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Family matters: Learning to love your in-laws

The in-laws we acquire through marriage can affect our quality of life, from long-term happiness to family balance. In “What Do You Want From Me?” psychologist Terri Apter offers advice on how to build healthy relationships with your spouse’s family. An excerpt.
/ Source: TODAY books

Boy meets girl. Love blossoms. Boy marries girl — and inherits the in-laws.

The in-laws we acquire can affect our quality of life, from long-term happiness to family life. In “What Do You Want From Me?: Learning How to Get Along With In-Laws,” author and psychologist Terri Apter offers advice on how to ease tension and build healthy relationships with your spouse’s family. Here is an excerpt from chapter 4.

Chapter 4: Why Is It So Hard on the Women?

Ideals and Competition During 20 years of research on families, I have observed in-laws who love one another, and in-laws who show immense appreciation for what each brings to the family. I have seen in-laws who demonstrate sympathy and stamina for each other’s quirks and demands. I have heard about in-laws who are a source of joy and support. In a myriad of ways, in-law relationships can be filled with love, warmth, and tolerance.

I have also found that any in-law relationship can be difficult in the ways that, for many reasons, only in-law relationships can be — jam-packed with tensions over matters that seem tiny, marked by long-term grudges over passing comments, and triggered by one careless comment or sin of omission. Whether it is a parent-in-law, child-in-law, or sibling-in-law, in-law relationships have their special potential for conflict. But I have also observed that the most heated and persistent problems arise between two women — the wife and the husband’s mother. While 15 percent of mother-in-law/son-in-law relationships have some tension, 60 percent of mother-in-law/daughter-in-law bonds are described by some strong negative term, such as “strained,” “uncomfortable,” “infuriating,” “depressing,” “draining,” “simply awful.”

The intractable problems between the two women in-laws — the wife and the husband’s mother — arise from their similar positions: Each is the primary woman in her primary family. As each tries to establish or protect her status, each feels threatened by the other. “What will I have to relinquish if I respect your position in the family?” and “Will I retain my importance if I acknowledge yours?” signal a vulnerability that can lead to competition over emotive issues about who has more power and more influence in the domestic sphere.

Vulnerability can make apparently minor in-law conflicts feel like storms in the center of our lives. Concern about power and influence, and about the enduring nature of love, is often acted out between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law in the context of female roles, particularly that of “good wife,” “good mother,” and, more generally, “good woman.” These roles generate questions that emerge in the pressure cooker of family life, questions that we answer, only to find that our long-sought answers require further amendments and refinements. Contact and conflict with our in-laws press upon sore points of doubt and regret, and many women find themselves enacting global battles between cultural ideals and personal realities on their own domestic turf.

The Domestic Watch
Most of the time, most of the women who collaborated with me in these studies assured me that they had little patience with the ideals that may have dominated the lives of women during the middle part of the last century. The mystique of the perfect mother and the ideal wife, for both mothers-in-law and -daughters-in-law, signals ideals they are likely to relegate to time past. Nevertheless, these so-called defunct ideals became live issues between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law.

Sammi, Tim, and Marge: The Emotional Issue of Housework Sammi, at the age of thirty-four, is normally comfortable with her domestic lifestyle, but a visit from her mother-in-law, Marge, injects her with self-doubt:

I try to play it cool, and say to myself, “She can just take me as I am.” But as soon as Marge steps through the door I start seeing things that ordinarily don’t bother me one bit. The homey feel in the living room suddenly looks like a train wreck. Marge is never outright critical, but last time she came she took one sorrowful look around the place and said, “You must be awfully busy at work.” I damn near choked on that. What was she doing? Offering me some excuse for the messy house?

