Anyone know any mother-in-law jokes? Anyone know why there are so many mother-in-law jokes? Well, Freud suggested that humor allows us to express forbidden impulses. One of the basic human instincts is aggression. Maybe we need to wonder why there is so much aggression between in-laws and their children’s spouses.
So, let’s proceed by examining how each of us comes to experience our self with the universe. From the moment we emerge from the womb, and even before, we are in a constant interaction with people and things around us. We get to know the world as it is reflected in those who are closest and most important to us. For most of us, this is our parents. As infants and young children, we are totally encapsulated by our parents. They are literally our entire universe. We experience nothing outside of them, and our deepest perceptions of reality are totally dependent on the world which they provide us. This makes parents, as equal to God, in the eyes of the child. In fact, we know that in the early years of development, children tend to view their parents as perfect creatures who are the biggest, strongest and best of all things.
Then, comes the real shocker of adolescence. Teenagers begin to emerge out of the protective bubble of their parent’s domain. They begin to see a greater world out there. They are shocked and disappointed to realize that their moms and dads are not the biggest and best. This disappointment often leads to a sense of betrayal. Teenagers feel that parents have sold them a false bill of goods and what emerges is the rocky and conflicted period of life that we call the teen years. Hopefully, as the young person grows, she or he realizes that although their parents aren’t perfect, they are basically good enough people and they are worthwhile to identify with. To paraphrase Mark Twain, “I left home as a lad, utterly disgusted by my father’s ignorance. Upon returning some fifteen years later, I was pleased and surprised to see how much he had learned in the years of my absence.”
So we would hope that once we finish teenage life, our relationship with our parents would be smooth sailing. Well, those of us who have lived long enough know, it’s not that easy. Old imprints die hard. In fact, they never really die at all. In other words, the early imprint of the mother duckling having her children follow her with full trust still remains present although dormant, both within parent and child.
And then comes marriage, and once again all psychological hell is likely to break loose. When the child actually takes leave of the parents domain and sets up his or her own domain, the emotional loss of the child is again aroused from its slumber. Parents, naturally feel a loss. Although many of these feelings are unconscious, the child’s spouse is a natural target as the source of this loss. In simple language, on a psychological level, the parent blames the spouse for taking the child away from the loving bosom of the family. There is a loss of control and a sense that the family’s prized possession has been stolen. Children, on the other hand feel that their parents and in-laws are suffocating their striving for autonomy. The seeds for disaster are planted within this psychological dynamic.
Many of you may say that you are not aware of these feelings. I accept your honesty. However, as a psychologist, who has worked with thousands of families, for over three decades, I have found that with a bit of probing into the unconscious, this dynamic appears pretty universal. Parents feel a betrayal and children feel as if their natural striving for autonomy is being thwarted.
The big bad wolf in this script becomes the mother or father in law in the eyes of the spouse, and the spouse in the eyes of the mother or father in law. Maybe this is why the Talmud refers to the mother in law as a Tzara in relation to the daughter-in-law. Tzara loosely means a source of suffering.
What can we do in order to make things work?
First, to acknowledge that any way you slice the cake, the nature of the relationship is difficult.
Secondly, we need to become mindful of our own feelings of loss, anger or betrayal. Rather than to blame ourselves for these feelings, we need to accept them as reflecting a natural dynamic that from the parents perspective reflects a natural loss of the nuclear family unit and from the child’s perspective reflects a natural step towards autonomy. In simple words, it’s okay to feel sad, confused and angry, because growing up is hard for all of us and necessary losses are mandatory milestones in the process of development, for both children and parents.
Thirdly, once we have acknowledged our internal struggles we need to script our behaviors so that they reflect a healthy acceptance of the new dynamic. Parents need to give their kids and spouses room to live as independent grown-ups. Kids need to realize that their leaving the nest is difficult for their parents, and that they are able to exert their independence without totally closing parents out.
Finally, if like most of us, you come to these realizations after having already made one, two, three or four mistakes, learning to apologize is terrific. So is learning to forgive.
Let’s go into the 9th of Av this year thinking globally, but acting locally. Let’s work on getting rid of the baseless hatred (sinat chinam) that lives within our homes. Let’s make up now with our in-laws. Peace now!