If you have been married for any length of time, at least long enough for you and your spouse to have experienced one or more conflictual interactions, you’ve probably heard this statement, “You’re just like my mother.” In most instances, the statement neither was a compliment nor a way of saying, “My mother is a wonderful individual, and you possess all of her extraordinary characteristics.” Instead, the statement was issued in a critical, depreciatory manner and the reaction to it was equally off-putting – something akin to: “I’m nothing like her, and I don’t take that as a compliment.”
Sitting in therapy, I have had too many opportunities to hear individuals react to that quip in a similar manner. Why, one, because of the continuous portrayal of mothers-in-law as enemies, who are a threat to a marriage – so much so that it has become the rule rather than the exception. It’s to the point that mother-in-law problems not only contribute to long-term conflict between married couples but frequently result in damaging or cheating children out of potentially loving relationships with grandparents, who might otherwise provide them with emotional support when they feel unable to lean on their parents. It truly is sad to realize how often this occurs and even more depressing to watch husbands and wives walking on a very narrow ledge, too frightened to speak their minds, lest they be accused of taking sides and/or loving their mothers more than their spouses.
Consequently, I want not only to address why this happens but to suggest that until you know what really causes this problem (i.e., what’s broken), you can’t fix it. Instead, you and your spouse will argue over each incident that arises, but never resolve the real issue. It’s similar to treating a rash with lotion, but never getting rid of the poison ivy bushes in your backyard.
So, let us consider why this conflict takes place. Is it a case of arguing over territorial rights in order to determine who has sole possession or control over the son or daughter in question? What I’m asking is, “Is it a power struggle between a parent and some ‘outside intruder’ to determine who owns the emotional deed to this child’s heart and consequently his or her behavior?” Is it jealousy, insecurity or just a case of a parent trying to protect their child?
My answer is: There is truth to all of these. I’ve seen countless examples of wives who have made the statement, “He’s Mommy’s little boy, he doesn’t love me. He calls her every day and when she says jump, he says, ‘how high.’ But, that’s not the way he deals with me; I can’t even get him to empty a trash can or take the garbage out.”
In some instances, I’ve seen these conflicts escalate to a point where a husband refuses to visit or enter his mother-in-law’s home or a daughter-in-law refuses the mother-in-law access to her grandchildren. These arguments are not pretty. I have seen them become so vitriolic that the entire extended family becomes involved or to where a wife said, “I’ll go with you to your parents’ house, but don’t expect me to be a bubbling fountain of joy, because I won’t be, and don’t think that I’m alone; your brother’s wife feels the same as I do.” Conversely, I have observed mothers who, without saying a word, say a book regarding their distain and dislike for the “woman you dragged home with you.”
I’m sure all who read this article have experienced this battle personally, felt themselves to be a victim in this war or know of someone who is. Indeed, conflicts of this type are far more common than you would like them to be or feel they are.
This still doesn’t fully answer the question, “Why does it occur?” In my mind’s eye, it isn’t surprising that it does. In previous articles regarding “Why you marry whom you marry,” I have said that individuals generally choose, albeit unconsciously, a spouse who is similar, emotionally, to the mother they grew up with. After all, our spouse is not only a loving partner, but also serves the role of an updated parent. One of the primary factors influencing that choice is that it’s familiar.
Note that familiarity has nothing to do with whether it is positive or negative. I have even heard a new in-law-to-be verbalize, “I sure didn’t want anyone like my mother; that’s why I married someone totally opposite,” never realizing that opposites are the same, because the ends of a continuum are the same. It’s just like a rope. Both ends are equal.
If you were to form a circle with a rope, the two ends would match up. Based on this notion, I contend that, like it or not, you are very similar to the woman you call your mother-in-law. That may take a little while to accept and/or initially leave a bad taste in your mouth, but I believe it’s factual. If you accept this scenario, you can see that in the course of dealing with or interacting with your mother-in-law, you wind up punishing her for those things you see in her that you can’t abide by in yourself. Essentially, it’s a case of it’s easier to kick someone else than to kick yourself.
My notion is that all of us have difficulties facing, accepting and seeing ourselves, that the criticism that we have of others stems from those things consciously or unconsciously that we can’t accept in ourselves. Awareness of this common behavioral pattern can lead you to the conclusion that learning to deal effectively with your mother-in-law and everyone else in your life requires that you first learn to deal with yourself.
Thus, you need to recognize those characteristics, behaviors, orientations in you that you dislike and previously refused to see. Then, you must learn to behave in spite of them, rather than because of them. As a result of learning to live with yourself in a more accepting manner, you’ll become far less critical of others who have the same problems, or demonstrate similar patterns of behavior.
I hope that what I am saying reinforces the notion that the more you can love yourself, the better and more effectively you can love others. So, pat yourself on the back. Recognize that you have worth and value yourself, so you can share that valuable person with others.