimes the engagement ring came from the groom's side of the family. What can a bride do to express her appreciation?
DB: I think writing a letter ― writing an actual letter ― to the mother-in-law and expressing her appreciation would be one, and I think at the rehearsal dinner, she could verbally say something about her appreciation for the ring and that her mother-in-law is entrusting it to her. That's a big deal.