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The MIL Phenomenon!


The trickiest of relationship ever known to humankind is between the mother-in-law & her daughter-in law. The clash is over the same man whom they love intently. Does this equation bother you? Astha Dhingra, a clinical psychologist, elucidates further

Have these thoughts ever occurred to you and made you feel uneasy?

·         Does your mother-in-law takes decisive calls about you and your children without consulting you?

·         When you’re out on a date with your husband, do you get bombarded with several unwanted phone calls from your MIL?

·         Do your feel that your personal space is being invaded?

·         Major discussions happen with your husband and you are only summarised about the discussion at the last moment.

Love or the war turf?

The bond between ​mother-in-law and daughter-in-law is the most fragile of all relations​ in the family. Although these two women have a close relation socially yet frequently, they are seen standing against one another. It’s ‘normal’ for them to be tense (or worse), with unstable blockades, for the test of power now and then.

In most couple counselling sessions, I have realised the triggers are in-laws, their invasive and authoritarian attitude. Further investigation still leads to the conclusion that the mother-in-law, in particular, is the culprit!

The same cannot be said for the father-in-law. Most men don’t seem to have the same need for closeness as their wives do, and they prefer to avoid family squabbles. There have been several explanations for this, which I have personally mentioned based on my clients’ experiences. Few believe that males do not want to interfere with the equation of women at home. Some believe that it is all temporary a situation and will get resolved after a few disagreements, and with time will come adaptability to the changing domestic power dynamics.

Who rules the kitchen?

Who is taking decisions on what’s cooking in the kitchen or what will family eat? Though it may sound simple but is complex, that’s where kitchen politics begins. Here the key is to learn kitchen diplomacy.

Is it history repeating? I also reasonably assume that most mother-in-law​s’​ has been subjected to stress from their own mothers-in-law over issues such as handling household chores, family traditions and rituals and so on. Yet in most cases, MILS treat their daughter-in-laws the same way they have been treated. Little awareness and her learnings from the past may be enough reason to bring about a behavioural change in the older woman.

The bond so treasured

​We must first recognise the special bond that exists between mother and son. He first discovers the truth of love through the eyes and care of his mother. I read somewhere that it is the mother who puts the gentle in a gentleman.

It is somehow observed that the connection of a mother with her son is intense; the umbilical cord, in some cases, ​​feels ​that it is ​not​ severed​.

Important here is, regardless of how special the bond is, a boy must have his “puppet strings clipped” and not take just the responsibility of the wife but honour the relation.  It is imperative for the boy to tune a fine balance between the two feminine energies circulating in his life.  

The mother & son duo must acknowledge that the power centres will shift or get de-centralised once the boy gets married. This preparedness must be done before marriage. If mental and emotional training is not done prior, a feeling of estrangement could be felt by the mother after the arrival of the daughter-in-law in the family.  As a result, the mother begins to feel replaced, causing anxiety to rise.

​Even the mother of the married girl sometimes can create difficult situations for the married couple. This usually happens in cases if the mother ​​has a history of betrayal by other significant men​. If the boy’s mother has a deep emotional dependency on her son, she may unintentionally sabotage his marriage. These mixed emotions ​and past traumas of people involved closely with the couple ​contribute to irrational and, much of the time, unconscious displays of hostility toward the new couple.

Case Study

One of my clients once told me that she is constantly irritated because her mother-in-law always makes her bed, chooses her husband’s clothing, and handles his wardrobe. Her mother-in-law has an excessive amount of control over her husband as a result of an unintentional and unconscious form of envy. I encouraged my clients to think of it this way: if your mother-in-law manages the wardrobe and the bed, you can devote that time to your own personal growth.

Prior discussion of the family structure, finances, health/medical status, and the decision-making process should be considered​ significant during ​the ​courtship ​period, ​whether it is an arranged marriage or a love marriage. This will give you a rough idea of what changes or accommodations both partners will be expected to cover after they marry.

As a Clinical Psychologist, I would advise that if anyone pushes your nerves, you can see it as an opportunity for personal development and try to heal your own inner self. ​ ​Blaming her for all would only bring you rage, resentment, remorse, hate, and bitterness. 

If the mother-in-law doesn’t display envy or possessiveness toward her son, the other woman will eventually love her. Remember: Love begets Love. A mother forgives her daughter for all of her faults, and a daughter loves her mother unconditionally. Even after marriage, this bond should be formed and fully realised. Express your thoughts and viewpoints to each other. It will have a major impact on the relationship. It will help in making it a long-lasting and satisfying relationship.

Preconceived notions

Please understand that most of this situation arises from our preconceived idea that all mother in laws is obnoxious, as seen with the jokes that follow. It’s impossible for someone to suddenly stop doing something they’ve been doing for around 25-30 years. It’s also difficult for you to forget your parents or how you carried out your duties at your maternal home. This basic understanding has the potential to make a significant difference.

A little humour can go a long way if the situation is uncomfortable. Using humour to deflect blame or other tense interactions may help flatten disputes and put everyone back at ease.

Make sure you don’t come off as a possessive wife. Allow your husband to spend quality time with his parents, especially his mother, daily (while you are away).

Nothing she does should be taken personally. Allow her to do her thing. Your kindness will win her heart. You’ve done it before with your own parents to pave your own path. Her composure can be maintained if you manage to be sweet with her. Even if it’s tough, remind yourself that your goal is to make your husband happy by letting him know that you’re no longer fighting and that you’re adapting.

Astha Dhingra

The author is a professor & clinical psychologist.

1 Comment
  1. Shimpy Sharma says

    Excellent article.. well articulated

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