I heard through a friend recently about a mother’s despair at learning that her second and likely last child would be a boy. A second boy. Though many women might be thrilled at this news, this particular mother forsaw a future of only mother-in-lawhood.

Her fear is not displaced. As many were reminded in recent days, the role of mother-in-law is considered to be either the source of nightmares or the butt of jokes. Experts say this in-law relationship can be a good one. Before we get to the how-tos on that, let’s start with a lesson on how-to-make-it-bad.

Carolyn Bourne of Devon, England has given us a fresh approach on this front.

Her family saga, covered in recent days by a laughing British press, including the Daily Mail, began when the soon-to-be- mother-in-law sent her stepson’s fiance the kind of e-mail some MILs have wanted to send at one time or another. It opens inauspiciously:

“Unfortunately for Freddie, he has fallen in love with you and Freddie being Freddie, I gather it is not easy to reason with him or yet encourage him to consider how he might be able to help you. It may just be possible to get through to you though. I do hope so.”

It goes on to “explain” manners, and lists by bullet point how this soon-to-be-daughter-in-law had offended the family’s sensibilities.

Here’s an excerpt:

“Here are a few examples of your lack of manners:

• When you are a guest in another’s house, you do not declare what you will and will not eat – unless you are positively allergic to something.  You do not remark that you do not have enough food. You do not start before everyone else. You do not take additional helpings without being invited to by your host.

• When a guest in another’s house, you do not lie in bed until late morning in households that rise early – you fall in line with house norms.

• You should never ever insult the family you are about to join at any time and most definitely not in public. I gather you passed this off as a joke but the reaction in the pub was one of shock, not laughter.

• You should have hand-written a card to me. You have never written to thank me when you have stayed.

• You regularly draw attention to yourself. Perhaps you should ask yourself why.

• No one gets married in a castle unless they own it. It is brash, celebrity style behaviour.”

“When I first read this e-mail I had to laugh. This isn’t that bad. Some mothers-in-law do things that are much nastier,” said Christine E. Rittenour a family communications scholar at West Virginia University.

Rittenour interviews DILs regularly for her research on family relations. She’s heard stories of MILs blatantly trying to break up marriages or introduce suspicion about the paternity of grandchildren. “Things can get nasty,” she said.

At the same time, this in-law relationship is more commonly tense not because it’s inherently competitive — as society and maybe the male perspective would have us believe — but because it’s fraught with ambiguity.

Rittenour said DILs often report to her that they want specific things from a MIL, such as a listening ear and support without unsolicited advice. They don’t want their MILs to baby their sons, but they want them to be kind to their grandchildren.

They also don’t want to be patronized or belittled. This was the first breech in the Bourne saga. But there was a second breech.

Instead of addressing the e-mail head-on, the DIL in this case forwarded it to friends, who then presumably forwarded it to friends. And so on and so on.

It’s a key problem in the DIL and MIL dynamic: lack of direct communication, Rittenour said.

DIL will often complain passive-aggressively about MIL through friends or other family members instead of spelling out what her expectations are. This can be especially true, as many parents know, when children arrive. What one side considers “support,” the other side considers “unsolicited advice.”

“How is the mother-in-law supposed to know?” asked Rittenour.

So is my friend’s friend doomed? Is a DIL-MIL dynamic inherently belligerent?

Not at all, said Rittenour, who said she enjoys a good relationship with her MIL and is hopeful she’ll also enjoy a strong one with her son’s future wife. The keys, she said, are communication, and that all parties understand that any relationship has multiple perspectives.

Bullet-pointed e-mails in either direction are also a bad idea.

Do you have a good in-law relationship? What’s the strategy for harmony?