In-laws from hell: More marriages than ever are blighted by her, him and them. Hester Lacey reports from the family front-line

Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
BILL CLINTON's mother, Virginia Kelley, was horrified when he first introduced her future daughter-in-law, Hillary Rodham. 'No make-up. Coke bottle glasses. Brown hair with no apparent style,' she noted grimly in her just-published diary. 'Quiet, cool and unresponsive.' Hillary, on the other hand, reduced her mother-in-law to tears when she refused to take her husband's name, and scathingly renamed Bill 'Virginia's baby boy.'

Twenty years later, loving one's in-laws has become fashionably politically correct. Mother-in-law jokes are frowned on; a BBC2 documentary last month made them out to be an invaluable help rather than a hindrance to the modern marriage. But do we get along as well as we pretend?

A spokeswoman for Parentline, the national parenting phone help line, estimates that around 20 per cent of calls involve problems with in- laws - 'either the parent feels the in-laws are behaving negatively, helping too much or not enough, or it's grandma worried about the way her grandchildren are being brought up.' The Institute of Family Therapy encourages couples to bring their in- laws along to counselling sessions. Relate have found that in-law issues are high in the top 10 problems most frequently encountered in marriage counselling.

Today's younger, more glamorous, go-getting mother-in-laws do not get on well with their daughters-in- law, according to Estelle Phillips, a psychologist who has conducted a study of the species. 'You would think the similarities between them would bring them closer together, but in fact the opposite is true. Role boundaries were much clearer two generations ago - now they are more blurred. There may be a subconscious rivalry.'

The distances between the generations have grown much less, explains Hugh Jenkins, director of the Institute of Family Therapy. 'If the mother-in-law is still very young, especially if she is still of child-bearing age, there is even a potential for sexual rivalry and flirtation. I came across a recent case once where a man married his mother-in-law after his wife had died. If the mother-in-law is competent, confident and successful rather than a grandparent on the back burner, the younger woman is likely to feel even more uncertain of herself.' He adds that in-laws who are still working will have less time to get involved with their children's families and get to know their grandchildren.

The recession has added financial constraints to the list of contentions between in-laws and children. 'Parents-in-law help out, especially if a couple have had to sell their home or had it repossessed, but the couple can find it very difficult taking the money - they are left with feelings of guilt and obligation,' says Zelda West- Meads of Relate.

'Or when parents are faced with taking their children out of private schools and the in-laws help out - then stipulate they want the child to go to 'my old school' and think they have the right to participate in decision-making.'

As well as these new battlegrounds, traditional dissensions still fester - the Criticising Mother-in- Law From Hell is still out there. 'Gravy has become a huge bone of contention whenever my mother-in- law comes round for dinner,' complained one new daughter-in-law. 'So what if I use granules? At least it means there aren't any lumps. I always tell myself that one day she'll get a jug of it over her head, though in fact we get on pretty well on most other things. Apart from limescale. She keeps telling me to get some spirits of salt and give our plugholes a good seeing-to - well, I'm sticking with my foaming Jif 'no-need-to- scrub' and too bad if it doesn't get every last stain off.'

Other members of the family are advised to remain neutral during similar gravy and limescale debates. 'If a son makes the mistake of letting his mother lure him into supporting her over his wife, there will be trouble,' says Zelda West-Meads. 'There will be conflict, arguments and real battles if the man hasn't moved on from a dominant mother.'

The No-One Is Good Enough For My Child parent still flourishes too. 'If I have to hear one more word about my wife's former boyfriend, how wonderful his job was, the holidays they went on, how stylish his car was, I may have to go out and stab myself with our wedding present Kitchen Devil carving knife,' sighed a mournful son-in-law.

'Parents do have some intuition about their children's partners,' says Hugh Jenkins. 'But in the end we make our own bed and we must lie on it. Parents' high expectations are often as much about their own needs as their child's'

While fathers-in-law remain shadowy, amiable figures, whose main role is conciliation and soothing ruffled feathers in the car on the way home, mothers-in-law everywhere have always had a tricky reputation.

