The silent rivalry between a mother-in-law and her son's wife is a typical cliche for many women. Even with a secure marriage, the wife is always in deadly competition with the husband's mother.
In 1954, a study revealed that only one in four women liked their mother-in-law, and new research suggests that the tension is still deep-seated.
A study of hundreds of families showed that nearly two-thirds of women complain they've suffered from long-term unhappiness because of their mother-in-laws. During the study, which was conducted over 20 years, women accused their husband's mothers of showing unreasonably jealous love towards their own sons.
In turn, mothers-in-law complained they felt excluded from their sons' lives by their wives.
Dr Terri Apter, a psychologist and senior tutor at Newnham College, Cambridge, who carried out the research for her book 'What Do You Want From Me?', explains: "The conflict often arises from an assumption that each is criticising or undermining the other woman. But this mutual unease may have less to do with actual attitudes and far more to do with persistent female stereotypes that few of us manage to shake off completely."
"Both the mother and the wife are struggling to achieve the same position in the family - primary woman. Each tries to establish or protect their status. Each feels threatened by the other," Apter said.
"It's a tragedy," Apter said, upon learning of the reality of mother-in-law and wife relationships. "This impasse divides women who should ahve so much in common, and who could benefit from each other's friendship. It causes both sides terrible unhappiness and distress."
Apter says that most problems can be due to unspoken, possibly conflicting expectations and mere assumptions. For example, many daughters-in-law assume that they will be judged on their cooking, cleaning and child-rearing abilities, no matter how modern the mothers-in-law are.
But at the same time, mothers-in-law also interpret the decisions of their son's wives to do things differently from them as a rejection of their own choices.
Also, while daughters-in-law may assume that as a fellow woman, their husband's mother would back them up when they disagree with their husband. But while some cases may end up the opposite, a mother's unconditional love for her son will triumph over any female bonding.
These disappointments send both women signals of "negative charge", Apter said. Too add to the stresses of these relationships, a mother may have feelings of pride and loss as a son marries, while a wife may have insecurities about balancing work and home responsibilities.
Some studies ahve even shown that these tensions can put even the best marriages at risk. An Italian study, for example, carried out by the National Statistics Institute, found that the odds of a marriage lasting increases with every 100 yards that a couple puts between themselves and their in-laws.
It doesn't stop there, living with in-laws can even put health at risk. A previous Japanese study showed that women living with in-laws or parents, their spouse, and kids, were two to three times more likely at risk of coronary heart diease than women living with only a spouse. On the other hand, men experienced no such risk.
But of course, a woman could always suck it up and try to be positive about her relationship with the in-laws.
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