A Mother, a Son and a Wife
Relationships between a mother, her son and his wife have been fodder for comedy forever, yet each generation seems to learn for itself how to make this triangle work.
By Elizabeth Bernstein
Jim Brown knew he was in trouble before his mother finished asking the question. “Am I a better cook than your wife?” she asked, calmly stirring a pot on the stove in her kitchen. With his wife, Joy, standing next to him, Mr. Brown stammered and stuttered. He prayed—”for a trap door to appear,” he says. Finally, he did the only thing he could think to do: Tell the truth. “I said that my wife is a better cook,” the 50-year-old owner of a Duncanville, Texas, auto-repair shop says. The fallout? “Biblical,” he says. “There was wailing. Gnashing of teeth.” Even his wife got mad—telling him that he had been insensitive to his mother.
Sadly, the scene wasn’t new to the Browns, who had been married seven years. The strain between his wife and his mother—and his position, stuck in the middle—was taking a toll on all three relationships. His mom criticized his wife for her parenting style and for not getting a job. His wife cried and complained to him. He retreated from both women. “I am a guy and not that intuitive, and I didn’t really understand either one,” he says. “My inclination was to go mow the grass.”
Over the next couple years, the Browns kept trying to make the triangle work—until the conflict reached a crisis point and then took an unexpected turn. Few family relationships are more fraught than the ones between a mother-in-law and her daughter-in-law, and the man caught between them. It has been fodder for comedy in movies and on TV forever, yet each generation seems to have to learn for itself how to make this triangle work.
Mothers really do worry more when sons marry than when daughters marry, according to unpublished research conducted by Sylvia L. Mikucki-Enyart, assistant professor of communication at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. She asked 89 mothers-in-law what they worried about most when a child married. Overwhelmingly, when a son married these women reported more uncertainty and insecurity. The insecurity centered on the son’s relationship with his parents and nuclear family. Will he visit or call less often? Will he spend holidays with the family? The mothers also reported worrying about their son’s well-being and whether marriage and his wife would change him. Some of their specific concerns: “He’s no longer reliable, due to his wife’s interference.” “His interests have changed dramatically.” “Is he eating enough? My daughter-in-law is a bad cook.” “Is he happy?” (One thing mothers-in-law don’t seem to worry about much—their actual relationship with their daughters-in-law.)
Dr. Mikucki-Enyart also studied 133 daughters-in-law, eliciting their concerns about the women who raised their husbands. “Is my mother-in-law getting too involved in my life?” “What is her ability to take financial care of herself?” “What does she say about me when I am not around?” “We expect a daughter-in-law not to like a mother-in-law and to expect her to be meddlesome,” says Dr. Mikucki-Enyart.
As a result, the two women may tread carefully around each other from the start, reacting defensively and eventually becoming distant. “It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy,” she says. In a way, both mother and wife are competing to nurture the man. Loading the relationship even more is women’s traditional role as what researchers call “kin keepers” who maintain the family social calendar, relationships and traditions. There is uncertainty on both sides.
Mothers- and daughters-in-law are supposed to be family, yet they don’t know each other well. What to call each other? How much to share? There is no script. The uncertainty itself can lead to jealousy, anger or sadness. The more uncertainty there is, the more each woman is likely to keep the other at arm’s length. This can destabilize the marriage: When his mother and his wife are battling, a man’s self-preservation instinct tells him to hide.
How can families break the pattern? It’s really up to the husband/son, Dr. Mikucki-Enyart says. “He needs to step up to the plate,” she says. “He has to make his wife his priority and let that be known.” If his mother often drops by unannounced and this bothers his wife, the husband needs to ask his mother to call first. He doesn’t need to tell her that it upsets his wife. “A mother is more likely to respond to her son’s request than her daughter-in-law’s,” says Dr. Mikucki-Enyart. Daughters-in-law can do their part by keeping their mother-in-law involved in the family. Invite them to dinner. Send photos of the children. And pick your battles. “Don’t make it a competition,” says Dr. Mikucki-Enyart. “You both love this man in completely different ways.” The couple should always present a united front, she says. Remember that you are a team. Don’t throw each other under the bus.
Parents expect that united front, she says, even though it may be a little hard for them to get used to at first. The tension between mother- and daughter-in-law started about a year into the Browns’ marriage, when Ms. Brown got pregnant and her mother-in-law suddenly seemed to know everything. Ms. Brown tried to politely ignore her mother-in-law, but every once in a while she would tell the older woman she was wrong. Her mother-in-law would cry and storm off, and Ms. Brown would end up apologizing. “I felt like there was no winning, like we were in a crazy dance,” says Ms. Brown, now 45 and a fifth-grade teacher. So, mostly, Ms. Brown complained to her husband—and, mostly, he did nothing. “It didn’t occur to me to contradict my mom,” he says. Making matters worse: Mr. Brown sometimes sometimes discussed problems in his marriage with his mom. “She would commiserate, I think, to feel close to me,” he says. “And it increased my feelings of being slighted by my wife.” Mr. Brown retreated into work.
He and his wife began living parallel lives, and eventually he asked for a divorce. But after they told his mother the news, she seemed to back off. Betty Wade, now 72, says she doesn’t remember that her relationship with her daughter-in-law was tense or a factor in the couple’s divorce discussion. “Just because he got married didn’t make him less my son, but I knew he had to spend his attention on the other lady,” she says. The space gave the couple a chance to work on their relationship. They sought advice from counselors at their church and went to a marriage therapist. They read self-help books and prayed together. And they stayed married. “It was a lot of blood, sweat and tears,” Mr. Brown says. “But I had learned to come to grips with the idea that I had to place my priorities with my wife first.” –Write Elizabeth Bernstein at Bonds@wsj.com or follow her column at www.Facebook.com/EBernsteinWSJ.