The Mother / Daughter-in-law Conflict

One of the most important topics that must be considered, especially during the first years of marriage, is how a mother and daughter-in-law can develop a proper relationship. How should they relate to each other? And how should the husband handle situations in which he feels like he is stuck between a rock and a hard place?

It is important to note that even though most couples see this topic as trivial prior to the wedding, it must be taken seriously, as many marriages have been completely destroyed simply because they did not recognize or know how to define the root of the problem, and therefore, did not know how to handle it properly.

One must therefore learn to recognize and understand the underlying psychological reasons for this terrible conflict so often seen between women and their mothers-in-law (although some women have managed to form amazingly healthy relationships like two sisters, two friends or a mother and daughter). Having this important bit of knowledge can lead to proper behavior that will in turn produce peace and even true love between the two sides.

It is only natural for a mother to tend to her son in the most nurturing way. She feeds him, bathes him, washes and irons his clothes and takes care of him with much effort and exertion. Suddenly, the beloved boy grows up and the mother prays that he will find a suitable marriage partner. Finally, the girl he’s been searching for is found and they get married with great joy.

It’s important to remember that from that day forward the mother is pushed aside or even removed from her position. While the other woman – the young, inexperienced one, comes to fill her role! The mother-in-law either consciously or subconsciously wonders whether this young, inexperienced girl can take care of her dear son the way she does. And her natural inclination is to investigate the matter, meddle, and get involved – all with good intentions of course. But she forgets how much she suffered from her own mother-in-law when she herself was a young bride.

This is where the difference lies between a wise mother and one who is not as wise. The wise one says to herself: “My son is no longer a child. He’s a married adult and he will deal with his new situation on his own. If he believes his wife needs to correct something, he will take care of it. But I cannot get involved” (a mother-in-law who is even wiser will add: “I will only get involved if he mistreats his wife”). This wise and healthy approach can essentially save this young couple’s marriage. Therefore, even if the temptation to meddle is great, the mother must reflect upon the psychological explanation mentioned above, overcome the strong desire to “help” her son, keep quiet, and completely avoid criticizing her daughter-in-law. On the other hand, a mother who is not that wise will say: “I must keep tabs on my daughter-in-law’s actions and inform my son of them. After all, they are both young and it is my duty to help them.” And when she sees something that is not to her liking, especially when it is severe, she makes sure to “explain” or at least hint to her son that his new wife had done something wrong. And the young groom who knows for a fact that his mother truly loves him, will point things out to his wife that would never typically bother him if not for his mother’s remarks. These comments are extremely hurtful to the young bride. And when she realizes who the instigator is behind these comments, she will become enraged and will most likely draw this terrible conclusion: “My husband loves his mother more than me”. This impulsive idea can be so destructive to the marriage that it can lead to a divorce charged with bitterness and frustration.

A problem no less difficult may arise when the couple visits the husband’s family and the wife finds herself being attacked by them. A wise husband will defend his wife immediately in a clear tone (while still maintaining the proper respect for his parents) even if he agrees with the criticism directed at his wife. Anything she needs to correct should be discussed privately by the couple at the appropriate time. This way she receives a clear indication from her husband that he is always on her side, even when it is his family that’s involved. This message gives her the strength to deal with any issue that her husband may privately bring to her attention and the willingness to please him with all her might.

A man who does not follow this approach should not be surprised when he finds out that his wife does not want to visit his parents and develops an aversion towards his entire family. A husband who remembers this too late will pay a hefty price. We will discuss the husband shortly. 

Another common mistake the parents make is visiting their child too frequently. This can be so sickening to the son or daughter in-law that they may even start to fight about it as soon as the parents and their happy and radiant smiles leave their house.

The parents must remember that the newly weds are trying to build their relationship. This idea can be illustrated by comparing their home to a construction site where a sign on the door would read: “Danger: Construction Site. Authorized Personnel Only”.[1]

Therefore, they must reduce the frequency of their visits and do whatever it takes to avoid criticizing their son or daughter in-law. And even if they are having a hard time containing themselves because of real issues that they are noticing, they must strengthen themselves by remembering that their child has a personal relationship with his or her partner in areas that have no connection to the them. This relationship gives them the willpower to overcome challenges – a power that the parents do not possess (the couple must remember this and not be easily swayed by criticism and complaints of parents and relatives or their faulty advice (in most cases) to file for divorce. Usually, divorce leads to a greater deal of suffering).

