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How to cope with a difficult Mother in Law



In surveys 25 – 30% of all women regularly report that their partnership is suffering from a difficult relationship between themselves and their mother-in-law. Today experts assume that one of the two partners’ mother-in-law plays a decisive role in approximately 12.5% of all marriages ending up before a divorce court. In other words, every eight marriage (also) fails due to the mother of one of the partners. In surveys the daughters-in-law clearly outnumber the sons-in-law with their grievances. Although the latter enjoy telling ribald jokes about their mother-in-law at the regulars‘ table, all in all they generally appear to be at least satisfied when asked a little more seriously.

By the way, this is not a problem limited to Germany! Interestingly this phenomenon of the unappreciated mother-in-law is worldwide and spans cultures and eras. This is demonstrated by the corresponding popular sayings and proverbs leaving no doubt that most people would have preferred to see this family member’s backside since the beginning of time. To illustrate this, only a few examples from this treasure-trove.
“In the best of cases, parents-in-law are far away but firewood and water close-by.” (Mongolia)

“Praise the well that swallowed your mother-in-law but don’t drink from it.” (Andalusia)

“A mother-in-law tastes sour even if she is made from sugar.” (Spain)

“There are as many good mother-in-laws as there are white crows” (Serbia)

“The mother-in-law at the door is like a coat next to a thornbush.” (Albania)
The Germans are also not exactly squeamish when they reflect on their mother-in-law:
“The best mother-in-law wears a green dress.” (= lies below the grass, i.e. is buried)

“In-laws and roast pork are best cold.”
Incidentally, beyond the less than charming proverbs the Germans have “dedicated” a few very uncomfortable accessories of daily life relate to the mother-in-law. The best known is probably the spiky Golden Barrel Cactus (botanically correct: Echinocactus Grusonii) in a vernacular better known as “mother-in-law‘s seat”. A little less universally known is the same tongue-in-cheek designation for the extra seat folding out of the rear of many roadsters of the 30s. This involved an extremely sparsely padded additional seat that was not even covered and therefore exposed its occupant to the variety climactic conditions. Last but not least that clamp with those four pointed little prongs used to tighten and hold a bandage is also designated a “mother-in-law” . . .

The response one gets to the question “Why?” of the apparently worldwide problematic family relationship – as so often – mostly depends on whom one asks. For instance, evolution psychologists proceed from the assumption that a problematic relationship exists particularly between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law so to speak by nature: The former is rather more interested in her son having children with as many different women, as possible and therefore her own genes are being passed on to many others (which gives her an evolutionary advantage). On the other hand the daughter-in-law naturally wants to keep the father of her children around as long as possible to help her raise their mutual offspring. While for her it is important that as many as her (by comparison few) potential children reach adult age and in turn are able to procreate – and the little ones obviously have the best chance when father and mother care for them together. To which extent those evolutionary mechanisms genetically developed over thousands of years actually still influence our behavior is arguable – but they are interesting in any case.

Psychologists are more inclined to see the cause in the frequently extremely close relationship between mothers and sons. Mother(‘s)son / father(‘s)daughter – considering all of the justified criticism of Sigmund Freud’s theories, family therapists consistently find that this relationship between the child and its opposite sex parent is frequently something special. This becomes especially complicated when mothers see the son – particularly when he is the first born or, even more significantly the only one – as some sort of a “partner substitute” for a husband who is not satisfying all her needs for recognition and affection. Or if she just pampers him more than others. Worldwide studies continue to demonstrate: Mothers of daughters have an easier time letting go earlier (especially if the daughter is not the baby of the family or an only child). Girls become independent more quickly and also move out earlier than boys. It is only natural that a son’s-mother with a close ties to her crown prince tends to have a problem when another woman wants to become the most important person in her son’s life. Sometimes this creates very unpleasant competitive situations.

When asked for the possible causes of a strained situation, a sociologist is probably going to point to the inherent possibility for a direct comparison between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law: How does my daughter-in-law fill her role(s) as women, wife, mother and how did I do that myself? Is she doing it as I did, better, worse? This results in more potential for conflicts than with the son-in-law. After all, the daughters-in-law are still those who predominantly care for the household and children. In all countries where studies have been conducted, whether capitalist or (formerly) socialist, conservative, liberal or social democratic, to this day household chores and childcare remained the primary task of women. Admittedly, these traditional women’s responsibilities have now been expanded - in addition, so to speak – by professional activities and consequently lead to a double load. On the other hand, as in the past men rarely participate in household chores and often only en passant in childcare and parenting. Therefore it has to be “by default” so to speak, that mother-in-law and daughter-in-law have more points of contact with each other than son-in-law (who disappears on his way to work at eight AM and is not seen again until the evening) and mother-in-law. No wonder that sometimes the feathers fly.

