In-Law Rivalry

Lack of genetic relatedness is not the real cause of conflict in families.

Posted Oct 30, 2019

Some in-laws get on better than blood relatives, but this is probably the exception. Family conflicts often divide along bloodlines. This reflects real conflicts of interest, some more obvious than others.

The Disappointed Parent

Parents can be lukewarm about their offspring's choice of a spouse. Such unease is hard to conceal, even if it is never directly articulated. Parental disappointment runs the gamut of many mate selection criteria.

Perhaps the bride or groom is not attractive enough, has poor social skills, has serious health problems, has a spotty work record, is disorganized, has a drug problem, carries too much debt, espouses unpalatable political or religious views, is cruel to animals, or has a vile temper. Perhaps the parents had someone better in mind, and their preference leaks out.

Why Mother-In-Law/Daughter-In-Law Conflicts Can Be so Intense

When people talk about conflicts between families, they often identify the mother-in-law relationship as particularly fraught for new brides. In earlier generations, this conflict was particularly intense because the bride often went to live under the mother-in-law's roof, thereby taking up a junior role in the household.

Such arrangements created all the conflicts one could expect when two relative strangers shared the same living space. How should the furniture be arranged? How should the home be maintained and cleaned? What meals were to be prepared, and how should they be cooked and presented? Who made budgetary decisions? Most importantly, who did the work?

Such extended families are rare in developed countries, but this relationship is still vulnerable to intense jealousies that spark ongoing tensions and disputes. Although brides and mothers-in-law occupy different homes, they still vie for the attention of the man in this triangular relationship.

Generally speaking, the bride wins out in this conflict, and a married man spends less time with his mother than he might have done while single. Even so, the mother-in-law has a longer, and perhaps deeper, relationship with her son that may leave the younger woman feeling insecure.

The mother may be fond of recalling episodes from childhood that exclude the bride, given that she was probably not there. The daughter-in-law may resent feeling like an outsider on these occasions. If so, she may retaliate by keeping the husband away from his mother as much as possible.

Why Grooms Have Less Intense Conflicts With In-Laws

Most of these conflicts could also apply to sons-in-law. Yet, one rarely hears of such conflicts poisoning the relationship between two families. Why?

One likely reason is that women experience close relationships with greater emotional intensity. They are more invested in them and more involved in planning occasions where the families come together. This means that they are more likely to be on the front lines where conflicts occur.

Sons-in-law, on the other hand, are less likely to be directly involved but are caught between the two main protagonists, who often feel under pressure to develop a relationship quickly. This is challenging if they are relative strangers.

Daughters-in-law may feel that they are not getting enough emotional support from mothers-in-law. When that support is forthcoming, they may experience it as intrusive, suffocating, and controlling.

Interestingly, their conflict is rarely centered on competition over affection, or love, so much as the desire of both women to exert influence over the man. So mothers are likely to engage in detailed reminiscences about the son's childhood, whereas daughters-in-law focus on peer relationships from which the mother is excluded.

Such conflicts are energized when children arrive, and generational differences in child-rearing preferences come to the fore. This calls for major compromises, and it is usually the older generation that must fall in line with newer practices regarding politeness, diet, disciplinary guidelines, entertainment choices, bedtimes, hygiene, safety, and so forth, on the premise that parents are the primary child raisers.

Peacekeeping

If there is conflict in in-law relationships from the outset, it is unlikely to go away, and making peace would be analogous to making peace between Israel and the Arabs: It is possible in theory but fails in practice.

The best that can be expected is that both sides develop good diplomatic skills so that actual hostilities are held to a minimum. The key here is to focus on small problems that are easily solved (e.g., Christmas celebrated in one home one year and another home the next).

It is better to steer clear of global problems that are more deeply emotional and cannot be resolved. For example, if you believe that your in-laws' politics are slightly to the right of Atilla the Hun, it is better to steer clear of politics altogether. If you are convinced that your son-in-law is a feckless parasite, avoid asking about his career plans.

Above all, the key to maintaining peace is to avoid declaring war. Such declarations come in many forms, whether it is a political diatribe that upsets many families at Thanksgiving or a malicious put-down delivered in public or a poison-pen letter detailing the shortcomings of the other side.

If you are the recipient of an attack, it is better not to counterattack, but to emphasize the shared interests that unite you, difficult though that can be.

The problem with all such outbursts is that they cannot be retracted, but form a dark cloud over the future that is to no one's advantage. They are the bell that can never be unrung and may reverberate for a lifetime.