I know how important it all is to her. Neat as a pin, she keeps her home. She’s always rushing around, muttering to herself as she cleans up. “Let me save you a job,” she says, and she picks Tim’s clothes out of the dryer and starts folding and smoothing them. Day one, I keep my mouth shut. But day four of her visit, I tell her, “Marge, it’s Tim’s job to iron his own shirts, so you’re not saving me a job, you’re saving Tim a job, and I hope he thanks you.” I never know if she gets it, or if just one more thing has flown out of my mouth to put her in a sulk. Sure, I should follow Tim’s advice and not let it get to me; but that’s easier said than done. She presses on all those sore spots. When she’s around, I catch myself worrying: Is my home downright unwholesome? Am I ruining my kid’s life with this environment? Shouldn’t — you know — shouldn’t the sheets be smooth and straight? Marge doesn’t have to say much to work my mind to that drill.

Like many women I interviewed, Sammi describes a spike in self-doubt in her mother-in-law’s presence. Though Marge denies that she is in any way critical of Sammi, she also says, “Everybody wants a clean and orderly home. When I visit I like to make myself useful, so I help her with that. I know that’s what Tim wants, too, and it’s better for the baby.”

Marge is not alone in her assumptions. A survey of one thousand women showed that 80 percent believed that the standard of cleanliness in a home was an important issue in whether or not they could warm to a daughter-in-law. In some cases this may register simple generational differences. Younger and older women may have very different ideas about what a woman is supposed to do. Someone who believes that you should have a dust-free house, a spotless kitchen, and children who look nice and neat because you’ve washed their clothes will not understand someone who thinks that her career is crucial to who she is, while housework is, to her, just a chore.

But the value a mother-in-law may place on a clean home, or her assumption that the responsibility for household cleanliness is her daughter-in-law’s, does not fully explain responses like those of Sammi — responses that are common, that deeply affect the daughter-in-law’s contentment, not only with her mother-in-law but also with her husband, and with herself.

Unwelcome Mental Inhabitants: The Over-Eye Mother-in-law/daughter-in-law conflict often emerges from an expectation that each is criticizing or undermining the other. As a daughter-in-law, you may believe that your mother-in-law’s domestic routines set a standard that you think she expects you to follow. As a mother-in-law, you may think that your daughter-in-law’s lifestyle implies criticism of your own values and achievements. This mutual unease may have less to do with actual attitudes, and far more to do with persistent female norms that few of us manage to shake off completely.

In her work with women and depression, Dana Crowley Jack identified an internal, nagging observer, and named it the Over-Eye. Social norms are internalized, so that even when we resist them, they may get in our way. For example, the norm that housework is the job of a (good) wife, and that a good home must operate as a clean and neat home, can be activated and make you feel deficient, even when the more conscious and determined part of your mind rejects those assumptions. Cultural associations stick, even when you personally do not endorse them. That is why housework can be so emotionally laden: Who does it well may be a sign of who is caring and loving.

Why Can’t You Just Ignore This? “Why do you let this bother you?” Tim demands. “You have so much going for you. There’s no reason to feel she’s putting you down. That’s just how she is. Just let it go.”

Tim reminds Sammi that there are things about her parents that bother him, and he just ignores them: Why can’t Sammi do the same with his mother?

Ignoring comments is not an option for women dealing with their in-laws. Women rarely have the knack of switching off their antennae. In-law visits take place within the home, and the home is a testing ground for still-powerful questions about women’s roles and the symbolic value of domestic acts. Whether it’s remembering a nephew’s birthday or pouring the milk into a jug before setting it on the table, small, apparently insignificant gestures can take on meaning, or become points over which meaning is teased out. When women of different families become, in law, one family, each can trigger the other’s dormant anxieties about norms within the home.

Carol, Gillian, and Paul: Praise as Control Reminders of female domestic norms can ignite anger that may seem inexplicable and irrational to others. Carol, forty-three, feels threatened by her mother-in-law’s praise. “You’ve done a lovely job on this kitchen. My, those curtains are adorable” and “That pot roast was something else. You just have to tell me how you do it,” Carol mimics her mother-in-law, Gillian, and sighs. “And the next thing I know Gillian’s talking about her other daughter-in-law, how wonderful she is, how she’s done these marvelous things with her children or her house, or how she gave her a super-duper present or said something really nice to her. My husband says that she’s just talking, just giving us the family news, just trying to be nice. But you can’t convince me it’s ‘just’ that.”

