An interview with Deb DeArmond,
Author of Related by Chance, Family by Choice
The mother-in-law/daughter-in-law relationship can be one of the most challenging dynamics a woman will ever face. The caricatures are everywhere, the jokes are inexhaustible and the stereotypes fill TV and movie screens. On one hand, two women should be able to bond over their mutual admiration for the man-in-the-middle — theoretically. However, many times the woman-in-law relationship proves to be a battleground for two women who love the same man: the wife and the mother.
In Related By Chance, Family by Choice: Transforming Mother-in-Law & Daughter-in-Law Relationships (Kregel Publications / November 1, 2013), Deb DeArmond provides practical tools and tips coupled with the scriptural foundations to bring harmony and understanding to the woman-in-law relationship. DeArmond’s one objective is to help women move from simply being related to becoming strong and confident members of a truly spiritual family. Her practical and unapologetically scriptural book covers issues of personal perceptions, strained communication, the roles of sons and fathers in the relationship’s success, how to begin these relationships on the right foot and the necessity of trust and love.
Q: What inspired you to write a book on women-in-law relationships?
The old phrase “A son’s a son ‘til he takes a wife. A daughter’s a daughter, all of her life” is familiar to most of us. Well, I had three sons. That was not going to work for me. And if you look at the pattern, that’s what you often see. Why?
· Women are often more closely connected to their families — and remain so even after marriage.
· Wives are typically responsible for the social calendar and family plans. There is a natural tendency for the man to move away from his own family toward that of his wife.
I understand this pattern, but I believed it was possible for the families on both sides to maintain close relationships that expanded the family in both directions. That was my prayer, and God answered it.
For years friends, colleagues, even neighbors have asked me about the positive nature of my relationship with my three daughters-in-law. These friends have also shared their own experiences, and many of them have been negative. My daughters-in-law have experienced the same curiosity from their friends, as well, who have asked, “How do you all do that?” We aren’t smarter, luckier or more spiritual than others. What we are is determined to live beyond the stereotypes and just bright enough to know we can’t do it without the Lord.
The media has portrayed such a negative stereotype of the relationship between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law to the point that many have come to believe the relationship will never be good. They expect it to be bad, and when it is, they do little to improve it. It divides the family and creates hurt beyond just the two women — the son/husband, the kids, and siblings. It’s an equal opportunity for pain all around.
As women of faith, we can and should do better.
Q: Did you grow up with positive in-law examples in your family? Have you always had a good relationship with your husband’s mother?
My mother was a Christian, and my dad came from an Orthodox Jewish family. His parents considered him dead when he married outside of his faith and cut off all contact for years. Eventually, they relented and agreed to meet my mother and my brother — the grandson they had never met. That was a turning point and although the relationship was never warm or close, they did have a relationship.
As far as my relationship with my own mother-in-law, I’m very blessed. I married her only son, and that can sometimes be dicey. From the moment I met her, she was always friendly. Always open, never intrusive. But she looked me over carefully, vetted me closely, and asked a lot of questions, mostly about my faith. It was initially a bit uncomfortable, but I learned later how right on-target she was. It was a lot easier to understand once I had sons of my own! I am so blessed to have her as my back-up mom — my own mother died when I was still fairly young. My hubby’s mom is often among those I want to share good news with first. I can always count on her to pray for our family. She’s a real gift in my life.
Q: You are the mother of three sons who are all now married. Was it difficult to adjust to welcoming the first daughter-in-law into the family?
Not at all! Sarah and Jordan met when they were only 13, and their friendship developed into a real romance a few years later. I watched her grow up and shared in so many of her “firsts.” I love her like my own daughter. In fact, I was concerned it would be difficult for me to feel like that about the other two who would eventually join the family. However, when it was time, that same level of love was there, even though the experience of developing the relationships was each unique.
Q: Do you have positive relationships with all of your daughters-in-law? Has it always been that way?
I’m grateful to say that I do. We are not similar in style, personality or experience. We are determined, however, to be family to one another. We’ve worked at keeping the lines of communication open and dealing with conflict when it occurs. And it will occur — in any relationship.
