There's an old chestnut that goes "The difference between in-laws and outlaws is that outlaws are wanted." Ouch! Well, at least mothers-in-law aren't singled out in that bit of folk wisdom the way they are in countless other quips and quotes. The buttinsky mother-in-law has long been a staple of stand-up comedians as well as joksters in general. Yet the daughter-in-law is typically portrayed as a long-suffering victim.
This one-sided portrayal of the MIL/DIL connection is simplistic at best and damaging at worst. Even so, there's no doubt that when two women love the same man, albeit in very different ways, friction and misunderstandings are bound to arise. Melanie Greenberg, Ph.D., Psychology Today's "Mindful Self-Express" blogger and a nationally recognized relationship therapist, has found that most of the conflict between mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law stems from jealousy or a sense of being threatened.
"Both women may want to be the alpha female in the family," Dr. Greenberg says. "Each one may think she should be the one who has the authority to make final decisions affecting grandchildren and family relationships. In addition, daughters-in-law may feel judged for not being good enough for the son or not looking after him well enough. Or they may be sensitive to being criticized about how they raise their kids or take care of the house and become defensive."
However, Dr. Greenberg goes on to say that mothers-in-law often feel that their values or lifestyle are being rejected if daughters-in-law do things differently. "Beyond that, a mother may want her son's help and company," Dr. Greenberg says. "That leads to competition for his attention and the daughter-in-law may resent this." Dr. Greenberg also says that when she counsels her clients who are mothers-in-law, she encourages them to be warm, flexible, inclusive, and positive. "My best advice is to help, but back off if your help is not needed," she says. "The daughter-in-law may want her own family to be the primary focus and you need to respect that."
Dr. Greenberg also talked about the research done by Terri Apter, Ph.D. for her book, "What Do You Want from Me? Learning to Get Along With In-Laws." Dr. Apter, a Senior Tutor and researcher at The University of Cambridge, interviewed over 200 people and observed many family gatherings. She found that although daughters-in-law had a variety of concerns, mothers-in-law had one major complaint which is that the daughters-in-law resented them and wouldn't let them get close. What's really interesting is that the mothers-in-law said they did not understand why their daughters-in–law kept them at an emotional distance.
This kind of lack of communication is exactly what family therapist Tom Kersting, Ph.D. zeroed in on as co-host of "Monster-in-Laws," a reality show that will premiere on A&E October 24th. "We taped 13 episodes with families all across the country that were at war with each other," Dr. Kersting said. "I became a constant in their lives for two weeks while I used some pretty unconventional techniques to get the in-laws of both generations to see eye-to-eye. The results were amazing. In the end they'd be in one another's arms crying and hugging and saying they finally understood each other. So peace is possible if people get professional help. This show is proof of that! I recommend that anybody with in-law issues tune in and see what we did for these people."
Because in-law conflicts are common and of vital interest to both generations, the editors of ThirdAge.com teamed up with the editors of GalTime.com to create online surveys that will capture the opinions of mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law. We hope you'll take this opportunity to make your voice heard and that you'll spread the word so we get a hefty response and some significant data. We're pretty sure you're just as curious as we are to find out what real life MILs and DILs have to say. Are mothers-in-law truly the villains of the piece or are daughters-in-law more at fault than anyone has ever admitted? Help us find out!
Here is the link to the ThirdAge.com Mother-in-Law Survey.
Here is the link to the Galtime.com Daughter-in-Law Survey.
Melanie Greenberg, Ph.D.
Terri Apter, Ph.D.
Tom Kersting, Ph.D.