The Mother-in Law Issue

The Mother-in-Law Factor

Arguments with your partner about your mother-in-law is almost as common as arguing over money.

There’s no question that in-laws, and typically the mother-in-law, can have a significant negative influence on a marriage.

Understanding the dynamics of how mother-in-law’s can impact a marriage is important and quite liberating when both partners are working together to address this issue.

Its his mother not mine

In her book “What Do You Want From Me? Learning to Get Along with In-Laws”, Terri Apter comments that three out of four couples will experience significant negative experiences leading to conflict with their in-laws. Apter also says that the mother-in-law relationship with the daughter-in-law as the trickiest one to manage.

Common complaints about mother-in-laws:
⇒ She is pushy,
⇒ Overbearing,
⇒ Has too much of an influence with their son
⇒ And disrespectful of boundaries within the relationships.

Adjusting focus

Often the son (husband of daughter-in-law) is caught between behaving the way he always has with his mother, and adjusting his main focus to being in a relationship with his wife.

It seems that often son’s are out of their league in understanding the complex relationship dynamics that are at play between his mother and his wife, and also how his mother maintains a powerful influence over him.

Our counsellors advise couples with “in-law problems” that it is far more important to be a great partner than it is to be a great parent pleaser.

In-law problems don’t generally occur at the start of the relationship. They are usually avoided because the daughter-in-law is often doing their best to ensure a good relationship with her mother-in-law. During this time the daughter-in-law will actively let issues go, or redefine them as something less nasty, or just hope that the issues will magically go away perhaps after they have children (By the way…our evidence shows that grandchildren usually make it worse!).

Main mother-in-law Issues
⇒ She is a know-it-all and will tell you the best or only way of doing things;
⇒ A take charge person;
⇒ Attempts to maintain an authoritative role over her son as well as over the daughter-in-law;
⇒ Pressure to conform to religious beliefs
⇒ Pressure to conform to cultural norms;
⇒ Expectations to conform to traditional gender roles;
⇒ Disagreements over the best way to raise children;
⇒ Money lending/owing expectations;
⇒ Personality clashes;
⇒ In-law’s unrealistic expectations e.g.the frequency of visits to their house, where they live, access to grandchildren;
⇒ Active efforts by the in-laws to drive a wedge between the couple.


When enough is enough

These are some issues that cause a great deal of friction and stress between the couple, and these issues will exist for many years before the daughter-in-law eventually speaks up loud enough to say “no more, I will have no more contact with your mother.”

Should the son keep putting his parents before his wife, then the wife will eventually conclude that his parents mean more to him than he does to her. Effectively, this means that there is no longer a marriage.

The only way forward

The best strategy that the son can do in order to maintain a healthy marriage and be able to have a relationship with his parents (i.e. his mother), is for him to set strong clear boundaries.

The trick is for the son and his wife to find agreement on some of the wishes of the in-laws’, but to do this in a way that is clearly on his wife’s terms, not his parents (the in-laws).

The son has to actually position himself where he is clearly aligned with his wife, to the point where his parents know full well that he will chose his wife above them on nearly everything.

An example of the son setting boundaries with his parents could be with family get-togethers such as the mother-in-law’s birthday where he lets his parents know that they will only be staying at the celebration for a certain period of time that he alone has determined.

In actual fact, he would be setting a time that is considerate of his wife’s needs, before his own, let alone his parents.

Getting along better

In setting boundaries there is likely to be some sort of push-back from the in-laws, but developing healthy communication styles with them should result in a settling of the relationships to a level that works more-or-less for everyone. And importantly, family relationships between the generations are maintained. Clearly, a win-win for everyone.

In the end, neither the daughter-in-law nor the in-laws need to love each other, but they do have to treat each other with respect and courtesy as they will be in each others lives for many years.


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