Dr Phillips turned to anthropological research because sociologists and psychologists were unable to offer any explanation for the way they are singled out. 'Anthropologists have discovered that in most cultures there are distinct ways of behaving towards mothers-in-law, such as having them always walk slightly ahead of their son or daughter-in-law. It's to distinguish them,' she says.

' In one particular tribe, there is a sacrificial animal at the wedding feast and a special part is kept for the mother-in-law and ceremonially presented. We could do with a variant of that over here - at our weddings, the focus is completely on the couple and the transition for the mother-in-law is simply not considered.

'In other cultures it's considered a great risk that the new son-in-law will become enamoured of his mother-in-law, and it's taboo for him to eat in front of her or walk in her shadow.'

Not all the blame for ructions lies with the older generation. Parents-in- law can be sensitive too. 'You have to remember that for a parent whose child gets married, the grieving and loss can be similar to that of a bereavement,' says Hugh Jenkins.

All the mothers-in-law Dr Phillips interviewed were depressed by children's marriages - and all hoped that grandchildren would improve things. 'Studies of grandparenting shows things don't get better,' says Dr Phillips. 'I didn't tell them that.'

In fact, problems are often brought to a head by the arrival of grandchildren, according to Hugh Jenkins. 'It happens when the grandparents - and it's much more likely to be the grandmother - complain about the children misbehaving and not being brought up properly. The wife, quite rightly, will take that as a criticism of her. Then the battle for territory begins.'

The Parent Network organisation, which provides education and support for parents, has even begun some Grandparent Link schemes to help grandparents come to terms with their roles in grandchildren's upbringing.

What is the secret of getting along with the in-laws? Zelda West- Meads recommends detailed planning with one's spouse. 'Ground rules should be established early on. If you both assume you're going to your parents for Christmas, there will be problems when it comes around. Don't be unkind, but don't overdose either.' So before getting married, be prepared to fix up Christmases, holidays and Sunday lunches for the next decade or so.

Hugh Jenkins recommends attempting to forge one big happy family group. 'There is enormous emphasis on separation and individualism in our society - all of us isolated in our little ticky-tacky boxes. In other cultures the emphasis is on remaining connected.'

Few people are neutral about their in-laws - they are either loved or loathed. But according to Hugh Jenkins, perhaps they like it that way. 'The most insulting thing is to be ignored - and not thought about at all.'

And many of us have perfectly charming parents-in-law. Hello, Noel and Jacqueline Lacey] None of the above applies to you.

Critical mass: most common complaints

From parents-in-law: Untidy houses; working wives, leading to un-ironed shirts, frozen food (and no proper puddings or napkins); grandchildren who watch too much television, have bad table manners, don't write thank-you letters; lack of contact - not phoning, writing, visiting.

From children-in-law: Parental criticism (of anything and everything); lending money then trying to help decide how it should be spent; going on at the grandchildren - especially when contradicting parental wisdom.

In-law in-fighting tactics: Boycotting of marriages, christenings, family parties, etc - or withdrawing parental financial support before the wedding and watching the whole day fall apart; throwing punches at the wedding (surprisingly frequent on all sides); smiling insults (delivered via partner); frosty silence.

FATHER-IN-LAW CANCELLED THE WEDDING

Robin married Ann in 1984 when they were both 26.

