Many women and couples come to me for therapy because of the wife being unhappy with the husband’s relationship with his mother and the influence the mother has on her son.
Some marriages end if this is not resolved. How do we manage this dilemma?
It can be an emotional experience having your son move on to the next phase of his life. Mothers’ lives often revolve around their children, so it’s a difficult adjustment knowing that someone else will be doing the things you have always done for your son.
What’s important to remember is that you are the mother and no one will replace you in your son’s life. You and the wife have completely different roles to play. Naturally, your role may feel threatened when a woman enters your son’s life, as he needs you less.
This is a natural transition in life and transitions are difficult to navigate.
The best advice I can give to you, is to accept your daughter-in-law and treat her like a daughter. It’s the best thing you can do for your son. As a doting mother, it’s not uncommon to worry that your daughter-in-law may not be the best choice for your son - what’s important to remember is that it is his choice.
By the time sons are choosing their life partners, they are old enough. Certainly, many marriages do not work out - but there are many complex reasons why they don’t. Even those who love and accept their daughter-in-law may find marriages ending.
Trust that you have raised your son to be an independent young man and that he is competent to raise a family of his own. Also trust that he can make his own decisions, and any change in him does not necessarily mean he is “being controlled” by his wife. The more you accept the relationship, the greater your chances of having a healthy relationship with your son.
It can be devastating to be marrying someone you love, only to feel unaccepted by his family. As you enter a new family, treat your parents-in-law as you would treat your parents.
Because your husband has spent all his life with his family, he may not regard their behaviour as problematic. It can feel overwhelming when you feel that your spouse does not understand or support you.
If you are unhappy because you feel the boundaries are blurred, you need to speak to your husband. Be factual when you speak and ask for what you would like.
For example, “I feel disrespected when you agree to plans with your family without consulting me first. As a couple, I would like us to make decisions together.”
Name-calling and saying nasty things about in-laws will only destabilise your marriage further. It is not okay to say nasty things to someone about their parents - even if they upset you. Rather focus on how their words or actions made you feel. It’s always advisable to have a trusted friend that you can vent to, so you are not bottling up unhealthy emotions. But the conversations with your husband must be constructive.
Try to develop your own relationship with your mother-in-law. Ask for her advice on things that you know she’s good at (for example, a recipe). Make attempts to visit and do things with her.
If your relationship with your mother-in-law is already toxic, it helps to first reflect on this: is there any role that you are playing in that toxic relationship and are there any changes you can make?
Set healthy boundaries, so your marriage does not feel threatened.
For example, make visits shorter so they do not distress you too much, and discuss with your husband what you would like him to do to make you feel like a priority.
The key to a healthy relationship with your mother-in-law lies with you and your husband communicating effectively, understanding each other and supporting each other in decisions and boundary-setting.
As much as we would love to be accepted, we sometimes have to accept that our best is sometimes not good enough - and it may have nothing to do with you.
What’s important is that your husband supports you and takes the necessary action to ensure you are not disrespected.
I often feel sorry for the son as he is often the one caught between the mother and the wife and it can be a huge struggle trying to keep the peace.
It can be emotional for the son to see his mother upset, so he may eat her food instead of the wife’s, to avoid offending the mum. Or he may speak to her excessively, sharing too much information about his private life. It’s even more difficult when the mother resists the life change and makes the son feel guilty for not spending more time with her, etc.
There are many cases of sons sharing important information with the mother (for example, a promotion at work or buying a new car) before sharing it with the wife.
This is disrespectful to the wife, as you have chosen her as your life partner. Important life decisions need to be taken by husband and wife. You can certainly discuss with parents or seek their advice or blessings afterwards.
Your role is to let your wife know what your expectations are from her in relation to your family. This may not be readily accepted, if your wife finds it unreasonable - so it’s helpful to be open to discussion.
Also, let your parents know if there is anything they are doing that threatens your marriage.
Do not shy away from communication and conflict-resolution. Avoiding this will make things worse in your marriage. The sooner you discuss the things that bother you, the sooner they can be resolved, otherwise, it can blow up to a point of no return, which I have seen.
The last resort is to seek professional help. On all sides, not accepting the other means unhappiness and broken family relationships.
The mother-in-law and daughter-in-law relationship can be extremely difficult to navigate, but definitely worth the effort for healthy family relations.
* Beekrum is a counselling psychologist.