Christmas is almost here and while some might be looking forward to spending the holidays with their in-laws, for others being trapped in the same house as their mother-in-law is enough to turn any festive cheer into yuletide misery.
Whether she is critical and interferes, spoils your children or has even tried to break up your marriage, anonymous stories about the mother-in-law from hell litter cyberspace. Paradoxically, finding anyone to talk about their personal experiences proved impossible. It seems that no-one is brave enough to risk a public falling out with their mother-in-law. Perhaps memories are still fresh of the spat last year between a mother-in-law to be who sent a scathing email to her son's fiancé, accusing her of bad manners and "staggering uncouthness and lack of grace" following a weekend visit. The email became a worldwide sensation and, unsurprisingly, the mother-in-law from hell didn't get an invitation to the wedding.
A mother-in-law often finds herself the target of jokes but the problem is "deadly serious" says Dr Terri Apter, a psychologist and senior tutor at Newnham College, Cambridge.
"I was stunned to discover the impact and influence of in-laws" says Apter while researching her book What Do You Want From Me: Learning To Get Along With The In-Laws. Apter used two decades of research to show the extent of the difficulties some daughters-in-law face.
"Over 60 per cent of women said that their relationship with an in-law caused them long-term unhappiness and stress, and affected the quality of their marriage," she says.
One victim of a mother-in-law from hell described her experiences at essentialbaby.com.au: "For the record I am always lovely to my mother-in-law but if I wasn't in a relationship with her son I would never go near her without a hazard suit on! She is a liar, terribly two-faced and a drama queen - anyone else like that would not be in my life. But because she is the mother of the man I love, I smile, make charming conversation, try and steer her conversation away from the character assassinations of her other daughters-in-law and sons (a courtesy I hope is reciprocated!) and try not to sever my tongue from biting on it. Sometimes it is a power play - two women battling for supremacy in the eyes of the one man."
Quarrels can arise about anything that symbolises love, status or influence, says Apter and often conflict emerges as each feels the other is criticising or undermining her or challenging her special role in the family.
"Although a daughter-in-law is an adult in her own household, a mother-in-law's maternal expertise is already established and she may expect deference. There then arises that tricky question about who is 'mother' in the family, with final say over all those things women still assume charge over: housework and child care, meal times and children's manners. The daughter-in-law is gatekeeper to her children, who are the mother-in-law's grandchildren. That can be frightening."
However, getting on badly with your mother-in-law could actually be good news for your marriage. A new study says those women who enjoy a positive relationship with their in-laws actually have a 20 per cent greater chance of separating.
Dr Terri Orbuch, a psychologist and research professor at the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research and author of Finding Love Again: 6 Simple Steps to a New and Happy Relationship, studied 373 same-race couples over 26 years to come up with the findings which will be published in 2013 in the journal, Family Relations.
She believes there are two explanations for this.
"When a wife gets close to her in-laws, this takes time away from bonding with her husband and family, especially early in marriage", she says, and "when a wife gets close to her in-laws, she has a difficult time not taking what her in-laws say as personal or interference. In contrast, marriages in which husbands have a close relationship with in-laws are 20 per cent less likely to end in divorce. These family ties connect him to his wife."
So what should you do if relations between you and your mother-in-law are so tense that they threaten to derail not just Christmas but your own sanity?
"My best advice is to address the fears that underlie the problems" says Apter.
"The key is to turn competition into collaboration. It's much easier to set boundaries between you and your in-laws if you have also established connections. It's easier to hear, 'That's not a good time to visit' or 'We're going to make this decision ourselves' if you're not afraid of being totally cut off."
Orbuch says it is important to have realistic expectations.
"Don't try and change her or expect that this year things will be different. They won't. Instead find some common ground between you and her. Try and remember that comments your mother-in-law might make about your parenting style, marriage or work are not about you, and all about them," she says.
"Usually, the most prickly issues across families are about who will have the most influence."
If there is still too much conflict and tension, she suggests that you ask your spouse for help.
Apter agrees. "Get your spouse on side. The man's role is crucial", she says.
"He can head off problems if he reassures his parents that they are still an important part of his life, that he still feels connected to them, still loves and respects them, while at the same time showing them that his primary connection is now with his wife."
But if you can't see that the relationship will ever work, Orbuch advises to "focus on the fact that this woman raised the special man you married. If for nothing else, that deserves some respect."
- Sydney Morning Herald
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