As a pastor's wife, Becky Hunter has heard many lamentations over mothers-in-law, particularly as it applies to the relationship with a daughter-in-law.
As her three boys grew up and married, she never wanted to be the reason for any such grief. So Hunter, the wife of Joel C. Hunter, spiritual adviser to President Barack Obama and pastor of Northland, A Church Distributed, outside Orlando, Fla., took what she learned from confidences shared and Scriptures read, and kept this cardinal truth in mind: The primary relationship is the one between son and wife.
"If the mother-in-law or son is not willing to see the primary relationship as the one between son and wife, the relationship between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law will be messed up," she said. "The mother-in-law will constantly be feeling she's playing second fiddle."
And, she added: "Bottom line is, she is second fiddle."
Hunter and her daughters-in-law have gathered the lessons in a book, "Why Her? You, Your Mother-in-Law/Daughter-in-Law and the Big Picture." Half of it is by Hunter, the second half by her daughters-in-law, Lisa, Rhonda and Elizabeth.
Hunter does not think of the book as a how-to as much as a why-to. It's never easy when two women love the same man, she said, albeit in different ways. The wife often sees her husband as protector; the mother thinks she is supposed to protect him. Being aware of those differences can make all the difference in the two women's relationship.
She offers some counsel for mothers-in-law, most of which daughters-in-law could follow -- not to mention sons-in-law and fathers-in-law:
Do not take sides -- your child's or your spouse's. "You need to take the marriage's side," Hunter said.
Pray for your daughter-in- law and not about her. " 'Lord, help her be her best. Help her move forward as a strong partner to her husband.' "
Phrase requests as invitations, not obligations. A mom may be disappointed when her son's family declines to spend a holiday with her. Rather than pile on the guilt, she said, "You may build a closer family by just letting it go. ... That may set a tone that makes them want to be with you the next time."
Don't force a buddy-buddy relationship too soon. Instead, be willing to invest in the relationship in ways that the other woman would appreciate, and on her terms.
Relate to her as an equal. Avoid the temptation to adopt a child or parent role.
Avoid setting her up for failure, intentionally or unintentionally.