War of the Roses
It is as delicate as a flower, and frequently it is beset with thorns. It has been highlighted, discussed and even ridiculed in pop culture. And if not handled with utmost care it can be a great cause of familial discord… You guessed right — we are talking about the relationship between mothers-in-law (MILs) and daughters-in-law (DILs)
It is an unspoken understanding — perhaps more so in certain cultures than others — that when you marry a man you also marry his family. And any bride-to-be/new daughter-in-law will tell you making a good impression on the mother-in-law is crucial to ensure familial harmony. So imagine Heidi Withers’ horror when she received an explosive email titled “your lack of manners” from her fiancé’s step-mom, explaining in depth what was wrong with her. An excerpt:
“Here are a few examples of your lack of manners: When you are a guest in another’s house, you do not declare what you will and will not eat — unless you are positively allergic to something. You do not remark that you do not have enough food.
You do not start before everyone else. You do not take additional helpings without being invited to by your host.
When a guest in another’s house, you do not lie in bed until late morning in households that rise early — you fall in line with house norms.
You should never ever insult the family you are about to join at any time and most definitely not in public. I gather you passed this off as a joke but the reaction in the pub was one of shock, not laughter.
You regularly draw attention to yourself. Perhaps you should ask yourself why. No one gets married in a castle unless they own it. It is brash, celebrity-style behaviour.
I understand your parents are unable to contribute very much towards the cost of your wedding. (There is nothing wrong with that except that convention is such that one might presume they would have saved over the years for their daughters’ marriages.)
If this is the case, it would be most ladylike and gracious to lower your sights and have a modest wedding as befits both your incomes.
One could be accused of thinking that Heidi Withers must be patting herself on the back for having caught a most eligible young man. I pity Freddie.”
Ouch! Miffed with Bourne’s cruel remarks, Withers forwarded the email to a few friends, one of whom “accidently” sent it out as a chain mail and the whole incident just went viral, eliciting sharp criticism for Bourne from people and media alike.
The incident is reminiscent of over-the-top movie Monster-in-law (2005) which made for very comic viewing as a headstrong bride-to-be (Jennifer Lopez) went head-to-head with the controlling, territorial mother of the groom (Jane Fonda). But in real life, there is nothing remotely funny about the problems faced by MILs and DILs.
It would be a safe assumption to make that MIL-DIL relationships are one of the more complex and tricky aspects of family dynamics. Author Elisabeth Graham, who interviewed hundreds of women for her book Mothers-in-Law vs. Daughters-in-Law: Let There Be Peace found that 70 per cent of women polled expressed dissatisfaction with their mother-in-law or daughter-in-law. Comments ranged from “I’m glad she doesn’t visit” to “I wish she were dead”. “It’s correct to say this is one of the more complicated human relationships... Often the only thing these two women have in common is their love for the same man. Neither of them is prepared for the ensuing struggle,” writes the author.
The bone of contention
So what is it about this relationship that turns the otherwise lovely women into sparring and hating individuals befitting the tags of monsters-in-law and daughters-from-hell?
According to Asha Jagtiani, mother-in-law of Sheena, like the relationship itself the answer is multi-layered and complex, but at the heart of the matter there is just one reason: two completely different views of the same man. “While my daughter-in-law will always see my son as a grown man, I will always see him first as my baby,” says Asha.
Whose view of things is right? Sheena takes up the question, “Both. Or maybe neither... But as with most problems, matters get worse when neither party is generally willing to concede. In our case, what gets us through our differences is the fact that we both love the same guy.” Asha concurs, “For everything we go through, the man who connects us is suffering twice, as my son and as her husband.”
We are territorial beings
Ever watched a video of a pride of lions on Animal Planet in which the older head feels threatened by the younger males — who will eventually overthrow and cast him to the outskirts of the group where he will slowly wither and die? That’s pretty much the feeling that Dubai-based Tabassum* got when she first started spending time with her MIL post-marriage.
“At first, I thought she genuinely disliked me, but after close observation I realised that it was more about her than me. I was this new 20-something marching into her territory, stealing her [son’s] attention [away from her], making changes to her order of things,” says the now 32-year-old.
The key to making her MIL get over this insecurity, Tabassum says, was to let her know that she occupies a primary spot in her son’s heart and always will. She achieved this by making her husband spend quality time with his mother at least once a month. “It worked like a charm. Although I never directly broached the topic, just this indirect act was enough to put her at ease,” points out the mother of two.
While it is necessary that the DIL ensures she makes the MIL feel relevant and needed, not all responsibility can be thrust upon her, feels Rukhmini Prabhu. A mother-in-law of two, Rukhmini says an MIL should remember that a relationship is a two-way street. “When a girl marries into a household, whether or not she is living with the in-laws, she will have enough adjustments to make. The least you can do is ensure she feels welcome and accepted by the family. After all, you were a daughter-in-law once too!”
No two snowflakes are alike
It wasn’t exactly love at first sight between Olivia* and her in-laws. They belonged to completely different schools of thought. And matters were compounded by the fact that they were of different nationalities. When marrying, neither party thought that the latter would matter, but as it turns out, it did.
The next six years were marred by struggle and arguments over everything — from lifestyle choices to parenting choices. She generally relegated this behaviour on the part of her in-laws to “cultural differences”.
But a visit to her own mother one day changed all of that. Her mother was deeply disturbed over her recent showdown with her sister-in-law, a recent addition to the family. “As I heard my mother vent against my sister-in-law, it hit me that they were going through the same problems that I and my husband’s mother were, even though they were both British. Clearly, my situation wasn’t unique.”
What is unique, however, says the 32-year-old banker, is the perception and thinking of each individual. “Today, respect and compromise are the core pillars of our relationship as we take turns to concede and reason.”
Managing expectations — fair or otherwise
From her personal experience, Yasmeen Khan has realised that a little flattery (genuine, of course!) goes a long way in calming troubled waters.
“Your MIL raised the man you fell in love with and married, and she wants, even expects, you to thank, praise and respect her for that,” says the 28-year-old math teacher, “The biggest expectation that an MIL has from her DIL is that you take good care of your husband, just as she did for so many years. While this can create difference of opinion, with some MILs getting overly critical of the DILs, and DILs, in turn, getting much too defensive of their actions… But it is not too unjust an expectation, considering you too will follow the same pattern when it’s your turn to play the role of mother-in-law.”
Remembering birthdays, anniversaries and other special dates are some other things that will win the hearts of in-laws, suggests Yasmeen.
Communication is crucial
With their hectic schedules, not enough DILs take time or the initiative to call their MILs, says Sheena. “It is important to keep in touch with your mother-in-law, even if you think it’s about mundane, trivial matters. Send her pictures and cards,” she states.
In the event of a discord, talk to the other person directly, suggests Asha. “Talk to her yourself and clear the air as soon as possible. Ninety nine per cent of the times it turns out to be just a misunderstanding. Have a sense of humour about things and no matter what you do, don’t ask your spouse/son to talk to his mother/wife about something she did that hurt your feelings. It’s hard enough to have to watch two women you love not getting along, without having to take sides or give his opinion. Cut the poor chap some slack!”
(* Names have been changed on request)