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An Interview With
Dr. Terri Apter
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What sparked your interest to study the mother-in-law/daughter-in-law relationship?

It began at home.  My mother-in-law is in many ways beyond reproach.  She tries to like me, and tries to be nice, but in her presence I feel as though I'm being smothered.  Unable to understand my own situation, I took the psychologist's way out: I decided to study in-law relationships.

Can you tell us what the focus of the study was, and how your efforts progressed?

I wanted to look at a variety of in-law relationships, and to get away from the image of the mother-in-law as a troublesome figure.  I interviewed all the mothers-in-law and sons-in-law and daughters-in-law and fathers-in-law in twenty families, and then I observed family gatherings in twelve families.  It soon became apparent that the relationship most prone to conflict was that between the daughter-in-law and mother-in-law - so I then began to concentrate on that and to see what was going on there.

Based on your research, what would you say are the major and/or common areas of friction between mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law?

One common problem (and a major one) centers around the mother's-in-law failure to recognize aspects of a daughter-in-law she herself values highly.  In this theme are complaints that the mother-in-law showed preference for the son's career, and expected the daughter-in-law to sacrifice her career to that of her husband.

One twenty-nine year old woman said, "I love [my mother-in-law], but I can't depend on her support. She'll always be biased towards [my husband's] career.  If she were my mother, I'd fight back.  But fighting a mother-in-law over this is something I can't win.  She may be a feminist, but she's a mother first.  She wants [her son] to be happy.  And, let's face it - he'd be happier if I worked less, and looked after him more."

A twenty-six-year old woman says that her mother-in-law (a professional woman herself) was generally supportive of women and on the surface, all for equality at home, "but when I told her about this new job offer in Manchester, I couldn't see any of her ideals in action.  I was really shocked by the way this supposedly enlightened woman said, 'Commuting would be difficult.  Greg would get so lonely.  You have to consider the whole picture.  I know it's hard.'  I'm really offended by this show of sympathy when she implies that what I want isn't as important as what my husband wants.  I thought she was my friend.  She thinks she's my friend.  But I can't trust her with this stuff."

A forty-two- year-old woman felt that she could sum up the relationship with her mother-in-law with this story:   "When I was an MP candidate, my mother-in-law said she hoped I wouldn't be elected because her grandchildren saw little enough of their mother anyway."

Another daughter-in-law resented a mother's-in-law praise for her role as wife, seeing it as an attempt to control her and make her feel guilty about her long hours at work.  She explained, "When my mother-in-law tells me what a 'good wife' I am, my heart sinks, and I feel she's trying to control me, telling me I should be a 'good wife'.   I can't make her see why I don't want to be a 'good wife' in that sense ... I suddenly feel guilty for coming home at seven-thirty, not helping with supper, and then I get angry - because, why should I feel guilty for putting so much into my work?" 

Another common theme was intrusion - either on the ground that the mother-in-law seemed to "baby" the husband, or on the grounds that the mother-in-law presented herself as weak and needed to be "mothered" by the son.

One woman said, "She phones in the morning, when we're in bed, and she says how sorry she is to disturb us, but she had to make sure he got back safely [from his business trip].  She doesn't see that he's a grown man.  She doesn't believe he can be all right without her."

Another woman said, "She expects him to come round late at night even to change a light bulb.  She wants him at her beck and call."

Sometimes a mother-in-law was seen as intrusive because she was too helpful in the home.

A thirty-nine-year-old woman (a saleswoman in a department store) said that every visit from her mother-in-law sets her husband back at least a year in her battle to make him carry his weight in the home.  "[My husband] asks, 'Where's the butter?' and his mother jumps up and puts it in front of him.  Within a week, he's back to the old routine: 'Where's the knife?' means, 'Get me the knife.'   When he opens the fridge and can't find the olives that are right in front of his nose, his mother thinks he's cute.  'I'll fix his lunch,' she says, as though that's okay, because I'm not being asked to do it.  What she doesn't see is that I'm trying to downshift his expectations for domestic service."

Status within the family was also a significant theme.

One twenty-nine year-old woman described the following situation:
"[My mother-in-law] answered the phone when she was visiting and I heard her say, 'This is Mrs. Caine.'  I've been married to her son for two and a half years, but she keeps forgetting I'm Mrs. Caine, and I'm the Mrs. Caine someone wants when they telephone my home."

One status issue is over who is "mum" in the family, with final say over all those things most women still dictate: menus, meal times and children's table manners.

