Shelby Scarbrough — former protocol officer for the White House during the Reagan administration — has tips for keeping things civil... even when it’s really, really hard.
Do you clash with your mother-in-law? Does watching Monster-In-Law feel like a docuseries of your own life? Does the thought of visiting your in-laws make you want to scratch your eyes out sometimes? You're not alone. From parenting styles to how you cook the turkey, there are many instances in which you might butt heads with your MIL — especially during the holiday season.
Shelby Scarbrough, former protocol officer for the White House during the Reagan administration, serial entrepreneur, and author of Civility Rules! Creating A Purposeful Practice Of Civility, tells Scary Mommy this is perfectly normal.
"Seriously, the list of potential areas of conflict seems endless," she says. "But headbutts can be easily initiated by either a spouse or a mother-in-law. Unspoken expectations paired with mismanaged communication and misinterpreted motives can create a situation ripe with passive-aggressive tension."
Below, Scarbrough suggests some tips on how to help mitigate any awkward or tense situations that might be coming your way this holiday season.
Flipping the Script
Scarbrough points out that while it's easy to lay the shame and blame on your MIL, it's essential to ask yourself: What's your responsibility when it comes to the tension between you?
"Really and truly, most of the time, MILs are just real people like us struggling with change, new relationship dynamics, and a place in their beloved child's life," she says. "The relationship can flourish, and tensions can be resolved with solid, compassionate, empathic, and respectful communication."
Scarbrough lays out some common scenarios that might hit home for you.
"I feel criticized and undermined."
"Either party can easily feel judged," Scarbrough says. "A young spouse can come to the table with insecurities and inexperience that can feed conflict. A mother-in-law can be overbearing with input in the name of experience and care."
"I feel my mother-in-law can't let go of her child, and I feel like I am competing for my spouse's time, attention, and support."
"A mother's relationship with her child will change when that child becomes a committed couple with another person," Scarbrough explains. "There can be an invisible or more obvious struggle with control and authority. Either party can feel excluded, insecure, or that their familiar role is threatened. It can feel like the responsibility for the uncomfortable relationship shift is laid at the feet of the new spouse."
"My MIL and I have personality conflicts."
Are you really the opposite in personality? Or is it that you're much more like your MIL than you care to admit? Give it a minute before you respond. Either situation, says Scarbrough, can spark friction. She suggests spending time understanding which dynamic is in place through self-reflection, self-awareness, and personal growth exercises.
The Bigger Picture
First and foremost, Scarbrough says it's a good idea to have a gut check about what's important to us and what's not worth rocking the boat over. For example, is fighting over who gets to cook the turkey this year worth it in the long run?
One question we can ask ourselves, according to Scarbrough: Will this situation be an issue for me three, five, or 10 years from now?
If the answer is no, Scarbrough advises to let it go. If the answer is yes, though, she says, "It may be advisable to address the situation civilly and before the relationship festers into an ugly infection."
The Part Your Spouse Plays
Your partner might refuse to "get involved," but too bad, Charlie. Because guess what? By being married to you, they're already involved — which means they need to have your back when there's tension between you and their mother.
"Awkward or negative situations can be greatly diminished if our spouse is on the same page with us so we can present a united front," Scarbrough says. "However, our spouse is in the middle, which can be an uncomfortable place. When we can show empathy for that situation while asking for our partner's support, we can make headway."
The Personal Accountability Factor
Regardless of how your MIL responds, Scarbrough says it's vital for you to take responsibility and demonstrate integrity, honor, and respect for your MIL. "When we are tempted to lose our cool, we can choose to respond with respect, ensuring our MIL's dignity and avoiding the urge to reciprocate perceived slights," she says. "Sometimes, all we can do is accept our MIL for who they are. This does not mean that we approve of unacceptable behavior. But we can be self-examining and honest with ourselves about what is morally unacceptable versus what is just not preferable. And we can accept that we cannot change anyone but ourselves."
The bottom line, says Scarbrough, is that we can only control our own behavior. "We can choose civility," she says. "It is not about making our MIL happy at our expense but about living a joyful and civil co-existence."
Another way to look at it? Modeling integrity, honor, and respect for your MIL — while still civilly standing your ground — is good for your kids to see, too. What would be less stellar for them to witness is a screaming match between you and Grandma over the canned cranberry sauce.
Finding the Humor
"Life can be ironic and funny," Scarbrough says. "Let's find a way to enjoy the journey. Let's laugh often, act from kindness, and let perceived missives slip by."
If it's hard to laugh, Scarbrough suggests maintaining a sense of humor and reinforcing healthy and preferred behavior by showing gratitude, which might even include being thankful for your mother-in-law.
Does that seem like too much of a stretch? Remember, there are plenty of other things to be grateful for this year — like a strong drink and an even stronger lock on the door you duck behind when your MIL is too much.