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Daughters-in-Law and Mothers-in-Law: Boundary Ambiguity

When roles are not clear between women and their mothers-in-law.

In our just-published research in Social Work Research (December 2019), Michael Woolley and I analyzed data from a Qualtrics survey of 351 women from across the U.S. who were asked about their relationship with their mother-in-law.

We have long believed (and the research of others, including Drs. Mary Claire Morr Serewicz and Christine Rittenour, supports this) that the role of the daughter-in-law in families that they marry into is often unclear. (We have written elsewhere of the mother-in-law role also being unclear.) Role ambiguity is a common term used to describe the position in a family when members are unsure of how to behave and what is expected of them.

This may be most common when people first marry into the family. For example, if parents have always prepared family meals during holidays and their son or daughter marries a woman who comes from a family where the children have always prepared meals, what happens in the newly formed family? If grandparents are central in raising the children in the daughter-in-law's family and parents are central in raising them in the mother-in-law's family, how are parenting decisions made and where are lines drawn?

In our sample, daughters-in-law generally reported a positive relationship with their mother-in-law. This is consistent with other research. We were most interested in those who were less positive about their relationship—people who would most likely seek help from mental health professionals.

We found some key correlations. (Demographic variables were not strong predictors.) When daughters-in-law feel less positive about their relationship with their mother-in-law, they are more likely to believe that:

  1. Their mother-in-law is closer to another child-in-law than them.
  2. Their mother-in-law is interfering in their marital relationship;
  3. They cannot speak directly to their mother-in-law about important matters between them (the implication is that their spouse does the communication).
  4. The mother-in-law is withholding.
  5. The mother-in-law makes them feel anxious.
  6. They and their mother-in-law have different parenting philosophies.

One key takeaway from our research is that the daughter-in-law and mother-in-law's relationship should be viewed in the context of other relationships in the family. These include other in-laws who have married into the family (who may be favored) as well as the mother-in-law's son or daughter, the spouse of the daughter-in-law (who may be facilitating or blocking the women's communication).

Learning to communicate directly and supportively with the mother-in-law may be one way for the daughter-in-law to improve the relationship if it is a struggle. This will remove the spouse from the triangle. But note that this requires communicating with the spouse first, as they are central to the two women's relationship.

Communication can also help to get the two women on the same page in terms of parenting philosophies. When each learns more about the other's upbringing and parenting approaches, such knowledge may help them each to better understand not only themselves but what the daughter-in-law and her spouse are hoping to achieve with their parenting style (if it has not been made explicit already). With the daughter-in-law and her spouse communicating to the mother-in-law directly, as well as with the daughter-in-law feeling comfortable speaking directly, a boundary may be drawn around the couple's relationship which may help clarify some of the ambiguity.

Geoffrey Greif
Source: Geoffrey Greif

Finally, let us not forget the role of the spouse of the mother-in-law in this relationship. The daughter-in-law may be more comfortable with him or her which may ease the relationship between the two women who were the focus of this particular research.


Greif, G. L. & Woolley, M. E. (2019). Women and their mothers-in-law: Triangles, ambiguity, and relationship quality. Social Work Research, 43, 259-268.