Miss Conduct

In-laws on the outs

Must the mother of the bride and mother of the groom be friends? It might actually be best if they’re not.

Lucy Truman

After my daughter became engaged, I wrote a warm, sincere letter to the parents of my future son-in-law saying how pleased we were and what a fine young man he is. Months later I have not heard a peep, save for my daughter passing along that the mother of the groom (MOG) has been too busy to write back. My daughter feels certain that MOG doesn’t approve of her (I suspect because of religious/cultural differences). My predisposition to be positive and congenial is flickering, and I want to avoid a downward spiral. I would truly appreciate your advice.

P.D. / Auburndale

Here it is: Lower your expectations.

There’s more, but that is the phrase you should be tattooing on the insides of your eyelids.


You come across as a warm, articulate, generous person eager to expand her family to include these intriguing new members. I bet you enjoy picking out gifts for people, and that when you discover yourself alone at a party, you quickly find a conversation to join, a neglected child or elder to draw in, or a helpful chore to accomplish. Here’s my challenge: Use your considerable empathetic abilities to imagine this situation from the perspective of someone whose emotional style may be more cautious and self-conscious than your own.

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Imagine someone who wants her son to be happy but worries. Love doesn’t conquer all; it’s hard enough for families to make it anymore, and it’s not that anybody’s better than anybody else, but it’s easier when partners have certain things in common. And now here’s this letter out of the blue and the whole thing suddenly seems so real. And the letter must be answered, of course, because it’s kind and thoughtful and deserves a response of equal openhearted eloquence. And every day that eloquence fails, every day The Letter goes unanswered, thinking about it brings a fresh spasm of guilt.

Can you imagine being that person? Let’s call her “Moggy.”

Your letter was a lovely gesture. Now make an even bigger one and e-mail or text Moggy and let her off the hook. Something breezy and short, like “Mogs, hoping all is well. I realize this is a crazy time so please don’t feel obliged to write back to my letter. Just wanted to let you know we’re all very pleased about the kids. Enjoy your weekend!”

Then revise your expectations. Moggy is distant, but she hasn’t caused any trouble and was apparently a good enough mother to your future son-in-law, if he turned out so upstanding. Believe me, you could do worse. Decide that she’s good enough just the way she is, and act like it. You don’t have to be friends to have a good mothers-in-law relationship.


And in the long term, your different emotional styles — not to mention your religious and cultural differences — may turn out to be a blessing. Families often work more harmoniously when people take on distinct responsibilities. If you celebrate different holidays, you won’t be competing quite as much. If grandchildren come along in due time, Moggy doesn’t seem the sort to give you much competition for the Alpha Granny role.

Moggy may, for all you know, turn out to be your family’s greatest blessing in disguise. But the only way that can ever happen is if you learn to expect her not to be anything at all.

 Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a writer with a PhD in psychology.

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