Katy Guest: It pays to pick your in-laws with care

A marriage in trouble involves more than the couple

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Two battles of the in-laws have played themselves out over the past week, each one representing a wholly different convention in the marital-parental discord tradition. At the macho end of the continuum, in Derrida-esque death-of-the-father scenes, the restaurateur Gordon Ramsay has rowed spectacularly with the chief executive of Ramsay Holdings, his wife's father, Chris Hutcheson. The latest reports have Ramsay hiring minders to stop his former mentor entering his HQ, as publicists confirm Hutcheson has stepped down. Meanwhile, in Huyton, Merseyside, scenes chez Rooney-McLoughlin are starting to resemble a joke by Les Dawson. Wayne can always tell when Coleen's mother is coming to stay, he might say: all the mice start throwing themselves on the traps.

The tension between a young man and his parents-in-law is an age-old phenomenon. In Walter Scott's poem, "Lochinvar", the young lord is forced to steal away his bride on a fine steed as his father-in-law stands fuming in Netherby Hall. In Evelyn Waugh's Vile Bodies, young Adam must ask Nina's father for her hand in marriage, and a cheque to tide him over; the old rogue Colonel Blount signs it "Charlie Chaplin". In Coronation Street, Ken Barlow and Deirdre's mother Blanche only really went to war when the old battleaxe moved in with them – "This one's had more affairs than Soft Mick" being one of her finer lines. And of course, in Shakespeare's plays, the beloved's parents are a frequent source of disharmony: Ophelia was an unfortunate victim of Hamlet's relationship with his mother; and neither Romeo nor Juliet were particularly lucky with the in-laws.

While ancient family feuds, tricksy colonels and treading a measure do not feature heavily in the current headaches of our contemporary heroes, having had "more affairs than Soft Mick" does. Relations between Ramsay and Hutcheson began to sour two years ago, when a woman called Sarah Symonds claimed to have had a seven-year affair with the chef. It's a shame, as Ramsay seems to have been even more in love with his father-in-law than he is with his long-suffering wife, Tana. Ramsay was celebrating Hutcheson's birthday when his first daughter Megan was being born, leading him to turn up at the hospital "absolutely pissed". And in his autobiography, Humble Pie, Ramsay claims to have got all his best advice from Hutcheson. It's a shame he never offered his son-in-law and protégé any words of wisdom regarding women who write books called Having an Affair? A Handbook for the Other Woman.

Rooney, similarly, can't really be surprised that he invoked the ire of his mother-in-law Colette: he cheated on his wife Coleen with a prostitute when she was heavily pregnant with his child. Now, Colette has apparently ruled out a move to Spain for the young Rooney family – more because she wants him where she can keep an eye on him than because she's worried he won't be able to count up to dos in a foreign language, say insiders. It's no wonder he decided to sign his contract and stay at Manchester United for another five years – Mrs McLoughlin makes Sir Alex Ferguson look like a pussycat.

For those of us lucky enough to have in-laws who are generous, personable, smart and ludicrously good-looking, such familial conflict seems inexplicable. So does the behaviour of Laura Hadland of Warrington, who last week broke a world record by making a 32ft by 42ft image of her mother-in-law for her 50th birthday... in toast.

At least the Rooney/Ramsay predicament is normal. And the subject of all the best jokes. "My mother-in-law fell down a wishing well," said the great Les Dawson. "I was amazed; I never knew they worked."

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