So, my mother-in-law hates me...

JO HARTLEY
Last updated 10:38 03/06/2014
Monster in law

MONSTER IN LAW: Conflict between couples and their in-laws has isn't limited to the big screen.

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When Julie* met her future mother-in-law, she was immediately under no illusion that they were ever going to be friends.

"I have a child from a previous relationship and this was a big issue for Anne," says the 32-year-old from Melbourne.

"She saw my daughter as baggage and, despite the fact I was studying and supporting myself, told Fergus I was a gold digger looking for an inbuilt babysitter."

This issue repeatedly reared its head, but it wasn't until the couple got engaged that they felt the full blow of Anne's disapproval.

"After our engagement party, Anne rang Fergus to tell him he was making the worst mistake of his life. She even emailed him to say she would kill herself if he married me. It was totally out of control."

And even though the couple have now been married for six years and have a 10-month-old daughter together, relations have not improved.

"The ongoing issues with her definitely affect us. We fight every time we see her and I get angry that Fergus is so desensitised to how rude she is. But I just have to remember that if he were made to choose there would be no competition. He's actually told his mum that, too, which must be a very hard thing for her to hear. But, on the flip side, I don't think a mother should ever propose that in the first place."

What is more upsetting for Julie is that the impact has spread. "Fergus has lost contact with his brothers because they don't want to upset their mum, even though they agree she's wrong. It's sad because they were a close-knit family, yet now they haven't even met our son."

Alison, from Sydney, feels her mother was a contributing factor in the breakup of her last relationship, which lasted for four years.

"Mum found fault with everything about Rob, although she did it without ever criticising him directly, so it didn't quite register until later on," she says.

But a trip home to Scotland left the 28-year-old in no doubt as to her mum's feelings. "She ambushed me by buying me a day spa voucher so she could get me alone. She then proceeded to spend the entire day telling me everything that was wrong with Rob and why we weren't meant for each other."

While Alison was already starting to question her feelings, she believes her mum accelerated the breakup process.

"After that trip I spent five months really trying to determine whether or not I was actually happy. I explored all angles of our relationship, but the more I looked, the more fault I found."

After ending her relationship with Rob, Alison told her mum that she was staying in Australia. "That was a hard pill for her to swallow, and I'm still not sure she would have pushed so hard for the breakup if she realised I wouldn't move back afterwards. Having said that, she's always been quick to point out my partner's faults and even tried it with my now husband when he was my fiancé, although she gave up after we eloped!"

Charlotte has also felt like the meat in the sandwich since introducing her partner to her parents 12 years ago.

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"My parents' disapproval and dislike of Tim stems from the fact that he has very different beliefs from them, particularly my mum, who is a fundamentalist Christian," says the 37-year-old from Geelong.

Charlotte admits that numerous issues over the years have left her feeling torn between two camps. But it was an incident at Christmas that saw her reach a turning point.

"My mother kept threatening that she was going to report Tim to DOCS for being an unfit father, which is absolutely ludicrous. We ended up alerting the police to make sure we were protected, but it really pushed me over the edge. I vowed that she would never make me and the kids feel like that again, but it still made me sad that I had to report her."

Since then, Charlotte has focused on making her family her priority, although she confesses she will never fully be able to cut her parents from her life.

"I know Tim would prefer me to cease all contact with them, but I can't do that. They are still my parents and I don't love them any less. I'm just disappointed."

Her parents now rarely see their grandchildren. "I actually feel sorry for them, as they are missing out on their grandkids. We don't spend Christmas, Easter or birthdays together, but as they can't even put their differences aside for the sake of the children, there really is nothing I can do."

Rachel has been married to James for 11 years - and they have been in counselling for the past year due to issues caused by his parents.

"When we applied for our Australian visas, James's parents withheld personal information that we needed," says the 35-year-old from Melbourne. "They were convinced I was conspiring to get their details in order to get their money."

Despite the geographic distance that now lies between them, hearts have not grown fonder.

"His parents visit every year and for months prior to their arrival James and I would end up fighting relentlessly," she says. "The last time they came I refused to see them at all; I just couldn't take any more. I had lost all respect for James and just needed him to stand up for me."

Following the birth of their third child, and on the brink of a marital breakdown, the couple commenced counselling. "We came to the conclusion that the best way forward was for me to have nothing to do with James's parents," says Rachel.

She adds that her husband now appreciates that the behaviour of his parents is not acceptable. "While he is not at the point where he will cut them out of his life, he would walk away if they continued to bulldoze him and show a lack of respect.

"He said that for a long time he thought it was me forcing him into a situation whereby he had to choose, but he finally recognises that it is actually his parents who have done that and he just hasn't been able to see it."

According to Sydney psychologist Jocelyn Brewer, issues around approval generally come back to expectation and communication.

"If people are entering into a relationship with someone whom their parents deem not 'good enough', they will need to communicate about why they are making that choice, why that person makes their heart sing, and what they contribute to their life. It may feel like 'selling' or justifying the relationship, but the truth is that parents might need some convincing and their perceptions rewired, and you need to be the driving force behind that."

Brewer says that it's important to consider family concerns and the intention of them, but also to realise that issues need to be acknowledged and differences accepted.

"Sometimes the only way forward is to keep the two parties separate, and avoid any conversations that run too deep or create space to dredge up old territory. The key is also to set respect as a basic requirement."

*All names in this story have been changed.

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