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In-Law Conflict and Troubled Marriages

The same signals that bond parent and child also bond partners.

Key points

  • A parent's conspicuous and continual assessment of a son's or daughter's spouse can form the bedrock of conflict between in-laws.
  • Both women and men can face loyalty dilemmas.
  • It is important to balance loyalties, draw boundaries between ourselves and the people we love, and resist our self-protective biases.

When two people decide to marry, each makes a pledge that the other will be the most important person in their life. "You're the one" and "You come first" are common phrases that seal this promise. And so we expect that our partner will be on our side when the going gets rough.

Couples may fight between themselves, over big things and small, but we expect a partner to stick up for us when someone else threatens us, criticizes us, makes us feel bad. The last thing we expect, as we complain about the events of our day, is to have a spouse side with the colleague, friend, or plumber we're complaining about, and say, "The guy was right." If that happened regularly, we'd give up talking about our day-to-day problems and conclude that there was something rotten in the state of our marriage. But this, I have found, is precisely what happens, over and over again, when conflict arises between us and our in-laws.

It starts with love—our first love. Couples often come together with a feeling of newly discovered love, but the passionate and absorbing bond with a parent is the infant's first experience of loving, and of being one person of a loving pair. Though romantic relationships are very different from "blood" relationships, the biochemistry and neural signals that bond infant and parent are the very same ones used to bond us to a mate. The parent/infant pair in many ways behaves like lovers. A mother and baby lock together in a mutual gaze, each looking back to the other looking at her—an activity called "eye love" which is also practiced by romantic lovers as they gaze at each other in mutual admiration. This early intimacy leaves a legacy that impacts on every subsequent intimate attachment, including marriage. Though it is often said that the family is in decline, the bond between parent and child (and grandchild) remains as strong and as enduring as ever. A parent-in-law may be loving, but this love is rarely unconditional. A parent's conspicuous and continual assessment of a son's or daughter's spouse, combined with vulnerability ("How will my child's marriage impact on my special relationship?"), form the bedrock of the ancient conflict between in-laws. The person who wants to be both a loyal spouse and a loyal son or daughter can experience a dilemma that can rock a marriage to its roots, and this is one reason it is important to understand the intricacies of in-law relationships.

Among the 49 couples who participated in my research, I was surprised how often men chose to protect their mothers against their wives. They saw a wife as stronger and tougher, and therefore the one who should make allowances. But when a wife is told, "That's just the way my mother is; you have to accept that," she feels betrayed. "Whose side are you on?" she demands.

When Shelley felt her mother-in-law, Nora, was excluding her from family gatherings, and instead showing preference for her husband Cal's former wife, she decided to "talk the issue through" with Nora. This talk spiraled into a shouting match, during which Nora's accusations that she was "selfish" and "controlling" burnt into her brain. So Shelley was dumbfounded when Cal scolded, "You shouldn't upset her like this," and then added, more darkly, "No one disrespects my mother."

While she recalls, loud and clear, the words Nora hurled against her, Shelley cannot remember what she said to strike such an angry chord in Cal. New research shows that in heated interchanges, our minds have a way of protecting us from self-recrimination. People are quick to forget their own unkind words, even as they nurse a grudge against someone else. So Shelley is outraged when Cal calls her to account for the "terrible names" she called his mother: "It was a shock to see him glaring at me like that. Watching someone who should be rooting for you suddenly change sides, without warning, and freeze you out. . . it's an awful feeling. Nothing is lonelier than dealing with an angry mother-in-law. I now wonder whether we have a marriage at all."

Shelley's implicit plea to Cal is, "I am hurt and you are my husband, so you should stand by me." Cal's response is, "I love my mother and don't want her hurt." Shelley demands, "But what about me? Aren't you on my side?" Cal does not feel able to negotiate two competing loyalties, and so he lashes out at his wife for presenting him with a difficult dilemma.

