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Precarious in-law relationships are a trope that can appear exaggerated. However, these conflicts are real for some people for a variety of reasons.

In-law relationships have the potential for mutual appreciation, joy, and even love – in theory, people gain a new family and access to a larger support network. Most people do not enter marriage expecting to despise their in-laws; according to a 2012 study from Purdue University in the United States, the vast majority of couples expect to have positive relationships with their in-laws.


However, a potent combination of patriarchal traditions, media tropes, and pop culture characters popularise the notion that in-law relationships will be tense at best, toxic at worst – especially among women.

For example, one does not have to look far to find a plethora of diabolical in-law characters. Gertrude’s brother-in-law murders her husband and then lies to her in order to win her hand in marriage in Hamlet. In the Meet The Parents film series, Robert DeNiro’s character uses his ex-CIA skills to dig up dirt on his daughter’s fiancée (and that’s just the beginning). The trope is especially effective on television: in The Sopranos, Livia Soprano separates her daughter-in-law Carmela from her own parents; in The Simpsons, Marge’s sisters Patty and Selma are constantly at odds with Homer Simpson; and in Everybody Loves Raymond, Debra Barone and her mother-in-law Marie alternate cyclically between niggling combat and genuine affection.

Real-life examples of difficult in-laws abound, as evidenced by numerous reports on Zayn Malik’s strained relationship with mother-in-law Yolanda Hadid or Victoria Beckham’s alleged feud with son Brooklyn’s wife, Nicola Peltz. The media’s desire for woman-on-woman conflict has a particularly dark sway, adding weight to the cultural figure of the monster-in-law.

These representations contribute to the widespread belief that in-law conflict is normal. Experts agree that there are both historical reasons for these beliefs as well as specific flashpoints today – both events and life stages – that are known to fan the flames of in-law conflict, making stereotypically bad relationships very real for some.

‘Precarious environment’    


One of the reasons that navigating in-law relationships can be difficult is that there are no rules for them. For example, it is unclear how close people should live to their in-laws, how frequently couples should see them, and what responsibilities they may bear.

Gretchen Perry, professor at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand and co-author of the paper In-Law Relationships in Evolutionary Perspective: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, points out that shared beliefs and mutual understanding are not always present. While people may have disagreements with their own families, she claims that “it’s more likely you’ll agree and have common interests with them,” whereas there may be “less of an overlap in common agreement” with in-laws. The historical formation of heterosexual family structures may be partly responsible for creating a tense environment with in-laws, and serves as the foundation for the trope of the meddling mother-in-law in particular. In some patrilineal societies, parents choose who their child marries, and the daughter-in-law moves in with her husband’s family after they marry. 


In these arrangements, the mother is the senior woman in the household, in charge of the domestic sphere, and gains higher social status and decision-making authority over her daughter-in-law. “It’s a risky situation because the new wife is separated from their family of origin and those who might be more protective of her,” Perry says. “Depending on the circumstances, it can be a difficult, controlling environment with a great deal of conflict.” According to experts, the omnipresent trope of the meddling mother-in-law is a hangover from this setup, in which a daughter-in-law is subject to a matriarch.

Although such living arrangements are much less common nowadays, statistics continue to support the notion that a woman and her mother-in-law are more likely to clash than male family members.


In a 2022 study conducted in the United States, both men and women reported having more conflict with their mothers-in-law than with their mothers, and mothers reported having more conflict with their daughters-in-law than with their daughters. Terri Apter, a psychologist and senior tutor at Newnham College, Cambridge University, discovered in a book published in 2008 that 60% of women admitted their relationship with their female in-law caused them long-term unhappiness and stress. Two-thirds of daughters-in-law thought their husband’s mother frequently showed jealous, maternal love to their son. Only 15% of mother-in-law/son-in-law relationships were described as tense, despite the fact that 75% of couples reported having problems with an in-law. are more likely to disagree than male family members.


In a 2022 US study, both men and women reported having more conflict with their mothers-in-law than their mothers, and mothers reported having more conflict with their daughters-in-law than their daughters. Terri Apter, a psychologist and senior tutor at Newnham College, Cambridge University, found that 60% of women admitted that their relationship with their female in-law caused them long-term unhappiness and stress in a book published in 2008. Two-thirds of daughters-in-law believed their husband’s mother frequently displayed jealous, maternal love towards their son. Only 15% of mother-in-law/son-in-law relationships were described as tense.

Child-rearing and its disproportionate impact on women may contribute to the prevalence of female in-law tension, potentially compounding any pre-existing conflict.


According to a Finnish study, mothers and fathers were just as likely as childless couples to report conflict with their own parents, but more likely to report individual conflict with their in-laws. Many young adults found in-law conflict increased after the birth of their first child, with the shared interest of a grandchild providing fresh reasons for grandparents to “influence and interfere in the lives of other family members”.

New mothers and their mothers-in-law may have more frequent contact than before during the early stages of childrearing. “When pregnant, breastfeeding, or caring for a newborn, “Mothers are going through a difficult time and need extra help,” Perry explains. Although a new mother’s partner and father-in-law can be helpful, her own mother and mother-in-law are often the most steadfast supporters. Furthermore, child-rearing is an emotional subject with a wide range of generational differences. With a mother-in-law expecting her grandchild to be raised one way and an exhausted mother insisting on doing things differently, the conditions are ripe for conflict.


However, assisting a mother during the early months of parenthood is only the beginning of the grandparental care journey. Grandmothers, more than grandfathers, frequently fill childcare gaps, which can result in a reduction in their own work hours and earnings potential. However, more assistance does not always imply stronger bonds. According to the Finnish study, the more grandchild care a paternal grandmother provides, the more likely a daughter-in-law is to report some form of conflict – the rule of thumb being, the more involved they are in each other’s lives, the more opportunities for friction there are.

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