What mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law really say about each other

A new book reveals the biggest concerns the women have about each other and how to improve the relationship.
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A famous mother-in-law and daughter-in-law share a warm moment: Queen Elizabeth II and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, attend an event together in London in 2019.Max Mumby / Indigo / Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

All family relationships become more complicated when in-laws enter the picture, but it’s the women who struggle with each other more than the men.

That finding about mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law — part of a new book exploring the dynamics — highlights a bond often filled with warmth but also hesitancy. There’s a whole lot of anxiety and walking on eggshells going on to make things work, the authors found.

“I think that men in general have left a lot of or some of the emotional work in families to women,” Geoffrey Greif, co-author of “In-law Relationships: Mothers, Daughters, Fathers, and Sons,” told TODAY.

“Women are playing a more central role.”

The book, which included survey and interview responses from more than 1,500 people, found only about 15% of MILs and DILs had a really troubled relationship. More than half felt good about their bond, and the rest were neutral.

Still, mothers-in-law rated their relationship with their daughter-in-law much sunnier than vice versa:

  • 33% strongly agreed the two were close, compared to 18% for the younger women.
  • 42% strongly agreed they admired their daughter-in-law, but only 23% of the younger women felt the same way about their husband’s mother.
  • 37% strongly agreed they enjoyed spending time together, compared to 22% for the younger women.
  • 50% strongly agreed they trusted their daughter-in-law, but only 23% of the younger women felt the same way about their mother-in-law.

“A lot of it is wishful thinking on the part of the mother-in-law,” said Greif, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Social Work, calling it a helpful approach.

“You go into this relationship assuming the best and not assuming the worst — that's a form of wishful thinking… I think that's a really good and positive thing. Mothers-in-law really want to make this work.”

There may be more at stake for the older woman: Most MILs and DILs described their relationship as equal in power, but when it wasn’t, both agreed the daughter-in-law held more power as the gatekeeper of the grandchild and someone who could limit or block access to her husband, Greif noted.

Daughter-in-law’s perspective:

Main concern: Interference in the marriage and child rearing from the mother-in-law. “I felt like she was trying to take over,” one woman told the authors about her husband’s mother.

More than half of daughters-in-law, 52%, strongly disagreed or disagreed that they had the same parenting philosophy as their mothers-in-law.

When there are concerns, the goal is to figure out a way to stay connected with the mother-in-law, while maintaining a boundary around the couple’s relationship, Greif said. He recommended reframing the perceived interference as love, concern and a wish to be engaged.

The man who connects the two women — the husband and the son — can help in presenting a united front as a couple.

“There's essentially an emotional maturity that most daughters-in-law realize — ‘I'm going to try and make this work for the betterment of my family,’” he noted.

“Our research shows that when the daughter-in-law and mother-in-law are able to talk about things directly, those are signs that the relationship is a better relationship.”

The authors advised looking for common interests as a way to strengthen the bond. One strategy was to take the long view rather than letting a momentary hiccup derail the relationship. There’s hope even if the two women don’t click right away.

“Chill, don’t force it,” Greif said. “Understand there are multiple dynamics in a family and that things can change.”

Mother-in-law’s perspective:

Main concern: Being unsure about where she stands with her daughter-in-law and not wanting to do anything to upset a delicate balance. “It’s always very pleasant, but it’s always on her terms every time we get together,” one woman told the authors about her daughter-in-law.

One in 6 mothers-in-law said they walked on eggshells around their DILs because they wanted access to their sons and grandchildren. A quarter felt left out by their son and daughter-in-law, and one-fifth felt their relationship with their son was hindered by their daughter-in-law.

They were also self-conscious about the image of the mother-in-law as interfering — the "Monster-in-law" — and tried to avoid giving advice to the couple, even when asked.

“There's the expression, ‘You can't unring the bell’… In general, people often regret the negative things they say,” Greif noted.

“My read is that usually the daughter-in-law long knows (of their differing views). She would not be surprised to know that the mother-in-law is not on the same page,” Greif said.

Mothers-in-law knew their DIL would remember any criticism about their marriage or parenting skills, so they characterized their approach as, “I'm really, really trying hard to keep my mouth shut and bite my tongue.”

It's a good approach: The couple needs to work on their relationship first, so the mother-in-law should take the position of trying to be supportive and available if needed, Greif advised.

Believing the daughter-in-law was a good parent was one of the predictors of a good in-law relationship, the book noted. It was helpful to acknowledge different parenting philosophies and let go of any disagreements.

When in doubt, the mother-in-law should give the daughter-in-law some space: “Don’t try to push things too much, too soon,” Greif advised.