The Difficult Daughter (or Son)-In-Law

Dr. Robert Ritzema

March 24, 2019

You hoped that your child would find a suitable mate--someone who would bring out the best in him or her, someone who would slip as comfortably into the family as your feet slide into your favorite slippers, someone who is a joy to be around. Well, your child found a spouse, but there's been more struggle and conflict than joy. You've tried to build a good relationship, but matters seem to only get worse. How can you handle your feelings? What strategies might improve the situation? It is helpful to gain better insight into the dynamics of the relationship, to reflect on ways you may have contributed to the problem, to entrust the situation to God, and to relate to this difficult person thoughtfully, carefully, and lovingly.

A couple words before we begin. Though both sons-in-law and daughters-in-law can be difficult, in my experience and in comments left on internet forums daughters-in-law are more often the focus of complaints. Thus, I'll refer to the difficult in-law as "she," recognizing that in some situations the genders are flipped. Also, this article is based on professional, not personal experience; I do have two daughters-in-law, but both relationships have been gratifying.

Scriptural Background

It's helpful to put in-law relationship dynamics in the context of the Biblical story of origins. After describing Eve's formation out of Adam's rib, the Genesis account adds:

"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)

In modern parlance, Genesis is explaining attachments and boundaries. Attachments to parents are the infant's earliest and most crucial relationships. Healthy development during the first couple decades of life depends on having a strong and stable relationship bond with parents. However, when the adult child marries, he or she is to leave his father or mother--that is, the attachment bond is attenuated and the distance or boundary that's already started to develop is more firmly established. This occurs so that the new attachment between husband and wife--the being united into one flesh--has space to form. The process is quite complex--a simultaneous unification of husband and wife and separation of each partner from his or her family of origin. Much can go wrong with this process. The difficult daughter-in-law is the product of excessive, distorted, or inadequate boundaries between the couple and either or both sets of parents.

Motives of the Distant Daughter-In-Law

For now, we'll narrow our focus to the wife who tries to distance the couple from her husband's family, remembering that in some cases it's the husband trying to create distance from his in-laws. To some extent, distancing is a healthy impulse--there needs to be some separation for the partners to develop a relationship that is truly theirs. Yet the distance can be so extreme or the barriers so well-fortified that the husband's parents feel totally excluded. The distant wife may severely limit her communication with the husband's parents and try to get her mate to do the same. She may keep visits to a minimum or eliminate them totally. If there are children involved, she may withhold them from the grandparents. What motivates her? There are several possibilities:

  • The wife is accurately perceiving that the attachment between her husband and one or both of his parents poses a threat to the marriage.
  • She is misperceiving the husband's parents as a threat to the marital bond when there is no threat present.
  • She is overly possessive or controlling, desiring unrealistic exclusivity in her husband's attention.
  • She habitually distances herself from others, avoiding closeness in the majority of her relationships.
  • She is overly attached to her parents and is trying to pull her husband into their orbit.

In the first three of these (and sometimes in the other two as well), the distant daughter-in-law's behavior is motivated by insecurity. She thinks the marital or family relationship will be compromised in some way by the prior (and, she may fear, deeper) attachment between her husband and one or both of his parents.

How to Respond

What to do when your child and his spouse create considerable distance? Begin by reflecting carefully on what's happened to date. Have you said or done things that intruded too much into the couple's relationship? Have you ignored legitimate boundaries that your son or daughter-in-law tried to establish? When feeling hurt by either of them, did you retaliate? Did you become defensive when questioned? Resolve to stop any words or actions that might prompt further withdrawal.

Try to understand as best you can the reasons your daughter-in-law creates distance, considering especially the role played by insecurity. Remember that her goal of creating a safe space for marital and family attachments is a worthy one, even if the methods being used may be extreme or unjustified.

If your distant daughter-in-law is willing to communicate with you, don't use that as an opportunity to apply pressure. It is okay to invite her and your son to spend time with you, but present the invitation tentatively, giving her the option to modify the terms or refuse entirely. Take an interest in her thoughts, feelings, and activities, showing that you care about her as a person. Remember that as part of creating distance she is likely to reveal only a portion of what's on her mind, and will only disclose more if she doesn't feel judged.

Pray unceasingly for your daughter-in-law, for her marriage, and for your relationship with her. Pray for yourself, that your hurt not turn to resentment or bitterness. In your behavior towards her, "Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds us all together in perfect harmony." (Col. 3:14 NLT) Whether or not you feel loving, show her the consideration and caring that you yourself would like from her. You may not be able to make things as you wish, but gaining insight into your daughter-in-law's reactions, examining your own motives and behaviors, communicating carefully, praying fervently, and acting lovingly can help you deal with a distant daughter (or son)-in-law.

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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