The other woman: Your mother-in-law
It might be men who usually crack the mother-in-law jokes but as Stephanie Turner discovers, the prickliest relationships are between women and their mothers-in-law
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. Dr Terri Apter, a psychologist and senior tutor at Newnham College, Cambridge University, carried out research for her book, What Do You Want From Me? over two decades and found that women frequently accused their mothers-in-law of showing unreasonably jealous, maternal love towards their sons. What’s more, 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 Apter says: ‘Mother and daughter-in-law conflict often emerges from an expectation that each is criticising or undermining the other. As they struggle to achieve the same position in the family (primary woman), each tries to establish or protect their status and feels threatened by the other.’ Another problem we often encounter is that, while you choose your partner, you get no say in the in-laws. A mother-in-law can launch a look of disapproval, disgust and disinterest like no other. You are dismissed with an eyebrow, a sigh or a chuckle. She is the ultimate button-pusher. It can be a very charged situation – so much so that one of my friends even has a horror theme ring tone allocated to her mother-in-law so she can be warned whenever she phones. Another tells me: ‘I get a weird thrill of excitement if I know she’s coming round, like the adrenalin rush before a fight.’
But while comedians love to poke fun at the mother-in-law – ‘Take my mother-in-law...no really, take her’ – research has shown that one in three mums rely on their mum or mother-in-law to help with childcare when they return to work or further education. So, whether we like it or not, we need them. And if cultivated properly, your MIL can become a powerful and beneficial force in your life, as well as a great support network for your family. When I had a baby my mother and I fell out all the time over the way I did things, but my mother-in-law was really helpful.
It might come as a surprise to realise that you have a choice whether to allow her to make you miserable and angry, or to be your friend. This becomes easy once you accept that you can’t change her, but you can change yourself. As the saying goes: No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.