Stress & the In-Laws

Medical Reviewer

For many people time spent with the in-laws is little more than an exercise in defense and counter-manipulation. Tensions can sometimes build to a point where they tear families apart. So what causes the problems and what, if any, are the solutions?

Dr. Terri Apter is a psychologist and academic in the field of family dynamics. Her 20 year study of families provides insight into some of the common reasons for conflict. Dr. Apter states that 60 per cent of mother-in-law/daughter-in-law bonds are described in strong negative terms such as, "strained", "uncomfortable", "infuriating", "depressing" and "simply awful". This compares with only 15 per cent of mother-in-law/son-in-law problems.

The basis of most female conflict centers on female roles, notably those of wife, mother and "good woman". Daughters-in-law frequently complain that criticism is often indirect and passive-aggressive. Even praise from their mother-in-law implies a form of judgment about their capabilities. The role of women has changed considerably but this does not seem to affect some of the core concerns of the mother-in-law who still seeks the best for her son. If the daughter-in-law has her own career goals these can set the scene for conflict.

The birth of a child can help to ease tensions, or it may increase them. Having someone available to share the workload can seem like a blessing but daughters-in-law can feel invaded and ignored. Dr. Apter cites the case of a young woman who describes her mother-in-law acting like a vulture. "She grabs my baby and barely breathes a 'hello' to me. She gives a running commentary: 'You need to burp him.' 'This is the best way to do it', 'He must be teething, you don't need to feed him.'" With such tensions it may be tempting for the mother to deny access to their mother-in-law on the basis of putting the needs of their child first. However, a grandparent's attachment to a child can enrich the life of the child, the grandparent's and the parents if it is allowed to develop.

Learning to get on with the in-laws requires time and patience. Sometimes it is about compromise and sometimes it is about setting boundaries. There are no absolutes in terms of what works and what doesn't but here are a few ideas I've gleaned from different sources:

Try to involve your husband in helping you talk through the tensions. Men have a tendency either to sit back or to blame their partner for over-reacting or for not understanding their mother's true intentions. Remember you are trying to get on with the in-laws so don't try to make your husband take sides as this will simply encourage conflict.

It's good to set boundaries but don't be too rule driven. If you know Friday is a bad day to visit let the in-laws know and be firm if necessary. Conflict can arise in any relationship but choose your battles.

Act like an adult. The fact that you are usually much younger than your mother-in-law can make you feel disadvantaged, but it's only a feeling. If you seem tense and defensive it will heighten tensions. Feel free to express your personal views on issues even if they conflict with your mother-in-law. It shows you have clearly developed ideas of your own and that you aren't afraid to share them.

Remember that in-laws have feelings too. If you see something praiseworthy then give praise. If a suggestion from your in-laws is a good one, acknowledge it as such.

If you don't see your in-laws very frequently it could well be the case that holidays are when you get together. Dr. Gail Saltz, a psychiatrist talked about this very issue on the Today Show. Her own tips extend to knowing how long you can easily cope with your in-laws and making sure you stick to this. Dr. Saltz says if you are traveling to stay with the in-laws try to avoid peak travel times as this will set up tension and crankiness before you even arrive. If there are unresolved issues from the last visit it might be worth trying to settle these over the phone before you arrive - even if its only to agree to disagree.


Apter, T (2009) What Do You Want From Me? Learning to Get Along with In-Laws. WW Norton & Co.

Saltz, G (2008) Got evil in-Laws? 6 Tips for a stress-free holiday.