For as long as there have been stand-up comedians, there have been mother-in-law jokes, which, let’s face it, are one of the easiest ways for male comics to get a cheap chuckle. But new research by a British psychologist shows that women actually have more to complain about when it comes to mothers-in-law. And they’re not laughing.
In an upcoming book What Do You Want from Me? (out in the U.S. July 2009 and later in the U.K.), Terri Apter, a psychologist at Cambridge University, uses research gathered over the past 20 years to show that the relationship between female in-laws can be far more tense than the one between a man and his wife’s mom. After speaking with 163 people, Apter discovered that more than 60% of women felt that friction with their husband’s mother had caused them long-term stress. Despite all the gags, only 15% of men complained that their mothers-in-law caused them headaches.
For the women in Apter’s study, the most common flash points were issues traditionally considered maternal ones: child care and housework. Conflict arises when the newcomer and the more experienced matriarch wrestle over whose way is best. “There’s a concern that the values and norms of a different culture will take your son and your grandchildren away from the values and norms embedded in your own family,” says Apter. “Sometimes this is an obvious concern about ethnic differences or religious differences”; sometimes it’s about whose job it is to do the ironing. “From women of the older generation, there was a sense of being frozen out of the relationship,” says Apter. “And from the younger generation, a sense of constant disapproval or intrusion.” In Apter’s study, two-thirds of women said they felt their mothers-in-law were jealous of their relationships with the sons, while two-thirds of mothers-in-law said they felt excluded by their sons’ wives.
I got married just over a week ago, so I haven’t had a mother-in-law for long. So far, so good. In the 10 days we’ve been in-laws, and the five years before that when my husband was my boyfriend, my relationship with his mom has been blissfully stress-free. And while we both like to think we’re too charming and too wise to lock horns, there are other factors at play that help us stay friendly. One is proximity