I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard patients complain about their mothers-in-law to me. Statements like, “I wish she would die already” (ugh!) or “I can’t stand how passive-aggressive she is!” are very common complaints for me to hear.
In fact, according to one study, 60 percent of mother/daughter-in-law relationships — compared to just 15 percent of son/mother-in-law relationships — are strained. Words like “infuriating,” “depressing” and “awful” are only some negative terms used to characterize these tense relationships. And the problems tend to get worse when kids enter into the picture.
So why do mothers-in-law cause such grief for daughters-in-law? One of the main reasons is a fear over who has the primary power in the relationship. And there’s an issue of loyalty, as well as a classic power struggle between two women fighting over the same man.
The conflict usually flares up when one of the women starts to criticize or undermine the other for one thing or another. The topics can range from how a home should be kept to a running commentary over what constitutes being a “good” wife/mother. As the mother of a son myself (granted he’s only 10 years old right now), I can certainly understand how a mother-in-law could feel terribly displaced and dethroned by a wife once she enters the scene. Fearing a loss of love, or being displaced, could make the most mentally healthy mother or mother-in-law feel a little threatened. But a man can’t marry his mother, so he has to do the next best thing: Find a woman he can love and who loves him in return, and provides him with a happy, healthy home life.
Mothers-in-law bring a different viewpoint from another generation. Women today are different and as a result can have opposing mind-sets about how they should run their homes. Ultimately, to make life tolerable, these two women have to find a way to duel it out. The good news is there are lots of different ways to rehabilitate the mother-in-law/daughter-in-law relationship, and help it get back on track.
For you wives out there:
- Remember, this is the woman who raised the man you love, so give her her due.
- Let her know that you respect her, but remember it’s OK to set limits and stand up to her, too.
- Don’t compete! Don’t make your husband feel like he needs to choose between you and his mother. Instead, give him some pragmatic advice on how he can help the two of you move into the future.
- Choose your battles. Learn what’s worth fighting over and what’s not.
Husbands can help out, too. Don’t let the women in your lives duel it out alone.
- Get involved.
- Reassure your mother that you still love her, but don’t want to hear anything negative about your wife.
- Make sure to keep your mom in the loop. Give her updates on personal news and news in the family. The more involved she feels, the less anxiety she’ll feel about being left out, which equals less acting out!
It’s important to remember that no one is all bad. Try to focus on the good aspects of the relationship and give yourself permission to navigate it in a way that works for you and everyone involved.
Psychotherapist Dr. Robi Ludwig has hosted two seasons of TLC’s reality show “One Week to Save Your Marriage” as well as GSN’s reality game show “Without Prejudice.” She currently has a private practice in New York City where she treats both individuals and couples. Find out more at drrobiludwig.com.