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 learned in a book, "Why Her? You, Your Mother-in-Law/Daughter-in-Law and the Big Picture" (Northland, A Church Distributed). Half of it is by Hunter, the second half by her daughters-in-law, Lisa, Rhonda and Elizabeth.
Hunter does not think of their book as a how-to as much as a why-to. It's never easy when two women love the same man, she acknowledged, 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 too — 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. "There's the image of the mother-in-law praying, 'Please fix her. You know what she's like. I just want you to make her better.' As opposed to 'Lord, help her be her best. Help her move forward as a strong partner to her husband.'"
Phrase requests as invitations, not obligations. For example, a mother-in-law 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 with no strings or grudges. 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, not yours.
Relate to her as an equal. Avoid the temptation on either side to adopt a child or parent role.
Avoid setting her up for failure, intentionally or unintentionally. You wish she had a job? Or were home raising the kids? "It isn't like (they're) doing something wrong," Hunter said, "but there is an impression that they're failing" based on the mother-in-law's expectations.
Daughter-in-law offers some advice
Pressed for any momentary lapse of bliss, Elizabeth Hunter, who is married to Joel Hunter Jr., shared an initial struggle she had in relation to her mother-in-law.
"Early in my marriage, I noticed my husband turning to Becky a lot for encouragement. It was hard for me … and I had to take a step back and say, 'It's not her pulling him away from me. It's something I need to do in our marriage.'" So she worked on being more supportive of her husband. "I didn't want to allow any resentment to creep in."