The Therapist’s View
Louise Tyler, BACP Accredited Counsellor.
While the mother-in-law/son-in-law relationship is most commonly the butt of jokes, it is usually the mother-in-law/daughter-in-law dynamic that is fraught with emotion.
As a therapist who sees clients grappling with important life stages and milestones, as well as helping couples navigate their relationships, this tension can come up as a common theme. The reasons for this mother-in-law/daughter-in-law tension may be both cultural and evolutionary.
The emotional emphasis in many families is often left to the women. Women are generally more comfortable with openly expressing emotional angst, whilst men can be culturally conditioned to keep feelings buried, tending to avoid addressing issues (not necessarily a healthy situation – a subject for another day). So women are more likely to visibly and verbally address relationship tensions.
From an evolutionary perspective, a daughter-in-law may subconsciously represent a direct competition for the finite amount of resources and attention within a family – a hangover from times when survival was an overriding theme within society. Although not usually as relevant today, this element of rivalry may still arise in the subconscious.
It’s also important to remember that a marriage represents the coming together of two different family systems, each with its own history, values and ways of doing things. There can be no blueprint on how to manage this, as every family is unique. There will always be a degree of structural anxiety. ‘How will this new person impact our existing family dynamic?’ ‘How will I fit into this family system?’
The starting point is for both the mother-in-law and daughter-in-law to discard any negative stereotypes they may have of each other’s role. This can lead to unnecessary tension and miscommunication from the start. Aim for trust, respect and openness rather than pre-conceived ideas about control, interfering etc…
It’s useful if the mother-in-law can acknowledge to herself the fears that are understandably being provoked within her – the fear of change, rejection, loneliness or loss of a role – without projecting these negative feelings onto her daughter-in-law. For the daughter-in-law, it is paramount to remember that your in-laws are not your parents, and to realise that their differences do not imply criticism, but are simply a different way of being.
As with any relationship, the most important thing is fostering clear, honest and respectful communication directly with each other, not through the son/husband. Learn about each other – your values, family history and different parenting approaches. Acknowledge and respect any differences, then look for compromises as well as ways in which you can learn from each other.
Make requests not demands such as ‘”Would this work for you?” Say how you are each feeling in certain situations rather than telling the other what they are doing wrong.
Think about appropriate boundaries on each side. The mother-in-law should expect and encourage her son to put his wife first. She should strenuously avoid putting him in the position of taking sides or expect him to speak negatively about his wife behind her back.
Avoid giving advice unless explicitly asked for or trying to influence decisions the couple make mutually. Discuss agreed times for visits and family get togethers – create new traditions as an extended family that suit all parties.
The daughter-in-law should discuss any issues with her husband and then mutually agree a plan to address them together. Often what you give is what you receive. Try to think about your in-law’s feelings in certain situations, and try to adjust your attitude and perception accordingly. Be open to some give and take.
If for some reason there is a stalemate on both sides, with progress unable to be made independently, therapy or mediation can be considered as a way of moving forward to a more positive place. Remember that you are modeling behaviour for the children and grandchildren – never use them as leverage on either side.
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