'I didn't get on with my father-in- law in any way when we met. I really hated him then. I thought he was mean, bigoted and out of touch with modern life. He could never understand anything about my job or what I did. His one idea was always to save as much money as possible and he could never understand that I wanted to travel and go on holidays and spend what I earned. When I met my wife she was going out with an accountant. She'd been living with him for years, her parents really liked him. Then I came along. Within a few weeks we'd moved in together, which horrified her father. He was so opposed to me that when we went round there he'd leave me standing outside the room while he pulled my wife in for long, whispered conversations. He told her I was a fly-by-night and that I'd break her heart. That only made me more determined. So we organised our wedding, hired the hotel, lied to the vicar that we lived in the parish - then, one day shortly beforehand, Ann came home from a visit to her parents in floods of tears. She had a letter to me from her father, telling me he couldn't cope with the wedding and had rung to tell the vicar it was all off and cancel the reception. I was furious. I single-handedly put the wedding all back together. I rang and said I had a completely lunatic father-in-law and everything was going ahead as planned - and I arranged to pay for everything myself. After the wedding, I didn't set foot in their house for about 18 months. That didn't bother me much - I hated spending the night there, the beds were so uncomfortable. All the mattresses were 20 years old. I also felt as though I was sleeping in the house of an enemy. And it was freezing cold in winter - they'd never put the heating on. Things are better now; he is delighted by our children.'

SON-IN-LAW IS EITHER SILENT OR SNEERING

Ellen, 56, was divorced in 1970 and brought up her daughter Katy alone. Katy was married in 1988.

'Although I was determined to be open-minded I disliked him on sight. He was wearing a tatty pair of jeans and a T-shirt, I thought he could have made a little bit of effort to be clean and tidy. He had long straggly hair. When I saw the tattoo high up on his arm I was horrified, but I didn't show it. I was so determined not to be judgmental. That first weekend was dreadful. He smoked all over the house, stayed in bed late, never offered to help with the washing up or anything. I'd made an effort with the food and he only said it was 'very nice' even when Katy prompted him. When I tried to talk to him he replied so grudgingly I felt I was prying, and I shut up - but I was only trying to chat. I spent most of the Sunday feeling as if I'd been put under forced silence in my own house. One thing that really upset me when they came round was that if we watched any television programme together and I ventured any comment afterwards he would always put me down - sneer at whatever I said. I would laugh it off but I wish now I'd said how hurtful I found it. I hoped and prayed it wasn't serious. When Katy said they were moving in together, and they announced their engagement, I quite literally wept all night through. I'm sure he doesn't like me either. He would just ignore me. It was just so rude. If he'd met me half way we could have salvaged something, even though we'd never have been best friends, but he wouldn't make any effort. I don't think I've ever heard him use my name. Luckily his job now involves travelling so I tend to go and visit when he's away. I still love Katy dearly but I try and accept that she has her own life and that I must get on with mine. But it's terrible to stand by and watch your child form a relationship that excludes you.'

DAUGHTER-IN-LAW NEVER WANTS TO VISIT

Richard is 68. His son was married five years ago.

'I don't know why my daughter-in-law took against us. She is a few years older than my son, and we were surprised by that - perhaps she picked up on it. And we were excited about finally having grandchildren - maybe we said something out of turn. We are so worried now that if we do anything too much to antagonise her that we will never see our grandchildren when they eventually come along. We didn't meet her until after the wedding. They didn't invite us, or even tell us it was taking place, or ask us for any money towards it - they just went to a register office and didn't even have a reception. We couldn't understand that; they said they just wanted a small wedding, no family, just friends. But they could have told us. They never apologised or anything, although our feelings were really hurt, especially my wife's. Lots of her friends' children are married and a family wedding would have meant a lot to her. We had been close to our son, though he had been living some way from home. He's our only child. We saw him often. He was always home for Christmas and holidays. I very much wanted to heal the rift. I paid for an expensive honeymoon for them in Florida - she seemed to just take it as her due. Then they asked for the deposit on a house. Then they wanted the downpayment on a new car - I put my foot down at that and said no. Now we hardly hear from them. When he rings we can hear her in the background telling him to hurry up. Most people we know have been very lucky with their daughters-in- law. I suppose there will always be a few bad apples. We don't blame ourselves. We have tried our best to reach out; maybe things will become smoother as they get older. I feel we've done everything we could have. Now we just have to wait and see, and be patient.'

(Photographs omitted)

Comments