It's Not All Your Mother-in-law's Fault

How couples provoke their in-laws to their own detriment.

Posted Jul 24, 2017

Iakov Filimonov/Shutterstock
Source: Iakov Filimonov/Shutterstock

It is my experience that couples most often present for therapy citing sexual, financial, or communication problems. But they also seem to fight quite a bit about in-laws.

The biggest complaint is that their in-laws are intrusive and controlling. When questioned further, it turns out that mothers-in-law are perceived as the main culprits. It is true that in some cases a mother-in-law will stir up needless trouble. Many may have difficulty coping with the empty nest syndrome; others disapprove of the people their children chose to marry; and others are just lonely. But upon closer look, mothers-in-law are not solely to blame. When I inquired about fathers-in-law, they were described to be absent from the dynamic — considered a non-factor. Many men do not seem to share the need for closeness that their wives do, and tend to run from family controversy. It is no wonder that many women experience loneliness and seek contact through their children.

But couples may unconsciously provoke in-laws into the very behavior they claim to hate, to their own detriment. And they have creative ways to accomplish this. Consider the following examples:

     "Jon" and "Sally," a couple in their mid-30s, were married for five years when they reported for treatment. Sally insisted on therapy, because she could no longer tolerate Jon’s fighting with her parents. Jon was furious with his in-laws, but the punishment did not seem to fit the crime: Sally admitted that her parents could be contrary and controlling at times, but were fundamentally well-intentioned and very generous. She said that they always bought her and Jon whatever they needed. Jon had been particularly rude to his in-laws as of late, and had boycotted several family events. Sally enabled Jon’s behavior by her passivity. Finally, Sally’s parents gave up on Jon. They completely turned against him, putting Sally in a loyalty bind. 

This dynamic would be easily explainable if Sally’s parents had merited Jon’s wrath. But aside from her mother’s anxious need for control and her father’s procrastinating behavior, they seemed quite nice. With the help of therapy, the truth was eventually exposed: Jon came from a poor family, and Sally’s parents were wealthy. Ironically, the more financial help Sally’s parents offered the young couple, the angrier and more emasculated Jon felt. He was not conscious of his intentions, but he was trying to make his in-laws reject him so that Sally would divorce him, and he could pursue a partner in his socioeconomic class. Sally’s passivity enabled Jon’s war on her parents; she was afraid to get too directly involved. It was determined that Sally was unconsciously allowing Jon to act out anger that she herself held for her parents on unrelated issues.

     "Amy" and "Tim," a married couple in their early 40s, were fighting too much and decided to try marital therapy. In a familiar complaint, Amy believed that Tim often sided with his mother over her. “I honestly think he’s intimidated by his mother. I think he’s afraid of her,” she said. Tim admitted that he hated confrontation. He added that his mother was caring but forceful at times, and that he handled her the same way his father did—by letting her have her way.

While Tim’s mother liked to be in control, it turned out that Amy’s myriad of regulations and restrictions greatly contributed to control struggles with her mother- in-law. Some of these rules were needlessly provocative, such as: Tim’s parents were not allowed to come over unannounced; they were not allowed to call and ask to speak to their grandchildren during dinner and homework time; they were not allowed to see their grandchildren until late afternoon on weekends because Amy wanted alone time with them first; and they were not allowed to buy their grandchildren gifts unless it was Christmas or their birthdays.

Some rules made sense, but many enraged Amy’s in-laws. Tim’s mother eventually cut off Tim and Amy financially and threatened to change her will. She implored Tim to intervene, but Tim feared that it would cause his relationship with Amy to deteriorate further. In one session, Tim gently pleaded with Amy to curb some of her rules for the sake of peace, but to no avail. Amy grew up in a family with no boundaries. She was one of six siblings and reported that her parents were overwhelmed. She referred to her childhood home as a “Wild West show," and said that she pledged that when she had a family of her own, life would be more organized.    

In both cases, at least one partner in a couple was bent on turning their in-laws into outlaws—and they succeeded. While the in-laws were not entirely innocent in these scenarios, in my opinion, they were portrayed much worse than reality dictated. Hence, the couples greatly contributed to their own marital difficulties, using their in-laws as vehicles toward this endeavor.