On the other hand, a bride must be mindful of the fact that when she gets married, she is taking over the role of an important and experienced woman – the mother of her husband. Therefore, she must always be understanding towards this dear woman’s words and actions. She should not become upset when asked questions like, “What did you cook today?” Many young wives interpret such questions as aggressive intrusions into their home life and an attempt at following their behavior as married women. Even though the question was crafted delicately, they hear it as: “Are you taking care of my son the right way?” This can be very upsetting to the wife. It can trigger extreme reactions that may cause fights between her and her husband / his mother / or between the husband and his mother.

One must remember that although it is possible that the interpretation is correct, and that it is in fact what the mother-in-law meant to say, nevertheless, the wife must show that she understands her mother-in-law’s concern for her son and not take it personally.  On the contrary, she must cooperate with her with a happy, loving, and understanding smile – as understanding is forgiving (but of course, as we’ve said, the mothers must avoid these types of questions).

An especially wise daughter-in-law will take it even a step further. After understanding her mother-in-law’s position, she will call her mother-in-law from time to time and say something like this: “When we came to your house for Shabbat, I noticed that Shimon (the name of the husband) loves your carrot salad. I really want to make it for him. Would you teach me how you make it?” and immediately add: “Even though I know I’ll never be able to reach your level of quality and flavor but…”

By giving off short and simple messages that say: “You’re the seasoned one, I’m young and inexperienced. Please help me!”, the wife will have the power to work wonders in her relationship with her mother-in-law. In most cases, instead of the mother-in-law pointing fingers and criticizing the wife in front of her son – the husband, she will warmly accept her as a daughter and will share her experience with her, leading them to becoming great friends with true, heartfelt love.

The wife must also repeatedly remind herself that the love between husband and wife vs. mother and son, take two completely different routes and that the man has enough room in his heart for both of them without one coming at the expense of the other. Therefore, she does not need to, nor is it worth it for her to put up a fight and make her husband, the son, detach from his mother. This effort is generally futile, and even if it does work, the price she will have to pay will be hefty, manifested by a deep emotional tear between her and her husband. After all, how can a son feel love for the person who’s trying to detach him from his mother?

The third side of this triangle is the one who finds himself between a rock and a hard place – the husband. A man who finds himself caught in a raging storm, either overtly or covertly, between his wife and his mother, will in most cases, justify his mother or keep silent. Many husbands try to calm their wives by attempting to explain their mothers’ comments or actions, and they can’t understand why they’re achieving the opposite result. All they achieve is more anger, bitterness, and frustration that intensifies within their wives while their explanations become longer and more rationalized.

The reason for this is simple. One of the main tests the wife uses to determine her husband’s love and attachment to her, especially in the first few years of marriage, is his level of willingness to sacrifice his ties and love of his family – for her. And the more he tries to explain their position, the more she feels that he is siding with them and not with her – even in cases when he does not mean to do so, where all he’s trying to do is promote peace by helping his wife understand the other side’s motives.

The husband must remember that in the same Torah that says:[2] “Honor your father and your mother” it also says:[3] “Therefore, a man shall leave his father and his mother and cling to his wife and they shall become one flesh”. So on the one hand, he must observe the laws of honoring his parents. He may not oppose them or even make a remark – even when they are wrong, unless he has studied the laws of how to do so in the proper way.

On the other hand, he must be continuously concerned about the distress and hardships of his wife when it comes to her relationship with his family. He must be sure to stand beside her and defend her. He must never criticize her in his family’s house knowing how much it upsets her. However, every man should first check with his wife to see if she might be interested in hearing him out and accepting his words for the sake of peace. But if he suspects that the conversation may hurt their relationship and sees that she is having a hard time with it, then he must stop immediately and validate her struggles. But besides for validating her feelings, the husband must approach his family (in a gentle way – especially if it concerns his parents) and wisely ensure that this phenomenon in which his wife is constantly being offended will stop. This can be accomplished by making it clear that their behavior towards his wife is hurtful to her and that he and his marriage are subsequently affected by it. In the same way, he can use any other clear but gentle approach to get his message across so he can achieve the desirable outcome – peace and tranquility.

A woman who feels that her husband is always by her side and always defending her – even to his own family, will fully dedicate herself to him and love him with all her heart. This in turn will give her the drive to work on her deficiencies for her husband’s sake when he points them out to her in a pleasant and constructive way.

Notes and Sources

[1] This refers to visits. But if we’re talking about a fight that has erupted between the husband and wife, the parents’ involvement is absolutely forbidden! As mentioned in the previous chapter, the right to intervene should only be given to professionals. Family members are usually biased and remain upset at their son/daughter-in-law even after the couple makes up. The biased parties may even restart the dispute without realizing the dangers that it can pose.

[2] Shemot 20:12

[3] Bereishit 2:24

Adapted from “The Keys to Life” by Rabbi Zamir Cohen


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