Marriage and Family — 15 August 2010
Restoring harmony between sisters-in-law

The relationships between members of the original family are often challenging enough and may get even more complex when adult children marry. Yet, why do some sisters-in-law, who as women define themselves by their relationships, develop an adversarial relationship with each other?

There are three common reasons why sisters-in-law end up being at odds with each other: 1. Competing for the primary woman status. 2. Questing to be the favorite daughter-in-law. 3. Battling their husbands’ unfinished sibling rivalry.

Despite all the stereotypes about the “wicked mother-in-law” new brides often yearn for the approval and acceptance of the senior maternal figure of the extended family. Psychologist Teri Apter, in her book, “What Do You Want From Me?” summarizes, “Both the mother and the wife are struggling to achieve the same position in the family – primary woman. Each tries to establish or protect their status. Each feels threatened by the other.” When there are two or more wives vying for primary woman status, they needlessly compete with the mother and with each other for a nonexistent title. Wives are already the primary women in their husbands’ lives.

At the same time, some daughters-in-law, knowingly or unknowingly, develop a competitive stance with each other to become the most favored daughter-in-law. Regardless of their opinion of the mother-in-law, they appreciate the son’s attachment to his mother and want to please him by receiving his mother’s approval.

Also, being favored by the mother-in-law confirms to the daughter-in-law that she is accepted and has a secure place in the family. Perhaps even, as in sibling rivalry, being most liked and connected to his mother may grant her and her children some additional benefits not awarded to the other sister-in-law.

Jeffrey Jensen Arnett in “Broad and Narrow Socialization: the Family in the Context of a Cultural Theory” explains, “Having a positive relationship between mother-in-law/daughter-in-law is essential to a daughter-in-law’s/mother-in-law’s sense of well-being. Discord in the relationship creates stress for both women because of failure to adequately include the other in their sense of identity, establish intimacy, and care for the other.”

Some sisters-in-law attempt to right the wrong they feel was inflicted on their husband by a sibling during childhood. To remediate this past grievance, they reignite the sibling rivalry to vindicate their spouse. The wife of the other sibling rushes to her husband’s rescue as well and the family splinters.

Repair your relationship with your sister-in law and mother-in law:

• Realize that you are the primary woman in your husband’s life. His mother holds the past title. No current competition needed.
• Create a positive relationship with your mother-in-law. Favoritism is not a healthy goal. Friendship, cooperation and goodwill enhance everyone in the family.
• Remember that you too one day will become a mother in law. Model for your children a healthy intergenerational connection.
• Befriend your sister-in-law. You are both a gift to the family and as women, the guardian of healthy family connections.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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