The relationship between a mother-in-law and daughter-in-law continues to be at the root of much family conflict because of unrealistic and traditional expectations from the older woman.
A study by Dr Terri Apter, a social psychologist at Cambridge University, shows that many mothers- in-law, especially those who regard themselves as in tune with the views and aspirations of younger women, have no idea they are constantly undermining their daughters-in-law and imposing their traditional expectations upon them.
The findings showed that many daughters-in-law believe that their husbands' mothers put the well-being of their sons and grandchildren before anything else and dismiss any achievements or ambitions daughters-in-law have outside the home.
"This finding is not a generational one," said Dr Apter. "Even younger women, who might have feminist views in other spheres, seem to expect their daughters-in-law to be there to help their husbands with traditional duties. There is a basic conflict between a wife's desire to be equal to her man, and a mother's need to put her child first."
Dr Apter interviewed 20 mothers-in-law, 14 fathers-in-law and 32 daughters- in-law and sons-in-law. Mothers-in-law expressed great disappointment at not being able to forge friendships with their daughters-in-law and were afraid that the poor relationship would alienate them from their sons and grandchildren.
"The mother-in-law sees her son's wife as the gatekeeper to her son and her grandchildren and is petrified of being alienated," said Dr Apter. "They take all ruffles in the relationship very personally and this causes a lot of trouble. The sons see their wives as stronger and will tend to sympathise with their mothers, which doesn't help," she said.
Dr Apter offered a number of suggestions to help women survive Christmas with their mothers-in-law. These include allocating specific tasks to mothers-in-law so that they feel useful, and asking calmly to be left alone in the kitchen. Mothers-in-law are advised not to take it personally if they are shouted at, and to consult both parents before buying presents for the children.
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