Wives find mothers in law hardest to deal with
by Murray Wardrop
A study of hundreds of families has revealed that nearly two-thirds of women admit that friction with their husband’s mother had caused them long-term unhappiness and stress.
During the research, conducted over two decades, women accused their mothers-in-law of showing unreasonably jealous, maternal love towards their sons.
And the frosty relations were found to be mutual as mothers-in-law complained that they had been isolated and excluded by their sons’ wives.
Dr Terri Apter, a psychologist and senior tutor at Newnham College, Cambridge University, carried out the research for her new book, "What Do You Want From Me?"
Some of the strained relationships which emerged through her work were reminiscent of scenes from the Hollywood blockbuster "Monster-in-Law", starring Jane Fonda and Jennifer Lopez.
Dr Apter said: "Mother-in-law and daughter-in-law conflict often emerges from an expectation that each is criticising or undermining the other.
"But 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.
"As they struggle to achieve the same position in the family as primary woman, each tries to establish or protect their status, each feels threatened by the other."
The study found that disputes often started over the newcomer and experienced mother-in-law locking horns over who knows best about issues such as cooking, cleaning and children’s welfare.
But in many cases Dr Apter discovered that the rivalry became more personal and emotionally charged.
Dr Apter, who interviewed 49 couples and 156 other people for the book, said one woman she spoke to began receiving emails from her fiance’s mother two months before her wedding.
The woman, called Jenny, 26, from London, said one message read: "What you don’t realise is that my son thinks about me every day, every minute of every day."
Another interviewee, mother-in-law Annie, 64, from Yorkshire, said: "My daughter-in-law is so cold towards me.
"She begrudges any time or attention my son gives to me and takes every opportunity to minimise the importance and depth of bond he and I have."
The study found that 75 per cent of couples have problems with an in-law but just 15 per cent of mother-in-law/son-in-law relationships were difficult.
Dr Apter said: "Men are better at avoidance strategies when the in-laws are visiting.
"But women can’t keep a low profile. For all the changes there have been, issues such as cooking, behaviour of children and how a table is set or a meal presented are things that affect a woman’s sense of self-worth and she is judged on them."
She added that the growth of mother-in-law jokes among men was because they deal with tension in different ways to women.
She said: "Jokes defuse anxiety and are more likely to be used by a man to denigrate the woman who has upset him and portray her in an unfavourable light.
‘But women keep hoping that they can find a way to make things better. They feel really bad about the fact that they are unable to get on with their in-law."
© The Telegraph Group London 2008
She advises that the best way for women to handle relationships as in-laws is to "show appreciation, which should waylay bids for power".
Top five mother-in-law jokes:
1. Two men are in a pub, and one says to his friend: "My mother-in-law is an angel." His friend replies: "You’re lucky. Mine’s still alive."
2. Bill: "I was sorry to hear that your mother-in-law died. What was the complaint?"
George: "We haven’t had any yet."
3. My mother in law called today...I knew it was her, when she knocked on the front door all the mice threw themselves on the traps.
4. What’s the definition of mixed emotions?
When you see your new mother-in law backing off a cliff in your new Mercedes.
5. A woman woke her husband in the middle of the night and told him: "There is a burglar downstairs in the kitchen and he is eating the cake that my mother made for us."
The husband replied: "Who shall I call, the police or an ambulance?"