We recently took a family vacation that involved a three-hour plane ride, a vacation house, two rental cars, eight adults (one DIL was pregnant) and two children under five. We knew from the outset we wouldn’t agree on things during certain points. When it happened, we talked it out and moved forward.
Q: How did your daughters-in-law help you with the writing of this book?
It’s important for the reader to know the book is not biographical. It was inspired by our story, but it is based on solid research. The girls participated in various ways, especially through their conversations with one another and discussing their own responses to the same questions we asked our focus group participants. They did so without my being present so they could speak without concern for my reaction. Penny then “voiced” their comments and wrote chapter five, which included the data gathered from DILs throughout the research.
But most importantly, the relationships we have built throughout the years were their greatest contribution to my understanding what’s possible in these women-in-law relationships if we let God guide the way.
Q: Were there any statistics from your survey that were surprising to you? Did faith factor into your results?
Several statistics were surprising to us. Most significantly:
· 93 percent of those surveyed acknowledged a faith affiliation, and 96 percent of that group self- identified as Christian.
· 79 percent said their faith was foundational in their lives and guided their daily actions and decisions.
· 87 percent reported they were of the same faith as their WIL, but only 38 percent believed the faith of that woman was foundational to her life or was reflected in her decisions and actions.
· 30 percent reported the relationship was “bad,” which they described as not close, difficult and filled with criticism or simply off-balance with the woman-in-law.
· More than half (57 percent) said the difficulties in the relationship were either mostly their fault, or they at least shared the responsibility equally for the failure of the relationship.
And perhaps most importantly, these numbers are nearly identical to those gathered through a popular secular online website where no faith connection was queried at all.
Q: What does the Bible have to say about in-law relationships? What examples does it give us to follow?
The Bible has plenty to say about all relationships, including the in-law variety. His instruction is to love one another, pray for those who despitefully use you, avoid gossip and forgive freely. It’s a long list. Nowhere is there an asterisk that leads to a statement at the bottom of the page that exempts those related through marriage. We forget His word applies to every relationship and every interaction we have. It’s not possible to do it under our own natural strength. Only through Him is it possible.
Ruth and Naomi are the gold standard in mother-in-law/daughter-in-law relationships. They couldn’t have been less alike — different faith, different homeland and different customs. But Ruth made a choice, a commitment to her mother-in-law, to trade all she knew for a life in a strange land, to serve a god she had not known, and to remain faithfully with Naomi till the end of her life. Naomi, too, made a choice: She helped Ruth create a new life and guided her to find employment, a husband and a new life of happiness. They relied on each other, and everyone benefitted.
Q: The holidays are coming soon, which is usually an especially difficult time for families when it comes to gatherings and schedules. How has your family adjusted over the years of adding daughters-in-law and their own family obligations?
The first step in making it work is to remember that life is not Burger King — you can’t always have it your way. Your married adult children have another family in the mix, they have friends they might want to spend time with, and if they live out of the area, travel budgets may figure in.
The most important tip is to involve everyone in the conversation early. Manage your own expectations because it is not realistic that you can have the entire group assembled every year. We have celebrated Thanksgiving with my DIL’s family and invited them to ours. Be flexible! We’ve taken December 26 through New Year’s Day and discovered that the days after the actual holiday provided us a less stressful time together that was every bit as wonderful.
We celebrated early one year on the 18th of December but kept every single tradition. All the kids stayed at our home the night before, made our special Christmas brunch, lazed around in our pajamas and opened gifts. It felt so much like the real thing that when I heard the garbage truck on the block, I asked the group, “Since when does the trash man work on Christmas Day?” We all had a good laugh. The actual date, we discovered, did not matter. Remember the old proverb: Blessed are the flexible for they shall not break. Great for holiday time.
Q: What are some of the biggest causes of stress in the relationships between mothers and daughters-in-law?
Just as there is often a bond between daughter and dad, moms can get very protective of their sons. When my boys were toddlers, I had a hard time imagining a woman would ever be good enough for them. By the time they were teens, I began to worry a woman would never want to take them off my hands!
