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Should you be friends with your mother-in-law?

May 22, 2013

    Paige Baschuk, Daily Briefing

    I'm going to have to ask my husband to stop praising my cooking skills in public.

    Although I love to hear him talk about my prowess in the kitchen, his mother lives fewer than five miles away and is bound to get word that her son likes my linguine with clams the best. Apparently, such a claim could destroy the most fraught of family relationships—the one between mothers- and daughters-in-law, according to University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point communication professor Sylvia Mikucki-Enyart.

    Mikucki-Enyart discussed her research on the issue with the Wall Street Journal's Elizabeth Bernstein this week.

    In a survey of 89 mothers-in-law, she found that mothers of sons tend to be more worried about the changes marriage will bring than mothers of daughters. Mikucki-Enyart attributes this concern to the idea that wives tend to maintain a couple's social calendar, close relationships, and traditions. When a mother sees her son get married, she worries if his wife will interfere in family visits, phone calls, and holidays.

    At the same time, a survey of 133 daughters-in-law found that wives often worry about their relationships with their husband's mothers. In a way, Mikucki-Enyart says, the women are competing to "nurture," and the idea that one woman is better at it than the other can be a source of tension.

    "We expect a daughter-in-law not to like a mother-in-law and to expect her to be meddlesome," Mikucki-Enyart says. As a result, both women tread so carefully around each other that they eventually become distant. "It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy," she says.

    So how can families stop a "Monster-in-Law" scenario in its tracks? Ultimately, it is up to the husband/son to "step up to the plate," Mikucki-Enyart says.

    "He has to make his wife his priority and let that be known," she says, adding that the couple must present a united front. Daughters-in-law, in turn, should keep their mothers-in-law involved with the family by inviting them over, communicating regularly, and sending photos.

    This advice makes more sense to me than that offered by the authors of a study published last November on in-law relationships. The researchers recommend that wives avoid their in-laws.

    The NIH-funded 26-year longitudinal study of married couples found that wives who feel close to their husband's parents may have trouble establishing certain boundaries and, over time, may regard even well-intentioned advice as meddling. In contrast, when sons-in-law are close to their parents-in-law, the marriage is strengthened, according to the NIH study.

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