When it comes to mothers-in-law this longstanding trope persists: they’re difficult and demanding – ‘monsters-in-law’, even. Reddit’s relationship forums and magazine agony aunt pages are full of nightmare mother-in-law stories (there’s even a whole website dedicated to the topic), and problems with them are a common feature in films and TV, as well as in chats with some of my female friends.
While many women are lucky enough to have a good relationship with their partner’s mum, those who experience tensions can see it having a detrimental effect on their bond with their partner. The stereotyping of older women in terms of mother-in-law jokes can be awful, but there’s no denying the issue affects a lot of couples.
A recent survey by Netmums found that a quarter of women said they had a ‘bad’ or ‘terrible’ relationship with their mother-in-law. Another piece of research noted that two thirds of women said their partner’s mum exhibited jealous, maternal love towards their sons, while 60% of women said their relationship with their mother-in-law caused them long-term stress and unhappiness.
This friction is something Libby*, 25, has experienced. She’s been in a relationship with her boyfriend Paul* for just over two years, and though she’s tried to build a good relationship with his mum, it’s not worked.
‘When we go to stay with Paul’s parents, his mum always gets annoyed at us for random things, for example not helping around the house even when she’s not asked us to do anything,’ she says.
‘She’s not very confrontational, so there isn’t an explicit argument, but she’ll go off to her bedroom in a mood and the atmosphere gets really uncomfortable.
‘I’ll try and do helpful things when I go over there, like wash up dishes that aren’t mine, but she never thanks me or gives me any recognition, and it seems like what I do is never enough. I dread visiting her, as I feel like I’m stepping on eggshells the whole time,’ Libby explains.
Consultant Clinical Psychologist Dr Rachel Andrew has heard similar complaints from her patients. ‘It is a source of stress, and can cause a lot of strife. Women affected can feel isolated too, especially if they feel like their partner is not on their side,’ she says.
I wonder why these tensions happen at all. ‘A mother will bring her son up from a baby into adult life, but when he enters a relationship with another woman the mother will have to relinquish her control of her child to somebody else who will become an important part of his life,’ Dr Andrew tells me.
For many mothers, their child is their pride and joy, so there can be a number of reasons why issues can develop, from cultural differences to a simple fear of her son being hurt. ‘In some families, there’s clear communication between all members, and they can transition to welcoming a new person into the family easily, but in others this process can get a bit stuck,’ Dr Andrew adds.
There could also be an evolutionary reason why mothers are wary about a new woman entering their family unit. ‘Kin selection’ is a strategy (citation) where blood relatives are favoured in order to promote a genetic lineage. This means people can be naturally programmed to be suspicious of those who have influence over their children but have no genetic link to the family.
In the societies of chimpanzees, our close genetic relatives, unrelated female chimps act viciously towards each other. Male chimps stay with their mothers, while adult females leave to join other communities, where they are often physically attacked and relegated to the bottom of the social scale by the mothers of the males they mate with. Ouch.
While your issues may not be as extreme as those experienced by young female chimps, if you’re having difficulties with your partner’s mum it’s key that you feel listened to according to Dr Andrew. ‘It’s very common for men to say they “feel caught in the middle” between their mum and their partner,’ she says. ‘However, it’s important to remember that the mother-in-law is not the power player here, but your boyfriend is. You need to get him on your side, tell him how you’re feeling and come to a decision on what you’re going to do together. It’s likely there won’t be much you can do without his help.’
Luckily for Libby, her and her boyfriend haven’t argued about his mum, and he’s listened to her concerns. ‘When we go to visit, I know Paul is more stressed there than he is when we spend time together just us two,’ she says. ‘Still, I do get worried about how things might go with her as our relationship progresses in the future, for example if we go on to have kids.’
Dr Andrew says another good way of dealing with a mother-in-law problem is to try and understand where they are coming from. ‘You need to have a frank conversation with her. However, be prepared to listen to things you might not want to hear, like criticisms,’ she adds.
Still, in some cases such as Libby’s where the mother acts passive-aggressively, this can be borderline impossible to do. Libby admits she doesn’t think there’s anything she can do to change things. ‘It’s getting to the point where we are starting to avoid going over to Paul’s parents’ house unless we really have to. It’s just too awkward sometimes,’ she explains.
‘You know your own bottom line of how much you’re prepared to deal with,’ Dr Andrew says. ‘If you’ve tried loads of times to be direct and it’s not been heard then try to find softer ways of addressing the subject, or try to find other ways of coping with it – think to yourself “is this something I can learn to live with?”
‘In essence, this is a complicated subject, and it’s not one-size fits all as people are so different,’ Dr Andrew adds. ‘At the end of the day, it’s important to remember the part your partner is playing in it. If you feel supported and cared for by them, then how your mother-in-law is behaving towards you should be less of an issue.’
*Names have been changed.
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This article originally appeared on The Debrief.