Photo: Kirstin Sinclair
Some say that disliking your mother-in-law is like arguing over money: simply a part of marriage. Recently a friend brought up the topic at a gathering. She was keen to discover if her friends had a good or bad relationship with their respective mothers-in-law. What resulted was an animated discussion, describing sometimes invasive, over-bearing and irksome antics, with the term ‘monster-in-law’ punctuating the conversation.
While the conversation was lighthearted, my friend later admitted that she would love to have a close relationship with her husband’s mother. The problem is, she is convinced her mother-in-law hates her.
My friend met her husband while living interstate. They had been dating for some time when she first met his parents and the few visits they shared were fun and pleasantly uneventful. Her husband is the eldest of three sons and she naively assumed his mother would be thrilled by the prospect of having a daughter, albeit through marriage. She was wrong. From the moment they announced their engagement, his mother’s hostility began.
What seems funny on Everybody Loves Raymond, when mother-in-law Marie continually undermines the long-suffering Debra, isn’t as humorous in real life. The mother-in-law makes disparaging comments about the state of my friend’s house, her inability to keep plants alive for longer than a month and the piles of unfolded (yet clean) washing that occupy her laundry. On a recent visit she arrived with an assortment of meals which she unpacked and placed in the fridge without asking permission, either assuming my friend can’t cook, or making the unsubtle yet unsaid observation that my friend's attempts at cooking are below par.
As my friend does not live near her own mother she was desperate to build a relationship with her husband’s, particularly when she discovered she was pregnant with her first child. She hoped the baby’s arrival would help them to bond.
But it didn’t. The criticism merely moved on to my friend as a mother, rather than as a person or housekeeper. The baby wasn’t a good sleeper, so according to her mother-in-law, this was due to my friend’s busy lifestyle, juggling a career and family, and her apparent lack of routine.
Nowadays, any visit sees my friend ignored as her mother-in-law rushes into the waiting arms of her grandchildren and son. As she lavishes them with attention, my friend waits in the background baffled and hurt by what she sees as cruel and unnecessary treatment.
While some daughters-in-law enjoy a harmonious relationship with their partner’s mother, many women can relate my friend’s dilemma. After analysing two decades of research, academic psychologist Dr Terri Apter concludes the problem is real: “Over 60 per cent of women surveyed said that their relationship with an in-law caused them long-term unhappiness and stress, and affected the quality of their marriage.”
My friend admits that the strained relationship regularly consumes her thoughts. More concerning, the constant criticism causes her to doubt her own ability as a mother. Her children adore their grandmother; and having met her a few times, I’ve always found her mother in law to be friendly, which has left my friend questioning her own sanity. Her desire to improve the relationship only exacerbates the situation and the harder she tries, the more distant her mother in law becomes.
When I asked my friend how her husband sees the relationship between her and his mother she told me he initially was dismissive, suggesting instead she should address her growing fixation that his mother hates her. Then, she brought up the subject with her mother- in-law, voicing her concerns over their apparent mutual resentment. But her mother in law assured her she was mistaken, instead claiming to love and respect her.
Despite this conversation, the mother-in-law’s interference and negativity continued until eventually her husband conceded, her behaviour was inappropriate. The moment he confronted her she became teary and emotional, blaming her erratic behaviour on menopause. Immediately her son, while still condemning it, did acknowledge her behaviour was very out of character.
Recent research suggests there is a reason for the intuitive link which often exists between mother and son. A study conducted by the University of Washington found 63 per cent of mothers have the DNA of their boys living in their female brains. Furthermore, scientists say some of the offspring's cells can stay with the mother for their entire lives, leading to a lasting connection – whether for better or for worse.
Another recent study suggests my friend’s poor relationship with her mother-in-law may be good for her marriage.
Dr Terri Orbuch, a psychologist and research professor at the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research, followed 373 couples over 26 years and found that women who enjoy a positive relationship with their in-laws actually have a 20 per cent greater chance of separating.
In contrast, marriages in which the husbands have a close relationship with in-laws are 20 per cent less likely to end in divorce. Dr Orbuch believes a reason for this may be that when a wife gets close to her in-laws, she has a difficult time not taking what her in-laws say as personal or interference. But when a husband shares a close relationship with his in-laws, these family ties connect him to his wife.
Having issues with your mother in law is not a modern day problem. The Roman satirist Juvenal wrote in the year 100, "Domestic accord is impossible as long as the mother-in-law lives."
For many it is a relationship fraught with anguish. But while my friend acknowledges her expectations of the perfect relationship with her mother-in-law may be unrealistic, she did raise the man she loves. For this reason she continues to live in hope that she can build a relationship of mutual respect.