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  • Heath Maxwell

Why the Mother-in-Law Stereotype is Harmful

Updated: May 10, 2020

There’s an interesting and likely adverse stigma that surrounds the relationship between mother- and daughter-in-law. It often goes unnoticed, or at the very least unremarked upon. But this stereotype of the relationship can do a lot of damage that we often don’t even think about.

The trope in media at large of the so-called “monster-in-law” is fairly commonplace, happening enough that if it is a pivotal plot point in a film or television series, we scarcely blink. Never do we stop to think about why this relationship is depicted in such a way, nor the effects it has on day-to-day life. We accept this relationship being contentious at face value, simply because we are conditioned to see it that way.

This internalized stereotype that many people carry without even realizing can manifest itself in many different ways. It can show itself as mostly-harmless jabs at the water cooler about being “trapped with the in-laws” at holiday time or more damaging preconceived notions that in some cases can make this relationship an uphill battle before the involved parties have even gotten started in their relationship.

A fear of what a mother-in-law may be like can color an otherwise innocuous first meeting, and can set the tone for the relationship and have a lasting impact. Misunderstandings happen in any relationship, of course, but this idea of the “monster-in-law” lingering in the back of one’s mind can make even the most simple mistakes of a mother-in-law look calculated and disrespectful. In addition to this, a newly-minted mother-in-law may feel as though she needs to walk on eggshells to avoid coming across in this manner, which adds a different type of tension to a relationship. This strain or stress makes for a shaky foundation and can lead to more problems down the road. Conversely, when mothers- and daughters-in law enter the relationship in an open-minded state, there’s nothing to say that daughters-in-law and mothers-in-law can’t get along well and develop strong, caring relationships.

The depiction of this relationship as inherently negative hints at a broader issue: the depiction of women at large. Many times women characters are portrayed as bitter rivals and usually a man is in the middle. In the specific mother-in-law stereotype, we see popular shows regularly pit the mother-in-law against the new girl, the interloper, who is trying to usurp her place in her little boy’s heart. This is not only inaccurate with most mother- and daughter-in-law relationships, but also disturbing. It’s generally good practice to be aware of these types of unfavorable patterns seen in popular media.

The mother-in-law/daughter-in-law relationship is important to the family system and the “monster-in-law” stereotype is harmful to that relationship. While there are certainly people who are difficult to get along with, and some may even happen to be mothers-in-law, these seem to be the exception rather than the rule. In fact, the data speaks for itself: out of 797 respondents to our survey, the majority (58%) of mothers- and daughters-in-law identified themselves as satisfied or very satisfied in their relationship with the other. This lends credence to what we suspected already: in general, the horrible monster-in-law is generally more of a myth-in-law.

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