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Difficult Daughter-in-Law: What’s Her Problem?

This guest post is by Barbara Greenleaf, creator of Parents of Grown Offspring, which offers constructive, supportive strategies for family issues.

Second only to the Wicked Stepmother, the Difficult Daughter-in-Law (DDIL) looms large as a source of friction in the family. She divides mother from son, withholds grandchildren, sabotages family get-togethers, and rains misery on one and all, especially her mother-in-law (MIL.) This is not to say that every MIL is perfect and every son’s wife is a pain in the neck, but there are so many horror stories about the latter’s shoddy behavior toward the former that I felt we needed to look into the situation.

According to Deborah Levinson, a licensed clinical social worker who has helped many women deal with divisive family situations, “The roots of the difficult daughter-in-law’s behavior may go back to her family of birth. She might have seen her mother be disrespectful or unloving toward her mother-in-law. She might have been in competition with her mother for her father’s attention. Now, she’s transferred the power struggle to her marriage, with the husband a stand-in for her father and the mother-in-law a competitor for his love. Another explanation is that, never having developed a good sense of self-worth, she’s so insecure that she feels anyone in her husband’s orbit is a threat. If he has a close relationship with his mother, that could definitely play into her fears.”

There may be other factors at play, too, says Levinson. “The difficult daughter-in-law may come from a family that was not affectionate, and, if her husband’s family is more demonstrative, she may feel uncomfortable with their intimacy. Then, too, as she is expected to work, run a household, and be a perfect mother to her children, she may just be plain overwhelmed. Finally, we shouldn’t rule out the possibility that she has a personality disorder or other psychopathology.”

Levinson and other experts contend that people have distinct ideas about boundaries and how far they should be expected to stretch theirs in order to fit in. If you’ve read about the Kennedy family’s touch football games, you know they were exuberant. When Jackie literally wouldn’t play ball, the rest of the family thought she was stuck up. Was she being a DDIL or was there just not a good fit between her literary/artistic bent and the Kennedy’s rough-tumble idea of a good time?

Our society’s general disrespect for older people doesn’t help, either. Far from being honored for their wisdom and experience as they are in other cultures, America’s “senior citizens” can be objects of ridicule. Moreover, there’s the well-documented narcissism of the younger generation, who are often clueless about or unwilling to fulfill the expectations of the older generation. This is at best frustrating and at worst hurtful to parents of adult children who remember a time when all members of the extended family sat down to Sunday dinner together, phoned each other regularly, and exchanged cards and gifts on one another’s special occasions—even when they weren’t overly fond of one another.

That’s gone. Excluding ethnic groups who have a strong sense of familial inclusion, parents are now expected to go out of their way for “the kids” rather than the other way around. Moreover, younger husbands and wives feel their only allegiance should be to their own parents rather than forming “one big happy family.” In an extreme case (or maybe not), one woman I know lay gravely ill in a hospital bed for four weeks. During that whole time her daughter-in-law, who lived locally, never visited and didn’t even pick up a phone—and this was not a case of hard feelings or estrangement.

In subsequent posts we’ll continue our exploration of the DDIL: how her power struggle plays out in real life; where her husband comes in; how a toxic situation hampers the grandchild/grandparent relationship; and what you can do to make things better.

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