Gillian cannot fathom the source of her daughter-in-law’s unease. “That woman is ornery,” she tells me. “You never know how she’s going to jump. No way of knowing what’s going to calm her down and what’s going to wind her up.”

Carol feels criticized when her mother-in-law praises her, because she thinks Gillian’s “praise” marks out a hierarchy of values and her own low score on that value system. Gillian is unaware of this possible interpretation, and is unable to crack the code of her daughter-in-law’s responses.

“You Raised Him Like This”: It’s Easier to Blame His Mother Husbands are under pressure to change — to put more time into running the home and caring for their children, to revise their expectations of a wife’s role both within the home and at work, to learn new ways of sharing and connecting. Some men have to unlearn patterns they learned from their parents’ allocation of domestic work. Some women, as daughters-in-law, blame their husband’s mother for their partner’s resistance to change; and some women, as mothers-in-law, feel that a daughter-in-law’s complaints about a son’s behavior denigrate the domestic habits they themselves value.

At the same time, many mothers-in-law insist that they have done their best to raise sons to be new men, that they have encouraged their son to respect women’s careers and to take on a fair share of domestic tasks. They are confounded by a daughter-in-law’s view that they have failed.

Lisa, Andrew, and Pam: Battling Expectations Lisa, age forty-one, has been married to Andrew for six years. She complains that even though her career achievements equal those of her partner on every objective measure, her mother-in-law sees Andrew’s merits in bolder colors, and her role as supportive and subordinate:

I’m at the same corporate level as my husband. We get the same salary. Yet she’s always going on about his work, his career. It drives me crazy. And there’s always this meta-message: “His career is more important than yours, and you should put him first.”

One consequence of Pam’s bias is, Lisa believes, “every visit from his mother sets Andrew back at least a year in my battle to make him carry his weight at home. He asks, ‘Where’s the butter?’ and his mother jumps up and puts it down in front of him. She doesn’t see I’m trying to downsize his expectations of domestic service.”

Pam is hurt that Lisa devalues the roles she takes pride in. “It took me a long time to figure out what her beef was. She’d hit the ceiling for the smallest little thing. I couldn’t figure it out. But now I see. Now I get it. She doesn’t think I should do what I’ve been doing for forty years. She wants to tell me how to treat my own family. She can’t stand it that I put myself out for the people in my family. Well, what can I do about that? Where can we go from here? I was a good enough mother to raise a son she wants to marry. I’m not going to change for her say-so.”

In the center of this storm is Andrew, who is guilty if he accepts his mother’s service, and guilty if he resists it. Using a common psychological trick called scapegoating, Lisa bypasses her husband, and blames her mother-in-law for her husband’s behavior.

In some cases, it is easier to resent a mother-in-law for “spoiling” her son than it is to resent a husband for failing to do his share of domestic chores. Battles about who does what can have a devastating, cumulative effect on a marriage. When Arlie Russell Hochschild studied couples who began married life determined to share household tasks and child care equally she discovered that many wives gave up the struggle for the sake of marital harmony. When a wife does not feel that her husband is doing a fair share, she may seek to preserve marital harmony, and moderate her own anger with her spouse, by blaming her mother-in-law.

Maternal Conservatism When I began my second study of in-laws in 1999, and my third study in 2004, I expected that the generational divide I had first noticed twenty years before would have been bridged. Certainly, women I interviewed as mothers-in-law saw themselves as sharing a cultural shift with their daughters-in-law. They experienced the same pressure to juggle work and family. They shared high expectations of their own achievements across many aspects of their lives. These mothers-in-law were women born in the 1940s and 1950s and 1960s; they themselves worked hard to create an equal partnership with their husbands. So, it was a surprise to hear Angie, age fifty-two, say that she hoped her daughter-in-law would lose her bid for a seat in Congress because her children saw little enough of her anyway. Angie explains her position:

I know from my own experience how important it is to have your own career, and develop your skills. I worked pretty much all through the time I had my children, and I’m still working now. But looking at Steph’s drive — well, there’s a limit. My son Ian has to be home by 5:30 every evening to take over from the babysitter. He’s the sole parent on weekends. He’s not always in good health, with the burdens he has al-ready. The youngest child is a real handful. I’m sure this acting out is because he doesn’t see enough of his mother. Can you imagine how things would be for him if Steph’s elected to Congress? I admire her. I really do. But there’s a limit to what she should ask of Ian and the children.