Looking at things positively, however, one could also say that 70 – 75% of all daughters-in-law either splendidly get along with their mother-in-law or at least that there is “peace in the valley”. The problem is likely to arise in those cases when all is not well and it becomes very difficult to find a modus vivendi making it possible for everybody to co-exist. After all, family ties interconnect everyone and therefore everyone is more or less closely bound together. In those situations the complaints of harassed daughter-in-laws vary; some mothers-in-law are simply hostile and unapproachable to the point that the daughter-in-law has no choice but to feel unwelcome (“after all, my son could have had anyone!”). Others resist letting go of the scepter in their son’s life and insist on continuously butting in uninvited and always hanging out in the young couple’s household. And again others criticize for all its worth and don’t miss an opportunity to let the daughter-in-law know that they are the better woman, mother and housewife. Those types apparently enjoy using gems such as: “You have to appreciate that I only want the best for you!” - “After all, it‘s for your own good!” - “Be grateful for my help!” Then there is the dangerous kind, the “scheming” mother-in-law who never says an unfriendly word to the face of the daughter-in-law but schemes behind the scenes and tries everything to separate the young couple (to the point of spreading in the neighborhood: “Even a blind person can see that the child is not my son’s!”) And finally there are those mothers-in-law who desperately glum on to son and daughter-in-law because they feel lonely on their own and therefore need constant company. When necessary this type likes resorting to emotional blackmail: “You prefer that I am dead, then you’d be rid of me!” – “I always thought I could count on you!” – “I really don’t ask you for much, but . . .” Obviously there are all sorts of variations of these types.

Nevertheless: it always takes two (to be exact even three!) to really get the conflict cooking. Some daughters-in-law may also be especially sensitive and tend to see someone hiding behind every tree by continually reading something between the lines that does not even exist. When the mother-in-law shows up and says: “I brought you a casserole and all you have to do, is heat it!” the daughter-in-law may hear a hidden criticism: “Your cooking for my poor son leaves much to be desired!” This could easily escalate into a conflict that would not have been necessary because maybe the mother-in-law just wanted to be nice and had no ulterior motives. Sometimes two totally different personalities encounter each other and that simply causes a misunderstanding. It is a mistake to assume that as mother-in-law and daughter-in-law one has automatically a lot in common just because one happens to love the same man. If a daughter-in-law is very open and extroverted and approaches the mother-in-law with lots of panache and élan and she does not respond in kind (maybe simply because she is reserved and withdrawn by nature), the daughter-in-law could possibly feel snubbed and rejected even though the mother-in-law has nothing against her. Or, a daughter-in-law is overwhelmed by a new environment in a strange family acting insecure and anxious during the first meeting – and the mother-in-law misunderstands that as rejection. Beyond that mother-in-law and daughter-in-law also belong (at least generally) to two different generations. Then it can easily happen that very different perceptions of how one should approach the other collide with each other. Maybe the mother-in-law expects a measure of respect or at least an attempt by the younger- to accommodate the older person. Conversely the younger person may consider this point of view as outmoded and somehow “strange” and does not feel like conforming to this expectation. Lots can quickly go wrong, if these things aren’t discussed.

It’s best if all involved keep their expectations of each other and of the new relationship as low as possible, to approach the situation in the same way one would approach any other new acquaintance. Here it is extremely important not to incorrectly assume that one has a lot in common just because of suddenly becoming in-laws. Especially the daughter-in-law should not project her own, unfulfilled longings on the mother-in-law (“you are now going to be my best friend / my second mother!”). Then it is easier for her to remain composed if mother-in-law doesn’t greet her like the long-lost offspring. Give the development of the relationship time and space. It is also helpful if the daughter-in-law comes up with a little “advance effort” by just being nice and extending herself. After all, she is the newcomer to the family. Of course, this should not have to take forever and be overwhelming. A helpful guideline would be to ask oneself the question: “ How would I act if I joined a company as a new comer?“ Beyond that it would probably be smart to pump the new partner a little: Is there anything she can’t stand at all, any places where I could put my foot into my mouth? The more one knows about the brand new mother-in-law going in, the easier it is going to be to accommodate her. The ultimate icebreaker in 95 % of all cases: Trying to say something nice, for instance making a few compliments. Making a little bit of an effort, it is not all that difficult to come up with something nice (the home, food, her appearance, activities she is mentioning . . .). This does not mean sucking up to her (that would hardly work) but just a little kindness and engagement – not any more one would say during any friendly get together.

When it comes to really bringing the confrontation to life, the partner – the third participant - naturally plays a pivotal role in this conflict. That is something many women continue to ignore because it is frustrating to admit to themselves that a mother-in-law can only make life miserable for her daughter-in-law as long as the partner permits her to do it. Most mother-in-law conflicts de-escalate very quickly when the partner has unequivocally made his position clear and put his mother in her place. The situation becomes difficult when he evades the issue with sentences like: “handle that between yourselves” or, “I won’t get involved in this” because he is afraid to confront his mother or if he deep down agrees with his mother’s criticism of his wife (for instance, because he liked it when Mami ironed his shirts and always prepared the pork roast with dumplings, while his wife believes that it won’t kill them if men do their own ironing or that broccoli is a lot healthier than pork roast . . .). Therefore daughters-in-law should bite the bullet and urge the potentially reluctant partner to join the fray as her ally, even if he fidgets a bit. There are obviously lots of outstanding strategies how to better stand up to a stressful mother-in-law but most of the time the situation is resolved a lot simpler and quicker with the support of the partner.

Always important: Talking about things before the daughter-in-law is ready to explode! That is unfortunately something we as women don’t practice because harmony and “peace in the valley” are important to us and we don’t dare to shed the role of the well behaved. In our society women who clearly express what they want and occasionally put their foot down for their needs frequently are seen as unfeminine and aggressive. However, if I wait until I have it up to here, it is very likely that I’ll loose it for no good reason at all at one point and then a reasonable conversation becomes impossible plus, my partner as well as my mother-in-law are going to have an easy time to simply characterize me as a hysterical bitch. It's a lot easier to open one’s mouth early on: at first try talking to the mother-in-law, if that doesn’t work speak with your partner and then together with him and the mother-in-law!

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