A thirty-four-year-old woman complained that her mother-in-law takes over as mother when she visits.  One night she kept passing around the mint sauce.  "Do have some more.  I hope you enjoy it.  Sally, try some.  Aren't you eating well!  Now let's put the jelly into this jug."  She takes charge of the entire meal.

Daughters-in-law also spoke critically of a mother-in-law in the context of her involvement with housework and childcare.

One thirty-three year old barrister said:
"I came downstairs this morning in a rush to get to work, and Joyce was bustling around the kitchen.  'I've managed to get Piers to eat a really good breakfast, and he's ready for school now.  We just have to sew this button on his jacket.'  Normally I'm a reasonable and fair person, but all this cheerful nurturing put me in a foul mood.  I feel she's trying to imply how much better she is with the kids than I am.  I feel she's telling me that I can go off to work happy because a safety pin's no longer holding my son's button on his jacket.  Basically, I feel she's showing off at my expense."

A twenty-seven year old daughter-in-law said she lost her temper when her mother-in-law, seeing her take clothes from the dryer, offered to save her a job by doing the ironing.  "I came home glowing because I'd just landed a really juicy account for my firm.  I started to fold the laundry, and suddenly my mother-in-law is crooning over me about the ironing - a job I hate and never do, because it stinks of the drudgery I'm determined to escape.  I exploded: 'It's not my job to do the ironing!'  My father-in-law looked at me like I was going mad for shouting at this poor woman who's just trying to help.  But the assumption that it was my job to do the ironing sent me over the edge."

In-law visits take place in people's homes, and housework is emotionally laden.  Who does it well, may be a sign of who cares enough.  But to someone else, doing housework well is a sign of not having anything better to do.

Some of the complaints were vehement, but without obvious cause.

One thirty-two year old daughter-in-law, who has been married for five years, said:  "When my mother-in-law comes to visit, I lose the will to live."  When I ask why her mother-in-law makes her feel like this she merely says, "She watches me.  She sits and watches me."

Several daughters-in-law complained that the mother-in-law is "too nice" and "works so hard to make things jolly."  This was thought to create tension.

Of course the mother-in-law also has complaints, though in general, daughters'-in-law criticisms are far more varied than are criticisms of the mother-in-law concerning her daughter-in-law.  The overwhelming response of mothers-in-law was that they did not understand the root of a daughter's-in-law hostility.  When asked to explain why the relationship was uneasy, they tended to redescribe the unease, saying that the daughter-in-law was "quick to take offence", or "takes everything I say the wrong way" or "rejects every one of my attempts to make friends" or "conversation with her is forced labour".   In the case of mothers-in-law who were married, their husbands tended to support this view: they agreed that the fault lay with the daughter-in-law and that the fault was that the daughter-in-law was "difficult".  On the whole, the critical theme was on the effect of the daughter's-in-law hostility.

One sixty-eight-year-old woman said, "She wants everything - her husband, her children, her career, and she wants them all for her.  I've seen the grandchildren four times in ten years.  I'm not invited to visit.  That woman has broken my heart."

From the beginning of the relationship, are there steps that can be taken to minimize this friction?

Many people believe that if you begin with ground rules and good intentions, then things will run smoothly.  This isn't the case, because people change and families change over the years.  But steps to minimize the friction can be take at any time.

First, good communication helps.  Say clearly and neutrally (that's without accusing anyone of anything) what you want in terms of boundaries and privacy. 

Second, show respect.  No one likes to be ridiculed or dismissed.  If a conflict arises, try to focus on the actual problem, rather than on character flaws of the person involved.

Third, don't insist on being best friends.  If you can be friends with a mother-in-law, that's a bonus, but don't start from the assumption that you should be friends.  After all, you didn't choose one another; you have been brought together by an attachment to someone else.

In your opinion, can most damaged relationships be improved?

Yes - at least that's the theory I would work with.  If people try to see things from one another's viewpoint, then they can more easily forgive.  But communication can be barred by years of hostility, and people can get into patterns of irritation or rejection, so that listening to someone becomes very difficult.  My hope in this website is to make it possible to repair in-law relationships.

To See Books
 by Dr. Terri Apter
From Barnes & Nobel Click Here


The Sister Knot, Apter
The Sister Knot
Why We Fight, Why We're Jealous, and Why We'll Love Each Other No Matter What

Secret Paths: Women in the New Midlife
Secret Paths
Women in the New Midlife

Working Women Don't Have Wives, Dr. Terri Apter Working Women Don't Have Wives
Professional Success in the 1990'S

To See More Books By
Dr. Terri Apter
Click Here.

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