I love my daughter-in-law Stephanie, but the beginning of our relationship reads more like a bad mother-in-law joke than a recipe for success. The story has even become one of our family legends … “The night Mom tried to poison Stephanie.”

It sounds a lot worse than it was. After all, it wasn’t a deliberate poisoning. How did I know the tub of Cool Whip in the refrigerator had spoiled? It wasn’t past the expiration date, and it looked absolutely fine on the strawberry shortcake I dished up. It was only when the poor girl’s face contorted in disgust that I realized something might be wrong. But right then and there I knew she was a real lady by the way she calmly walked over to the kitchen sink before spitting it out. “Ah … a keeper!” I thought to myself.

That was five years ago, and Stephanie and I are now best friends. At least, I consider Steph my best friend, and at this season of her life I think she might just say the same about me. My admiration for my daughter-in-law transcends her being the wife of my son and mother of my grandchildren. I love and respect her as a woman, a friend, and a daughter.

I’ve been thinking lately about our relationship and how our friendship has developed over the past few years. Neither of us actually chose each other—the choosing was done when our son and Stephanie fell in love and got married. Steph and I basically had to take what we got when it came to each other. There were no guarantees that we would ever get past being merely polite.

So how did two strangers, decades apart in age, become best friends as well as family? The most obvious answer to me is that the love we have for each other is a gift from God—the God who is love. Just as surely as God ordained a covenant relationship between Naomi and Ruth, the well-known mother and daughter-in-law of the Bible, I am sure He ordained a covenant relationship between Stephanie and me. In fact, I have come to the conclusion that God means all mothers and daughters-in-law to be in a covenant relationship, just as He means husbands and wives to be in their own covenant.

But beyond that lies some action—some covenant keeping on our part—and a willingness to explore what a relationship like this means. God put all of the ingredients together, but He leaves it up to us to make something of them. I want to try to capture this relationship recipe, seal it in writing, so that it will work in the future when our other son marries. I’m not sure I can. However, I have discovered over the past five years a few essential ingredients for having a strong and loving relationship with my daughter-in-law.

Three essentials in a loving in-law relationship

1. Spend time with her. Both Steph and I are introverts and love being alone. But from the first Starbuck’s date, we made a connection. We discovered that we both love books and writing, daring coffee concoctions … and, of course, we both love my son. Date by date, each outing became less an “ought to” and more a “want to.” Today, my daughter-in-law is the first person I think of when I want to explore a bookstore or go to lunch at a new restaurant.

Last Christmas Stephanie and I attended a matinee of The Nutcracker Ballet, complete with a fancy hotel tea beforehand. As we watched the other mothers and grandmothers with little girls in tow, we giggled about how outrageously ruffled and ribboned we would like to dress a girl in our family of all boys. These times spent together bond us, and give us important shared memories. It is not instant, or automatic, but month-by-month, year-by-year, time invested in each other creates a deep and abiding comfort and joy in each other’s presence.

2. Learn from her. Learning to be a wife and mother is a two-way street. There have already been many times that Stephanie has been my teacher. She’s the one who got me to try liquid dishwashing soap instead of powdered, and she showed me how to use a digital camera. She has taught me about generosity by giving me gifts that I know she would want herself. She has taught me about priorities by being able to ignore dishes in the sink so she can play with her children. And Stephanie has taught me about peace by our being together and enjoying silence without forcing conversation. I never expected to learn so much from one so young, but as I watch my daughter-in-law take up her mantle of being a wife and mother, I realize that in many ways she is more mature than I.

3. Love her unselfishly. Unselfish love is hard to give, but it’s necessary for trust and respect to grow. I made a decision early not to be one of those mothers-in-law who offer unwanted suggestions about how to clean the toilet or do the laundry. Stephanie doesn’t do everything the way I do—and am I glad! If she wants to know what I’d do, she can ask. But that doesn’t mean my way is necessarily the right way or the only way.

I want to give Stephanie the time and space to become the woman, wife, and mother she needs to be. And I have found that it gives me as much pleasure watching her “grow up” as it does watching my own sons. I will always be there for advice, or even a shoulder to cry on, but there is no room for my pre-determined expectations of what she “should be.” I enjoy Stephanie the way she is.

A benefit for the whole family

In reading the Bible, I have discovered that covenants are always marked by a striking characteristic: There is a penalty, or price to be paid, for breaking them. As I reflect on how this relates to the covenant between a mother and daughter-in-law, it becomes clear. The price for breaking this precious covenant will be paid by the rest of the family. What mother could want her son to walk the tightrope of having to choose between hurting either his mother or his wife? How many holidays and family gatherings could be ruined, and how much precious time with grandchildren lost, just because mom and grandma don’t get along? The price is high but it doesn’t need to be paid. A mother’s covenant with her daughter-in-law can be nurtured and kept unbroken for the benefit of the entire family.

As I write this, my daughter-in-law is only a couple of weeks away from delivering their third child … a little girl to be named Emily Claire. Our whole family is almost giddy with the thought of this blessed event, but Stephanie and I are sharing a special anticipation. You see, Emily will be the first girl born into the Geckle family in nearly 40 years. Yes, she will almost certainly be “the little princess,” and she will probably be terribly spoiled (if Grandpa I have anything to say about it). But more importantly, Emily may someday carry on the woman-to-woman covenant by being a daughter-in-law herself … a Ruth to another Naomi. I pray that she will enjoy the same special bond that her mother and I share.