Cal's aggressive approach to his loyalty dilemma puts his marriage at risk, but men who try to avoid the dilemma are unlikely to achieve a happier outcome. Luisa describes a furious quarrel with her husband, Eric, that occurred when she felt that her mother-in-law was particularly rude to her. "I shouted at him till I was blue in the face, but he just froze and went for a drive. When he came back, he pretended nothing had happened, so I started shouting again, and he left again. When I try to talk to him about his mother, he clams up, and either drinks a beer or goes to the pub."

A familiar generalization is that men are more comfortable than women in engaging directly in conflict. In a family setting, this common "truth" turns out to be nonsense. In fact, men have a lower tolerance for probing conversation and verbal conflict. John Gottman at the University of Washington monitored heart rate, blood pressure, and adrenaline levels of both spouses during marital quarrels, and found that men become physiologically overwhelmed much more quickly than women. With his pulse rate rising rapidly during an argument, and his elevated pressure, a husband may instinctively remove himself from the fray. This "stonewalling" technique of shutting down receptors and turning your body and mind into a stone wall is a defence against the stimuli that flood our system when we sense danger. Going blank, refusing to show a response, or leaving the room are all defensive acts. Eric withdraws from Luisa to protect both of them. But to Luisa, Eric's withdrawal conveys disdain, icy anger, and rejection. His attempt to defuse the argument actually escalates it.

Another response to loyalty dilemmas is to refuse to consider your own family norms from your partner's perspective. "She doesn't mean anything by it," "That's just how she is," and "You have no right to complain about my mother," are means of marking a fixed position and signalling that you are closed to reassessment. Whether this strategy is employed gently ("I don't really see a problem") or with a pointed accusation ("If you see a problem there's something wrong with you") it denies the legitimacy of a partner's perspective. We seek resonance in our partner: "Do you understand what I'm feeling?" We ask. "Do you have empathy and concern for me?" Nothing disappoints us or ignites a quarrel as quickly as the message, "Your feelings don't make any sense."

Both women and men face loyalty dilemmas, but women generally have more finesse in balancing criticism and reassurance. Women are generally better at tolerating criticism of their parents, and simultaneously enjoying what's positive about their parents. As teenagers, girls bond with their friends through complaints about their "impossible mothers." Hence, Annie finds it easy to say to her husband, "I know mum's a real nuisance. Her constant fussing about everything—from tile mould to world politics—drives me up the wall, too. We just have to learn to laugh at it together, because she's my mum, and that's that," whereas her husband Glen feels uneasy when Annie complains about the timing of his mother's phone calls. "Why are you so critical of such a little thing?" he demands.

Women also have more practice from their teen years at staking out their boundaries with a mother: "I'm different from you," and "You don't understand me," and of course, "Don't tell me what to do!" Boys tend to have less practice fine-tuning relational positions; because of that gender gulf between mother and son, they may have to do less work to set boundaries during their teens. This means that more negotiation with a mother over boundaries may be required when he marries. Yet all too often a husband will leave such boundary-work to a wife. When, nearly every weekend, Jon's mother asks him to make the two-and-a-half hour drive to her home to help with minor maintenance jobs, he assents, but gives the power of veto to his wife Melissa. "I'll come, unless Mel says it's not possible," he tells his mother. Melissa feels she is being cast as domineering wife and grudging daughter-in-law. "I wish you'd just decide for yourself," she tells him. "I wish you'd tell her, at least once, that you'd really prefer to spend the weekend with me."

Jon may harbour an unspoken (even unacknowledged) hope: "I can't regulate my distance from my mother, so I want you to do it for me." But when Melissa gibes, "I'm not sure whether she's trying to keep a tight grip on her son or her handy man," Jon exclaims, "Stop criticising my mother!" Melissa is stunned by this response: "I'm your wife. Whose side are you on?"

In-law relationships are not simple. Balancing loyalties, drawing boundaries between ourselves and the people we love, and resisting the self-protective biases that blind us to our own unfairness are all essential to prevent in-law conflict from overwhelming a marriage—and to silence those cries of "Whose side are you on?"

A version of this post was published in the London Times on 11 August 2009.

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