Every couple fights once in a while. Even couples in great relationships disagree. It's totally normal and can be healthy. But then there are the unhealthy fights, often caused by people outside the relationship. Personally, my partner and I endure plenty of arguments that aren't caused by the pair of us, but by his mother. Thankfully, this isn't atypical either. There are some fights every couple has that you can absolutely blame on your mother-in-law, the way she raised your partner, the way she views you, or the things she does to meddle in your relationship.
In talking with my mom friends, I have learned that I'm not alone in this experience. Turns out, mothers-in-law are often a source of marital conflict. According to psychologist and author Terri Apter, Ph.D., this is because, in heterosexual relationships, men have a hard time backing up their wives when it means disagreeing with their mothers. They feel like they are forced to choose sides, their wives feel abandoned, and their mothers blame their daughters-in-law for changing their relationship with their sons. In fact, researchers from the University of Cambridge and the nonprofit Stand Alone surveyed over 800 people who were estranged from a parent, child, or sibling. One in four mothers of sons said not getting along with their daughter-in-law was the reason for issues with their child.
Personally, I feel like the strain my mother-in-law puts on my relationship is completely unfair. And the worst part, of course, is that I feel like there's nothing I can do to fix it. Then again, maybe I shouldn't feel responsible for fixing it at all, especially when it's not really about me at all. So with that in mind, here are a few fights you can expect to endure that are without-a-doubt your mother-in-law's fault.
Whenever we have an issue with my mother-in-law meddling or making plans for us, my husband seems to want me to fix it. Apters research for her book What Do You Want From Me? Learning to Get Along With In-laws, men often leave the job of boundary-setting to their wives, even when their own mothers are concerned. I know first-hand that this can make their wife feel like she always has to be the bad guy, and can make their mother feel like she is the bad guy, because she is the bearer of bad news or viewed as the source of the problem.
Once you get married, or form a partnership with another adult, it can be seriously hard to decide which family traditions to keep and where and with whom to spend the holidays. My parents live relatively close, so it can seem like they get more quality time with my kids. My husband hears about it from my mother-in-law, and inevitably we'll fight about whether or not we should travel or invite her to our house.
We can blame this perceived inequity on my mother-in-law, because she can travel way easier than we can, and it's unfair to expect us to bring five kids on a 10-hour road trip all because she doesn't think the scales are balanced. The same goes for not attending church services or not continuing her family traditions that aren't our style. These aren't meant to be slights, even if she views them that way.
According to psychologist Darcy Lockman, even the most progressive heterosexual couples don't have an equal distribution of labor at home, with women shouldering, on average, more than 60 percent of duties, especially when it comes to child care and even when they work full-time. According to an article in The Washington Post, this behavior is learned and solidified during childhood by observing your parents, and Lockman writes, "Children are gender detectives, distinguishing between the sexes from as early as 18 months and using that information to guide their behavior." So, we can blame how our spouse views gender roles on our mother-in-laws (and father-in-laws), and how they divided tasks and modeled spousal relationships for their child.
As I recently explained to my husband, if our house is not clean to his mother's standards, she won't blame him or criticize him. Instead, she'll blame and criticize me. While we don't really do traditional gender roles in our house, she totally does in her home. So, when it comes time to prepare for her visit, I expect that he will help (if not take charge of) cleaning up.
My husband is honest to a fault pretty much all of the time, unless his mother is concerned. He absolutely advocates lying to her to spare her feelings, even if it means us sleeping on a mattress on her basement floor, eating food he hates, or letting her believe he's OK with the plans she made without consulting us first. So, inevitably, if I speak up a fight isn't too far behind.
Other fights ensue when a partner feels like he or she can't say, "no," to their mother, even when it means saying "no" to their partner. When your partner has to choose between his or her mother and partner, no one wins. Personally, it just makes me feel like my husband doesn't love me as much as he loves her, when I know that rationally isn't true.
At times my former mother-in-law seemed like she was on a mission to undermine my parenting, and it seemed in the process to undermine my marriage to her son.
One huge fight I had with my now ex-husband was about whether or not to baptize our children. We were not Christian, but his mother put the pressure on, and he was inclined to give in so we could avoid a fight with her. I, on the other hand was livid that she wanted to impose religion on our family and control such a person aspect of our lives.
According to psychologist Susan Newman, I was right. It's important to set boundaries with your in-laws regarding your parenting. Newman told HuffPost, “When a couple defers to meddling in-laws, it adds considerable stress to a partnership.” This can be done in a gentle and non-confrontational way, or when necessary, you may have to be more direct. Newman adds, "If they’re persistent, you may need to add consequences to whatever boundaries you have set. By letting them know in advance about boundaries and consequences, they’ll be making the choice, not you, for what happens next.”
Sometimes it feels like my husband blames me for not getting along with his mom, as if I'm the only person involved in the situation. In Apter's research she found that this happens because husbands see their wives as stronger than their moms, or they view them as the one who should concede. This, in my opinion, is complete bullsh*t. My mother-in-law is an adult, not a child (even if I feel like she acts like one sometimes), and she needs to accept blame when something is her fault. I, by the way, am also an adult, and don't need to be nice to someone who is horrible to me.
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