While general views on women’s roles have changed, in the role of mother and mother-in-law, a woman’s perspective may be in a time warp.

A mother wants what’s best for her son. Doing his fair share of family work is not necessarily best for him. A mother remains focused primarily on the son’s interests, and those interests, in our society, involve a good career, a well-run home, and leisure time. A good career depends on long hours at work; contented children and a well-run home involve constant time and attention. A woman also wants what’s best for her grandchildren, and a mother at home is the most simple way — if not necessarily the best and only way — of meeting children’s needs. So wherever she is intellectually, a mother-in-law’s heart may well lie with a 1950s model of a daughter-in-law.

Most mothers-in-law protest that they do not set domestic ideals for a daughter-in-law, and do not expect her to fulfil the traditional model of “wife.” Many say in all sincerity that they are keen to raise sons to be new men who are as responsive to children and as domestically responsible as their partners. Yet, on a deeper level, they may want a daughter-in-law who puts her husband first.

Mothers of both sons and daughters see their own child as of supreme importance. Each mother wants her own child to thrive, and each mother-in-law has a bias towards the well-being of her own son or daughter, who will always “come first” with her. But when that child is someone’s husband, a mother’s perspective may also be shaped by the privileged status he’s likely to borrow from the remnants of the wider culture (such as the assumption that the man’s career comes first). A daughter-in-law has to fight to ensure that her career goals receive equal respect. When these goals are undermined by someone within her own family, she redoubles her efforts to defend them.

Many of the familiar complaints about mothers-in-law are powered by the fragility of women’s gains in the public world. They erupt from hypersensitivity to conservative messages about roles in the family. In this context, even a throwaway message that a husband’s career and comforts have priority may set off fireworks.

Women dread taking on the mantle of the mother-in-law, with all the accompanying clichés, and they work hard to establish new images and roles. Yet nothing teaches us more about the precarious truce in the war between the sexes than this uneasy relationship between two women. And this clash continues to present a conservative force in family life. When a daughter-in-law expects female support and friendship from a mother-in-law, she feels betrayed by the mother whose son comes first.

Any treaty between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law will depend upon a woman, when she becomes a mother-in-law, taking a broader view of her son’s best interests. It will depend upon a woman’s skill, as she becomes a wife, to teach both her husband and his mother how to read new scripts of equality.

Role Ambivalence Does Not Prevent Role Competition There is a further twist to those in-law tensions that spring from domestic roles. Even though many daughters-in-law want to revise male and female roles within the home, they compete with their mothers-in-law to fulfil these roles — as wife and mother, as housewife and kin keeper. They want to prove that they fill these roles as well as, perhaps even better than, their mother-in-law.

Role competition arises on many fronts. The most obvious involves status. A daughter-in-law is an adult in her own household and, as such, is equal to any woman in the family. But a mother-in-law’s maternal expertise is well established, and she may expect deference from a daughter-in-law. There then arises that tricky question about who is “mother” in the family, with final say over all those things that women — for all the change there has been — still assume charge over: housework and child care, mealtimes and children’s manners.

Sammi complains that her mother-in-law takes over these roles as soon as she enters the home: “She takes charge of the kids. She bustles around, telling them what to do, telling them how to do the things I help them with every day. ‘This is how you brush your teeth’ and ‘This the best way to wash your face’ and ‘This is how you should look every day before you leave the house.’ I have to get myself out of the room quick, otherwise I’ll scream.”

Carol feels that the running commentary of praise she gets from her mother-in-law sets Gillian up as her judge. “She praises me because she knows better — as though I want her approval. It’s a way of lording her status over me.” So Gillian’s attempt to be a “good mother-in-law” and express her approval of Carol is seen by Carol as a bid for status. Competition between two mothers of different generations makes each uneasy, but for different reasons. Carol and Sammi press up against their own lingering ambivalence surrounding their choices, and their own hovering concern that, in breaking with traditional female roles, they may be harming their husband or children. Marge and Gillian feel their daughter-in-laws’ resistance as disrespect to them, as undermining their value as the mother in their family.

