What makes a good mother-in-law

Psychology: four types of mother-in-law

The image of the "bad mother-in-law" has existed in almost all cultures for centuries. However, until recently it has never been scientifically investigated what is to be the case with the cliché of the old domestic kite that makes it so difficult for the son's wife. The psychologist Andrea Kettenbach from the Fernuniversität Hagen is now closing this scientific gap. In her doctoral thesis, she describes four types of mother-in-law for the first time, which emerged from detailed interviews with 34 married women and confirmed them in over 400 others. A summary of the work: "The mother-in-law is much better than her reputation. But there is still potential for conflict."

The good and the bad mother-in-law

The good, nice, attentive and caring mother-in-law, who is sometimes even described by the daughter-in-law as a "good friend", is "mother-in-law type one" in Kettenbach's categorization. Type two mothers-in-law come closest to the common negative cliché. From the daughters-in-law's point of view, they are mean, devious, meddling and therefore wicked mothers-in-law. "There is simply no living here, only mutual rejection, which can be traced back to the disruptions and unresolved conflicts of the past," says the psychologist, outlining the muddled family relationships in this constellation.

Man's attitude is crucial

There are also mothers-in-law between these extreme forms. Like the "annoying but useful" mother-in-law of type three. "She has the welfare of the young family in mind and supports them, but also interferes. The man turns a blind eye and is reluctant to take sides against his mother in conflicts." The wife, who is often dependent on help, quickly feels misunderstood and in a lost position. Kettenbach advises setting out boundaries on both sides in conversation. "Many women say that advice is also a suggestion, and that the man should take the new family more seriously than his family of origin."

Disinterest in "strangers"

Finally, the fourth type is the defensive, disinterested mother-in-law. "There are few conflicts here, but a lot of cool distance and superficiality. Daughters-in-law are often disappointed that the grandchildren do not have a grandmother. She often prefers the children of her own daughter," says Kellermann. The children of the unloved wife of their own son would be spurned as "strangers". Such bad relationships are not as widespread as the still-widespread "bad mother-in-law" stereotype would suggest. More than half of all mother-in-law and daughter-in-law get along very well today. Problems are the big exception between men and their mothers-in-law anyway.

Image from a dark past

A look at book titles or Internet search results shows that the term "mother-in-law" still has a very negative connotation. The many jokes and caricatures are based on the family situation of the past, suspects Kettenbach. "Up until a hundred years ago, the father represented the family externally through his trade, but the mother was the boss in the house." From the point of view of the head of the house, if the son got married, the head of the house simply added another child to his wife who had to fit in at the bottom of the family hierarchy. This often led to competition for the title of better mother or the more attractive woman.

When grandchildren are born, there is a risk of explosions

The situation has changed massively in the meantime. Today women marry at an older age on average and are better educated and financially independent when they get married than was previously the case. They are already seasoned women and have a more pronounced self-confidence. In addition, newlyweds rarely live in the man's parents' house. So there is much less personal contact between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, which is why there are fewer potential conflict situations. But one topic still threatens to ignite: As soon as children are born, some mother-in-law like to interfere, which the wives do not always want to offer. "Especially when grandchildren come into play and a mother-in-law is going to be a grandmother for the first time, there can be tensions. This is mostly about intervening or giving advice on housekeeping and raising children," says psychologist Kettenbach, explaining the potential for conflict in the modern mother-in-law-daughter-in-law relationship .