Responding to a Difficult Daughter-in-Law

In a recent article I considered the daughter- or son-in-law who tries to create excessive distance from his or her in-laws. I discussed the scriptural foundation of marriage, describing the need for intergenerational boundaries between spouses and their parents. I talked about reasons why some spouses erect imposing walls to rebuff in-laws and discussed how to respond to the distant child-in-law. Besides distancing, there are other behaviors that can create difficulty within families. Among the hardest to deal with is a hostile or contentious in-law, and that will be the topic for this article. In handling such a family member, it's helpful to understand the dynamics of the relationship, communicate carefully both to and about the person, and set healthy boundaries to minimize the damage that can occur.

Understanding In-Law Conflict

As the previous article discussed, a foundational text for understanding in-law relationship dynamics is the account of Eve's creation:

"That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh." (Gen 2:24, NIV)

When an adult child marries, he or she is to leave his father or mother--that is, the attachment bond between child and parent is attenuated and intergenerational boundaries are strengthened. This gives the new attachment between husband and wife space to form. The process is quite complex--husband and wife grow closer while their ties to their original families weaken. A variety of problems can occur.

With the daughter-in-law who creates excessive distance (for convenience I've been referring primarily to the difficult wife, though husbands can of course be just as difficult), I described several possible motives but noted that underlying these there is often insecurity, anxiety, and a sense of threat. Inordinate boundaries are an attempt to relieve that sense of threat. In many cases, aggressive or contentious behavior stems from similar motives. Like the distant in-law, this daughter-in-law may experience what psychoanalyst Karen Horney called "basic anxiety." That is, an anxiety based on previous life experiences with powerful people who were indifferent to her needs. Whereas the distant daughter-in-law responds with a group of strategies Horney called "moving away from people," the contentious daughter in-law uses strategies Horney labeled as "moving against people." Such a person tries to enforce her will on others and is often described as unkind or domineering.

Portraits of Moving Against People

There are many ways the contentious child-in-law tries to exert power over others. One couple reported that when their son and daughter-in-law visited, the daughter-in-law would intrude on every interaction either parent had with the son, speaking for him and steering the conversation to topics of her choosing. Another couple visiting their daughter and son-in-law were tossed out of the house late the first night after one of them made a comment the son-in-law took as critical of him. A visiting daughter-in-law took over the family TV for the duration of her visit and demanded that breakfast be made for her at 6 a.m. every day.

The contentious in-law can be quite critical of family members, judging their personal habits, their personalities, their possessions, their religion, their politics--virtually anything can become a topic of derision. Some use sarcasm heavily; others offer apparent compliments that disguise subtle insults. Often a there is a direct or implied comparison--I or my family are better than that and would never do things that way. Horney thought that those who move against others are often motivated by a need for prestige.

Another variant of the contentious in-law doesn't speak a negative word to their spouse's parents but criticizes them harshly to their mate, to friends, or to other family members. There certainly is a legitimate place for honesty between husband and wife about reactions to the other's parents, but only when expressed cautiously and with respect. Presenting oneself positively to someone's face then demean them to others is a form of manipulation, and some contentious daughter- or son-in-laws are experts at such manipulation. In some cases, there is delight in being able to deceive and divide others.

How to Respond

Much of what was said in the previous article about the distant daughter-in-law is pertinent here. Fundamentally, recognize that encouraging your children's marriage is in everyone's best interest. Recognize that your child's spouse is now their primary relationship. Furthermore, self-reflection is warranted. Is there anything you have done or are doing that might have been perceived as a threat by your daughter-in-law? Did your words or actions ever intrude into the couple's relationship? Eliminate anything that may be aggravating the hostility or combativeness that's been occurring. Try to put yourself in your daughter- or son-in-law's shoes, understanding as best you can what he or she may feel. Pray faithfully for her, and pray for yourself, that your heart will not harden against her.

Choose words with care

If possible, think carefully before communicating with a contentious son- or daughter-in-law, choosing words carefully and trying to avoid topics that might provoke hostility. Don't try so hard to avoid conflict that you're being dishonest, though. It's better to face short-term discomfort than to sacrifice your integrity by being untruthful. Be careful in what you say to others about your daughter-in-law, avoiding words that would harm her reputation. You may need a confidant; if so, choose someone who is mature enough not to pile on by joining too readily in expressing disapproval.

Respect boundaries

It is important to respect the boundaries that your child and his/her spouse establish for their relationship, it's also important that you establish and maintain your own boundaries. That may mean limiting the amount you communicate with one or both members of the couple, refusing to talk about topics that have been controversial in the past, and resisting pressure to provide childcare, run errands and the like when doing so isn't healthy for everyone concerned.

Some children-in-law may be challenging; you can cope best if you understand the dynamics of the relationship, communicate carefully both to and about the person, and set boundaries to protect yourself. Pray and love in all things, that your heart may have a place for even the most difficult of family members.

About the author — Dr. Robert Ritzema

Bob Ritzema is a clinical psychologist, having received his doctorate from Kent State University. He has worked for over 25 years as a psychotherapist and more than 10 years as a college professor. He retired from Methodist University in 2012 to return to his hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan in order to assist his parents. He currently works part-time at Psychology Associates of Grand Rapids and worships at Monroe Community Church. He has two sons and three grandchildren.

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