Handling relationships with in-laws can be difficult especially in a small island like Malta where you do not have to travel for hours on end to meet your extended families. A husband moves in with his mum for a period of time every year, makes keeping boundaries with in-laws even more difficult for all concerned. It can create conflict between the couple and in-laws. Research does suggest that tension with your husband’s parents, especially the mother is associated with increased marital dissatisfaction (Rittenour and Koenig Kellas, 2015).
So what can be the reasons that you and your mother-in-law are fighting for your husband’s attention?
- You are too attractive: According to the evolutionary theory, we look at physical attractiveness in a partner to secure good genes for our future offspring (Perriloux, Fleischman & Buss, 2011). On the other hand our parents, may have objections to this. Research does suggest that women who are more beautiful than their male partners seem to show more interest in other partners outside the marriage, while male partners who are more attractive seem to have less inclination to care for future kids if the couple become parents.
- Direct competition for attention: Mothers-in-law may perceive that they are competing with their daughters-in-law for the attention of their sons. Letting go of their son might be difficult and they can feel in direct competition for his attention with his wife.
- Different views about the way grand-children are raised: Grandparents might have different views about the way children are raised and disciplined. This might create a feeling of inadequacy in the parents and conflict if these ideas are shared.
- You are probably not the partner your in-laws would have chosen for their child: While we value traits like an interesting personality, attractive looks or a good sense of humour, our parents are more likely to look at similar cultural and religious background, a sound family and good career and financial prospects.
How can I have a better relationship with my in-laws?
- Your loyalty is to your spouse: When there is a conflict between your family and your spouse, you might feel caught in the middle. However, your place is on your spouse’s side. Your husband/wife needs to feel that you have their back or this might undermine the trust that you have in each other.
- Do not blame your partner for their parents’ behavior: Parents are adults and should be responsible for their actions and behaviors. On the other hand if your husband is leaving the marital home for a number of weeks every year, boundaries need to be set. Are you both in agreement with this?
- Keep your expectations of in-laws reasonable: Remember that they are not your parents and may behave differently then you expect. Stand up for yourself respectfully and try not to let a difficult situation escalate. Moreover, try and present a united front as a couple with both set of parents.
Perilloux, C., Fleischeman, D.S. & Buss. D.M (2011). Meet the parents: Parent- offspring convergence and divergence in mate preference. Personality and Individual Differences, 50(20), 253- 258.
Rittenour, C.E. & Kellas, J.K. (2015). Making sense of hurtful mother-in-law messages. Applying attribution theory to the in-law triad. Communication Quarterly, 63(1), 62-80.
Anna Catania is a counsellor with Willingness. She has had a special interest in working with clients facing intimacy and sexual difficulties and runs a service for families going through cancer and chronic illness. She can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org