Part 2: How do we make sense of the MIL, DIL dynamic?

Part 2 takes a look at factors that may have contributed to difficulties in the family.

Attachments to parents run deep. Sharanjeet was her sons first love. Mother and child have an intimate and absorbing bond that is essential in terms of the infant’s survival and ability to thrive in the world. The parent takes an active role in all aspects of their son/daughters life from childhood to adulthood.

This bond does not suddenly disappear when the child gets married, however, after marriage, when the child (in this case son) shifts his primary attachment from parent to spouse (Gurpreet), Sharanjeet has mixed feelings. She is happy to see her adult son form a new family, but experiences anxiety that she will lose him, and no longer be “special to him”. She feels replaced and rejected, and on an unconscious level blames Gurpreet for this. There are few parents who do not experience these feelings.

DIL’s expectations. When Gurpreet got married she had certain hopes and fears about her MIL and new family. She expected that her MIL would embrace her and support her like a daughter, and on some level, she thought that her new family would be like an improved version of her primary family and fill some needs that weren’t met. When she felt that this expectation was not met, this led her to feel hurt and rejected.

She also held the expectation that as the wife she would be the most important woman in her husband’s life. However, in reality, she felt that she was always having to compete with her MIL for this status. She felt angered by the constant demands her MIL made on Jasdeep, and she began trying to limit her MIL’s role in their lives.

Status and Power: Anecdotally (and increasingly in research studies), power struggles are cited as a major cause of conflict between MIL and DIL. In Asian culture, the mother-in-law traditionally occupies a dominant position in the family, often leading decisions in all areas of family life, social, financial, etc. When Gurpreet entered the household, Sharanjeet feared a loss of status and power. She wanted to make sure that she was still the most important woman in the household and the main influencer on the direction of the family.  

Her anxiety that she could lose this status led her to try even harder to establish her status, by keeping Gurpreet out of the kitchen, by leaving her out of important family discussions and, marginalizing DIL’s role in the family. She would also try to assert her authority by making demands on her son that she suspected her DIL would not agree with.

Cultural stories and conditioning: Sharanjeet’s anxiety is rooted in deeply embedded cultural narratives about what “daughter in laws are like”, and how they need to be “kept in check”. Humiliation, intrusion, gossip, rebelliousness, under-handedness, even death threats are the dominant themes in many Indian dramas about MIL’s and DIL’s. Sharunjeet doesn’t fully buy into the things she sees on dramas, but they do unconsciously affect her perception and behaviour with Gurpreet. Furthermore, she herself was dominated by a controlling mother in law and struggled with this environment. She vowed not to repeat this with her own DIL but finds herself re-enacting elements of her experience.

Different generation, different values: Sharanjeet and Gurpreet, although both Indian, have very different cultural beliefs and values. Sharanjeet feels that the daughter in law should uphold tradition or at least respect it, whereas Gurpreet has been brought up in a Western environment and is questioning/challenging of this. They also have different perceptions of what a MIL and DIL relationship should look like; Sharunjeet feels the MIL is a dominant figure and should be treated with utmost respect and trepidation. Gurpreet on the other hand tries to befriend her MIL, and be open with her about feelings. Sharanjeet on some level appreciates this, but at the same time fears a more egalitarian relationship with her DIL.

The role of the husband. Jasdeep feels torn. He wants to maintain a close relationship with his mother, but also wants to reassure Gurpreet that she is important to him. He flits between experiencing frustration with his mother and blaming his wife for the difficult dynamic. He feels that he loves both women, but doesn’t manage to assure either woman that she has a secure secure, special relationship with him. He cannot decide whose needs to prioritise and fills up with panic whenever there is conflict. He avoids dealing with the issue.

So….what then ensues?

“The panic of losing a relationship you treasure can turn good people into difficult in-laws” (Terri Apter). Sharanjeet, being fearful of losing her son, power and status seeks to prove that she is still the most important person in his life. She makes demands on her son and encroaches on the couples personal time. She seems to constantly have domestic emergencies that require practical help from her son, and regularly tests his son’s loyalty to his wife by criticizing her when alone with her son.

In turn, Gurpreet feels resentful and marginalized. She increases her MIL’s anxiety by being cold and/or critical to her. She begrudges any time/attention given to her MIL and tries to constantly show her how close her and Jasdeep are as a couple. She minimizes the mother/son bond to Jasdeep, slowly trying to edge her MIL out of their lives.

Each woman seeks reassurance from Jasdeep that she had a special exclusive role as wife/ mother, but he is unable to give them this. He feels an intense empathy for both his mother and his wife, and cannot see how he can negotiate re their needs. Gurpreet and Sharnjeet both feel betrayed and resentful towards each other and towards Jasdeep.

We can begin to see why the MIL and DIL dynamic is so difficult, and this is without looking at factors such as the psychological/emotional impact of moving home, adjusting to living with new family, dealing with issues in the couple relationship and individual personalities, etc.

See part 3 for things that each family member can do to start shifting these difficult dynamics.



3 thoughts on “Part 2: How do we make sense of the MIL, DIL dynamic?

  1. It’s interesting, I wouldn’t necessarily say in some cases it has to do with the MIL fearing the loss of her son to a woman or power, maybe subconsciously. Though the difference in personalities in it being ‘her home’, in sharing a longe and so on. Getting used to communal living and an extra house mate, a third forth fifth person is hard when all you want is your husband and your child. Heavy house prices don’t help as you can just feel stuck. Everything is temporary though.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think this is spot on. So potentially a loss of sole ownership of her personal space.
      With regards to MIL- so true. I guess many of us don’t go into our new homes with the particular hope of building a relationship with our in-laws, which is interesting…


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