Mothers of sons are aware that the marriage signals a major change in the lives of not only the couple, but in their lives, as well. They may be unprepared for the magnitude of change it will be. It can leave a real hole and a painful void in their lives. As a result, moms often compete with their sons’ wives for time, affection and connection. This is a fight they can’t and shouldn’t win. The harder Mom fights, the farther away the young woman — and her husband — will move away from her.
It can be a turf war at times. An overprotective mom may regard her son’s wife as “the other woman” that she sees as her replacement and therefore judge her as not good enough.
There is always a possibility the DIL is the difficult party in this relationship. The negative stories the DIL may have heard from her friends or poor examples in her own family experience may teach her to come into the MIL/DIL relationship with swords and torches. The young wife may take the approach, “He’s mine now; you are no longer needed. Just stay out of our life.”
There is room in a man’s life for a wife and a mother. He shouldn’t have to choose. If his mother demands he choose between them and he chooses his wife, she will be heartbroken. If he chooses his mother, it will destroy his marriage and break God’s heart.
If you are the mother of a son, the sobering reality is that no matter how much you love him, no matter how much time you’ve invested in raising him lovingly, you were never meant to be the most important woman in his life. That spot is reserved for his wife. The sooner you can accept that, the happier everyone will be.
Q: What responsibility does a son have in making the relationship between his mother and his wife work?
The man-in-the-middle often finds himself between a rock and a hard place: between the woman who raised him and the woman he has chosen as his partner for life. Most often, he’s just trying to fly beneath the radar. However, his role is important: He must make a clear break to leave his parents and cleave to his wife, to prefer her, to stop relying on them and to make her first but still show honor to his parents. It’s imperative and possible to do both.
Most important, however, is his willingness to be open and honest with both women. He must not shrug off his wife’s complaints and agree, “I know, baby, my mom’s demanding and bossy,” while saying to his mom, “Hey, you know Jenny, she’s difficult and unreasonable.” Each woman feels vindicated and “on top.” It’s a losing game. The best approach is to establish his expectation that he will maintain a positive and healthy relationship with both women and support them in doing the same with each other.
Q: Should the older woman take the lead in bonding with the younger? How can you do this without coming across as overbearing?
I do think the older woman has a natural opportunity to welcome her son’s future wife to the family. It can set a positive tone. Spend some time getting to know the younger woman. What are her interests, her goals, her hobbies? Share the same with her. If you do all the questioning, it can feel like an interview or interrogation. Let her know you are open and desire a very positive relationship with her.
Remember to go slow. Let the relationship take a natural course to develop. Don’t rush, don’t push. Pray for God’s direction and follow it. Let her know you would never try to take her mother’s place, and hope she will feel like a valued part of the family.
Q: What is your best advice to young wives about developing a bond with the new moms in their lives?
Pray for the relationship with her from the time you realize the relationship with her son is serious and leading to marriage. When you marry the man, you get the family for free! So decide early to follow a Christ-honoring path.
The younger woman can certainly take a proactive approach in reaching out to her mother-in-law to-be. Remember, she raised the man of your dreams and you both love him, so show her respect. Approach her with the goal of letting her know you’re excited about joining her family. Ask questions that will allow her to tell you about herself and the family history. Identify any common interests and look for opportunities to share them.
Q: How should you handle an antagonistic situation where one woman won’t try to meet in the middle?
First, prayer should be the first approach in addressing any situation that seems at an impasse. I recommend holding the mirror up to your own face first. It’s easy to pray, “Oh Lord! Show her how difficult she is and make her understand her shortcomings.” Ask God to guide you, to help you identify what you need to address in yourself to help bring the relationship together. Be open to hearing God’s spirit.
Second, forgive her. Whatever the difficulty and hurt that has been the result of your relationship with the other woman, God instructs us to forgive quickly. Ask God to forgive you for anything you have done that created or extended the problem between you.
Third, keep the communication lines open. Ask her forgiveness if appropriate. Drop her a note to let her know you would like to mend the break in the relationship.
If communication has ceased altogether, it may be helpful to ask the man-in-the-middle to help. He might set up a time for the two of you come together. Or he may find it helpful to let each of the women know he is committed to them and ask that they get outside assistance if needed. Pastoral or family counseling can be of real help if things have broken down significantly.