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“I haven’t spoken to my mother-in-law for two years. We haven’t quarrelled. I just didn’t like to interrupt her.” ––Les Dawson

Mother-in-law jokes abound. Have you ever wondered why? Is it because most comedians are men? They see mothers-in-law as interfering, meddlesome and domineering. Although comedians exaggerate to get a laugh, there is often a grain of truth in their stories. Here are three things worth considering when you think about your parent and your in-law relationships



The answer to the first question may well be ‘yes’. One study asked couples who had been married for about 20 years to rank their problems in order of seriousness. Men ranked issues with their in-laws as third highest, and the women ranked them second. In another survey younger couples put problems with in-laws at the top of their list.


The fact that in-law jokes are not about fathers may point us in the right direction if we are looking for answers. It’s mothers who are usually at the heart of child rearing. And it continues to be mothers who are most often involved with their grown up children. It’s the mother-child relationship that changes most when a son or daughter leaves home.

Mothers-in-law and sons-in-law

When a mother is close to her daughter she expects her son-in-law will meet her daughter’s needs in the same way that she did. Consequently, when her son-in-law does not meet her expectations, she can be critical.

Mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law

One person who has looked into these relationships extensively is Dr Terri Apter at the University of Cambridge. She interviewed members of 20 families and then observed family gatherings in 12 families. She says: It soon became apparent that the relationship most prone to conflict was that between daughter-in-law and mother-in-law.


According to Dr Apter problems arise when a mother-in-law cannot see in her daughter-in-law the qualities that she values. An example of this could be to do with her son’s career. As a mother this was important. She expected her daughter-in-law to value her son’s career in the same way by making sacrifices if necessary to see his prospects improve.


Intrusion was another problem with mothers, especially when they continued treating their sons as though they were still children needing help.

Alternatively, some mothers expected help from their sons, particularly if they lived nearby. Consequently, those who expected their needs to be met by their sons irritated their wives as they saw such demands as unreasonable.


Terri Apter found that some mothers-in-law took aspects of their daughter-in-law’s life into their own hands. When they visited they would do housework, take over meal-times and correct the children’s behaviour.

Alternatively, when mothers-in-law just sat and watched the daughters-in-law felt they were being scrutinised.

Are you familiar with any of these patterns?


Appreciating the loyalties involved is a key factor in building good parent and in-law relationships. Grown up individuals are no longer reliant upon, nor accountable to, either set of parents. One of the earliest researchers into in-law relationships observed that unless the cohesive force in the new family unit is stronger than that which ties either of the couple to the parental home, the [new] founding family is threatened. (Duval, 1954)

Gloria Call Horsley, a specialist of in-law therapy says, If the newly-weds are to establish a strong family unit of their own, they must inevitably realign their loyalties, placing their own newly established family before their parents.

Here then are approaches for those of you who are sons or daughters-in-law. Used sensitively these are easy ways to improve your in-law relationships.

Appreciation of the past

You need to let both sets of parents know how you appreciate all they have done for you. Don’t be afraid to show them you have really valued their input over the years. Take time to reminisce together about the things you value from the past.

Respect in the present

Avoid creating situations in the present where parents and in-laws can say…

  • They don’t come to see us – or – they don’t phone.
  • They’re glad to borrow money but not so ready to pay us back.
  • When they leave the children they don’t collect them on time.
  • They ask our advice and either don’t take it, or blame us if things go wrong.
  • They don’t send thank you notes – or acknowledge any help we give.

A foundation for the future

For relationships with your parents to be successful they will need these three ingredients.

Independence – you are no longer accountable to your parents, but to each other.

Respect – honour your parents: Be appreciative and considerate.                 

Love – Demonstrate your love to them with tender loving care as appropriate.


About the author

David Burroughs, originally a head teacher in three primary schools, became Associate Minister with Cambridge Community Church. He worked for Care for the Family, presenting courses to hundreds of couples. With his accrued knowledge gained from his training history, David went on to produce training materials for relationship classes that ran in Cambridge for 11 years. Now a relationships intellectual, David is turning his culminated knowledge into two self-help books entitled Living the Relationship Dream.

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