Mothers Matter walks the relationship tightrope between a mother and daughter-in-law.
The relationship between a mother and daughter-in-law has long been the subject of jokes and folklore because of its inferred volatile nature. Hollywood’s recent comedy with Jane Fonda as the Monster-in-law further cemented this notion of tension between a wife and her husband’s mother.
Anne Hollonds, vice president of Relationships Australia, said every relationship needs to be realigned when a marriage takes place and this can overwhelm a mother. “What was a special relationship between a mother and a son changes. And [mothers] feel fearful on many levels that they’re no longer important to that person.”
She said new wives may similarly feel apprehension about marriage, what kind of partnership they’ll have, and how the mother-in-law will fit into that.
Clinical psychologist Dr Vivienne Cass said if the mother has been close to or dependent on the son then she might feel threatened by or jealous of the daughter-in-law.
“The in-law relationships always require some finesse, some capacity to compromise and some capacity for biting one’s tongue!” said Dr Cass. She said that while a wife may want to vocalise what’s on her mind, often that’s not the best solution because she has to continue with the relationship later, particularly if there are children involved.
Ms Hollonds said occasionally the mother-in-law may act malicious or deliberately try to sideline the new wife.
Mothers Matter spoke to Melbourne mother Rachel Gibbons*, who was aware of the tight relationship between her future husband and his mother when they first became involved. “I knew that she had this strange relationship with her eldest son, my husband-to-be,” she said. “So I used to manage that relationship. I would speak to her every week, be interested in what she was doing, be interested in what she would think.”
Ms Gibbons said she consciously and actively worked at the relationship to involve her mother-in-law and make her feel more secure about becoming her son’s wife. She said her husband had been playing the role of spouse to his mother by managing her finances and running her errands.
Consequently, the mother-in-law had a lot of influence in Ms Gibbons’ marriage, to the extent her son would call her after every marital disagreement and she would advise him what to do.
Ms Gibbons said the relationship triangle between her husband, mother-in-law and herself started to deteriorate during her two pregnancies when she suffered severe morning sickness for the first 20 weeks.
Vomiting every day and losing an enormous amount of weight, Ms Gibbons couldn’t work and had to rely on her family to do everything. The stress of her predicament came to a head on a family holiday with the mother-in-law, when she was 12 weeks pregnant with her second child.
“It was like she was gathering information [in that two-year period of dating and marrying] and it just came out on holidays.” Ms Gibbons said her mother-in-law delivered a rant that chronicled her daughter-in-law’s actions over the previous two years.
“She let fly and started all these accusations…I just sat there and listened. Three times I asked her, ‘have you finished?’ When she finally had, I just sat there and said ‘it was nice to know your opinion.’…I looked at my husband and asked if he had anything to add and he said, ‘Well, I actually agree with her.’”
The stress of the situation left Ms Gibbons so depressed that she felt almost unable to bring her second child into the world, and the confrontation was the catalyst for her marriage breakdown.
After giving birth to her second child, the couple tried for two years to salvage their relationship by undergoing marriage counselling, but the situation did not improve. After the separation, Ms Gibbons said her mother-in-law told her son that she “wouldn’t interfere in [his] relationships again.”
In a situation like this, where relationship struggles between a mother and daughter-in-law become public, Ms Hollonds recommended the husband move swiftly to diffuse it.
She also recommended the husband address any issues with the parent, alone.
“There’s not much [the wife] can do as the target,” said Ms Hollonds. “You’re not part of the family, you’re the interloper in that situation. It’s got be the husband who steps in and pulls his mother into line, but in a compassionate way.”
She said negative behaviour comes out of fear and anxiety, but the husband has to give clear messages about what is ok and what is not ok.
“That’s where you and your husband or partner need to be on the same team. You need to work together on agreeing what are…the ground rules that you want to have between your relationship, your family and your in-laws.”
Ms Hollonds said sometimes problems arise when a new wife steps into an issue that already exists between a mother and son, though the problem may not be obvious. “You become the focus of attention rather than them having to sort out their own relationship.”
However, in most cases, Ms Hollonds said the wife should look carefully at her own role. “One of the biggest mistakes we can make in any of these important relationships is that we try and get the other person to change or we blame them for stuff. We do that a lot more than we are prepared to look at our own behaviour,” she said.
Dr Cass advised women to look for the positives in what a mother-in-law might be saying to see if she has good intent behind her comments. “That kind of reasoning can help you to put it into a different category than someone who is truly being manipulative.”
Adelaide mother-of-five Elaine Boswell* has struggled to maintain a good relationship with her mother-in-law. “She’s very intelligent and manipulative. She’ll do things very calculatingly and then pretend that she had no idea that it could be offensive,” she said.
Ms Boswell said her mother-in-law was one of the main reasons her family moved interstate five years ago from Sydney. With occasional visits their relationship is now much better.
Ms Boswell’s relationship with her mother-in-law hit a deep low when she walked in on her attempting to breastfeed Ms Boswell’s infant while babysitting. Ms Boswell only stumbled on the situation after re-entering her unit because she had forgotten something.
Ms Boswell was so shocked she couldn’t speak, so she took her children into a separate room and waited for her husband to come home. “She violated my trust and my husband was mortified. Even now he’ll say ‘don’t leave her alone with the baby (Ms Boswell’s latest child).’”
Ms Boswell said the difficulty lies in the long-term nature of the relationship with a mother-in-law. “If I could just wash my hands of her, I’d do it in a second.”
Ms Hollonds said, that people usually only behave in negative ways when they are incredibly fearful. “Anyone who feels comfortable and secure in themselves doesn’t go around maligning somebody else,” she said, and added that people showing fearful behaviour need to be placated with positive messages before they can be told about the boundaries.
Dr Cass offered an alternate solution. She said that if the daughter could speak positively, without antagonising the mother-in-law, then she should call her up, offer a cup of tea and sort it out, even if the mother-in-law has been absolutely nasty.
“Sometimes I have seen mothers-in-law melt at that because in truth, most people don’t want conflict. Only a small percentage hate their daughters-in-law and don’t want to fix it up.”
Dr Cass said if a mother-in-law repeatedly speaks her mind with little regard for the people she’s hurting then she’s probably just someone that doesn’t have a great deal of sensitivity in relationships, as other people might. “So part of the problem with some difficult mothers-in-law is that they are probably difficult anyway.”
Relationships Australia hotline: 1300 364 277
*names have been changed in this article.