Is mother-in-law drama really that bad? What studies show — and what a therapist recommends doing to cut family tension.

What an expert says about avoiding mother-in-law drama. (Getty Images)
What an expert says about avoiding mother-in-law drama. (Getty Images)

Vicky lives in Georgia and has two adult children, both of whom are married. She considers herself to have a close, drama-free relationship with her daughter's husband. As a mother-in-law, she can't say the same when it comes to her son's wife, however.

"When my son first met his future wife, we got along well," Vicky, who asked to not share her last name, tells Yahoo Life. "They've been married for 18 years, and sadly, I realize the old saying is true: A son is yours until he takes a wife. I don't get involved with their problems. But my daughter-in-law treats my son like a servant; she has very little compassion for people. I've learned to ignore her behavior even though she has caused a rift between us by making everything about her side of the family."

Despite the tension, Vicky says she remains a patient mother-in-law who says only positive things about her daughter-in-law to her son and grandson. But because of her personal experience, she finds jokes about mothers-in-law as meddling, irritating figures tiresome. That trope is unfair, Vicky says, because it's not always the mother-in-law who is responsible for family conflict.

Just how much discord is there typically? As Today reports, a survey conducted for the 2020 Geoffrey L. Greif and Michael E. Woolley book In-Law Relationships: Mothers, Daughters, Fathers and Sons found that only about 15% of mothers- and daughters-in-law surveyed expressed having a troubled relationship with one another; more than half of respondents took a positive view of their relationship, while the remaining group felt neutral. Mothers-in-law were also found to be more likely to rank their relationships positively compared with their daughters-in-laws. For example, while 33% of mothers-in-law "strongly agreed" that they had a close relationship with their daughter-in-law, just 18% of the daughters-in-law surveyed said the same.

That's an improvement from a 2011 poll conducted by the U.K. parenting site Netmums, in which 24% of the 2,000 women surveyed said they had a bad or terrible relationship with their mother-in-law. Another 35% described their mothers-in-law as "judgmental"; respondents also called their spouse's mother "interfering" (32%), controlling (25%) and rude (22%).

"In many cases, mothers-in-law do have harmonious relationships with their children's partners," Barbara Greenberg, a clinical psychologist who works with families, tells Yahoo Life. "However, I'm more likely to hear about in-law relationships fraught with all sorts of tension. Many of these mothers-in-law don't understand that they're being meddlesome and intrusive. They have the sense of a proprietary right to their child and believe their feedback is coming from a place of concern."

According to Greenberg, the best way for mothers-in-law to destigmatize their reviled image is to "pull back on giving advice — less is more in this instance." Greenberg also suggests a softer approach in the event of a disagreement. Rather than leaping in with an opinion about why something an in-law did or said was wrong, act curious and ask questions about how they feel and where they're coming from.

Mothers-in-law, she adds, should "let the couple grow into their new role, and if they make some mistakes along the way, that's OK. But if you still feel the need to give advice, ask permission first. Otherwise, respect their boundaries."

That's something Nevada-based Patti Jones has tried to do in her role as a mother-in-law, she tells Yahoo Life. She says she has made a point of not getting involved in her children's arguments with their spouses.

"My goal when my children got married was to love their spouses the same as my own children," Jones says. "As a mother, I want to make their lives easier, not harder. I don't criticize them — ever. Do I always agree with them? No." Loving her children's spouses isn't always easy, she adds. "But is it right? Yes."

Like Vicky, she tries not to dwell on the negative stereotypes that paint mothers-in-law as a source of universal drama. But she, too, has seen some tension. "Only one of my daughters-in-law does not engage much with me, even though we have much in common," Patti says. "She rarely answers my texts or calls. She keeps me at arm's length from her and my grandkids. I wouldn't know much about their family without my son's input. I don't know why she isn't close to me."

On that note, what's Greenberg's advice for the daughters- and sons-in-law who don't quite get along with their mother-in-law? They should "look at their mothers-in-law through a gentle lens," she says. "She has a lot of wisdom to share and is only trying to be helpful. She still needs to feel relevant."

While it's not always smooth sailing, Vicky and Patti both say that, at the end of the day, their family's well-being is what counts most. "I'm just happy that my children are all healthy and leading their own lives — as it should be," Vicky says.

Marcia Kester Doyle is a freelance columnist for Yahoo Life and the author of Who Stole My Spandex? Life in the Hot Flash Lane. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, The Huffington Post, the Independent, USA Today/Reviewed, Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping, AARP, Woman's Day, Country Living, House Beautiful and many others.