Understanding the psychology of mother-in-law

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Many women report tension in their relationship with their mother-in-law, a conflict that is associated with increased marital dissatisfaction (Rittenour and Koenig Kellas, 2015). This sad situation got me thinking about the stereotypical mother-in-law/daughter-in-law relationship. Do our mothers-in-law really not like us? And if not, why not? The actual reasons for this common conflict are somewhat surprising and likely stem from our evolutionary history.

You Are Probably Not the Partner Your In-Laws Would Have Chosen for Their Child

Why did you choose your romantic partner? Physical attraction? Creativity? Intelligence? A good sense of humor? The traits that we value in our mates are not the same as those our parents value in mates for us. While we value traits such as physical attractiveness, an exciting personality, or a good sense of humor, our parents are more likely to value characteristics such as a good family background, sound financial prospects, or a similar religious or ethnic background (Apostolou, 2015a, Perriloux et al., 2011). Because of these different preferences, we may choose mates for ourselves whom our parents would not have chosen for us. This may lead to an initial dislike on the part of our in-laws, which can be difficult to overcome.

You Are Too Attractive

Some of the largest conflicts in mate preferences between adult children and their parents occur on traits associated with physical attractiveness (e.g. good looks, height, physical fitness; see Apostolou, 2015a, Perriloux et al., 2011). According to evolutionary theory, we value those traits in a mate because we want to secure good genes for our future offspring. Our parents, however, may have good reasons to object to physically attractive partners. Based on evolutionary theory, women who are more attractive than their male partners think more about leaving their relationship and show more interest in alternative partners (click here to read more; Fugère et al., 2015) and men who are more attractive may be less inclined to invest in or care for future offspring (Gangestad and Simpson, 2000).

Mothers of Men May Unconsciously Discourage Long-Term Relationships

I’m sure that if you asked Byron’s mother whether she wants a stable, secure, long-term relationship for her son, she would say yes. But for men, monogamous, long-term relationships may not have been desirable during most of their evolutionary history. According to evolutionary theory, men and women have differing optimal mating strategies to ensure that their genes are perpetuated through future generations.

Strictly evolutionarily speaking, a man’s best mating strategy may be a series of short-term relationships with different women in order to ensure that his genes will be passed on (see Buss and Schmitt, 1993). However, women would not necessarily benefit from the same strategy; a woman’s best strategy may be to find a mate who will provide for her over the long term and help to raise and care for future offspring (Buss and Schmitt, 1993). The interference of a mother-in-law in her son and daughter-in-law’s relationship may reflect a mother’s unconscious desire to help her son “spread his seed.”

However, a mother-in-law to a daughter and son-in-law should try to facilitate the marriage of her daughter so that her son-in-law will remain committed over the long term. In fact, mothers-in-law rate their relationships with their sons-in-law more favorably than their relationships with their daughters-in-law (see Fingerman et al., 2012). Moreover, some interference by mothers-in-law may be intended to weaken their sons’ marriages (Rittenour and Koenig Kellas, 2015).

Direct Competition for Resources and Attention

Historical evidence suggests that when there were multiple women within a family reproducing at the same time, their offspring were less likely to survive, perhaps due to a fixed amount of food being divided among more relatives (Pettay et al., 2016). Mother-in-law conflict may have arisen due to increased competition for resources among women and their daughters-in-law. Today, this type of conflict is rare, but mothers-in-law may still perceive that they are competing with their daughters-in-law for the time and attention of their sons. Some research suggests that older women are more likely to experience neglect due to poor relationships with their daughters-in-law (see Allendorf, 2015), and mothers-in-law may worry that they will be excluded by their child and his/her new partner (Fingerman et al., 2012).

How to Reduce Conflict

Researchers who study in-law conflict also suggest ways to overcome these difficulties. Apostolou (2015b) advises that the best way to deal with these conflicts is to try to convince your in-laws that you are a good mate for their child by showing how much you care for your spouse. Additionally, if you are not yet married, more one-on-one contact with your future in-laws prior to your marriage may facilitate better relationships after the wedding (Fingerman et al., 2012). However, if in-law conflict persists, you must put your marriage first: Individuals who feel supported by their spouses in their conflicts with their in-laws experience more satisfying marriages (Rittenour and Koenig Kellas, 2015).

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