Women Notice the Tension More For centuries, women have had special incentives for “reading minds” and monitoring the flow of human interaction around them. Some psychologists argue that this skill arises from women’s traditionally subservient position: dependence on others’ goodwill and approval has heightened their sensitivity to others’ responses. Some psychologists argue that this skill is demonstrated from birth, and that women’s natural-born empathy facilitates the roles they have played throughout human -history.

Day to day, girls and women spend more time reflecting on what has been said by whom, and on considering the implications of verbal acts, than do boys or men, in general. The kitchen-size exchanges that so often form the fabric of in-law complaints have an exquisite clarity to women, but many men simply do not notice them.

Women tend to be more observant of the myriad of minute expressions of feeling that constitute every inter-personal exchange. When someone is uncomfortable in their presence, or when someone dislikes them, or dislikes someone they care for, women are more likely than men to pick up on this. They set high standards for interpersonal relationships, particularly within the family. They are quicker to step in to soothe a distressed child, to intervene in a sibling quarrel, or to pick up on the indicators of stress or sadness that a teenager might try to hide. Women are also more likely than men to instigate divorce, even though they are also likely to suffer greater financial disadvantage in consequence; the higher standards they set for a good marriage make them willing to risk more by ending an unsatisfying marriage. With their friends, girls and women worry over the quality of their relationships, and brood far longer on the causes of the quarrels, replaying and revising accounts of how a quarrel arose, who said what, who was at fault, and how the quarrel can be remedied.

The special attention women give to interpersonal domestic politics—a skill sometimes referred to as “women’s intuition” — is often focused on maintaining harmony and meeting others’ needs; but, in the realm of in-laws, this sensitivity promotes hostility as often as it promotes harmony. As women describe uncomfortable interchanges with a mother-in-law, they often describe public acts of rudeness and criticism to which the men in the family are oblivious.

Women Have Special Skills for This Kind of Battle In describing the overall context of in-law unease, we can see why the power of in-laws affects women more than men. The heated issues that arise within the domestic setting, their high expectations for domestic harmony, their ambivalence about work and family balance, their sensitivity to status in the home are sufficient to explain the special impact these tensions have on women; but the tactics so often used in these battles also heighten the discomfort.

The tactics used in many in-law battles have much in common with squabbles on the school ground. Though enacted in a different setting, the tactics are reminiscent of those used in girls’ cliques. These schoolgirl cliques are in many ways like kinship networks. The distinctive dynamics of girlhood friendships allow strong alliances to be formed. Girls, in their friendship groups, have high expectations of mutual affection and admiration. These alliances offer support and comfort and protection, but girls constantly negotiate and renegotiate boundaries between insiders and outsiders in the group, just as in-laws do.

Girls engage in borderwork, or an exploration of who is “in” and who is “out,” who is similar and who is different, with a mix of apparent friendliness and relentless criticism. Much of this criticism consists of gossip, or behind-the-back reports that impugn another girl’s motives, character, and behavior in a setting she cannot challenge. Girls also use indirect criticism and innuendo as opportunistic weapons, and they battle over who is “nicer” and who is most popular, or admired, or liked.

The tactics used to exclude and criticize are rarely mentioned by boys in their friendship groups, but they cause girls enormous pain during those friendship wars of junior high school. When the tactics are replayed during in-law battles, they awaken awful memories. Past experience makes women both more skilled in these battles and more uncomfortable with them. While the long-term, low-key, indirect attacks go unnoticed by others, the weapon of disguised, indirect criticism puts daughter-in-law and mother-in-law in the arena of the mean girls they hoped they had long ago left behind.

Reprinted from “What Do You Want From Me? Learning to Get Along With In-Laws” by Terri Apter Copyright © 2009 by Terri Apter. Used with permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.