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The mother-in-law from hell

 When you marry Prince Charming, you marry his mother too (Photo: Courtesy)

The story goes something like this: boy meets girl, and they fall in love, get married, and go on to live happily ever after. At least that is what fairy tales say, but the reality is often different. What fairy tales never tell you is that when Cinderella married Prince Charming, his mother also become her mother.

For some, this is a wonderful, and smooth experience, but for those who may not be so lucky, they may have to endure or deal with a controlling and overbearing mother-in-law. This story is not only as old as time, but so common it cuts across races and cultures.

It has not only inspired the creation of many support groups online, but is a common topic in newspaper columns, magazines and online.

Stories abound about mother-in-laws who want to control their son or daughter’s life after they are adults and even after they get married.

Mother-in-laws who want to remain smack in the middle of their children’s marriage and family life and refuse to badge unless they are leaving in their casket. She is that dark shadow who is always hovering over every intimate and intricate detail of their child’s marriage and life and does not understand boundaries.

Maybe she tells you the right way to cook or frequently stops by unannounced and stays for long visits that can go for months and only leaves when she decides to.

Perhaps she insists on being the one to name the children when they are born, or shows signs of jealousy over your marriage, even disapproving of your parenting style. Then she is always right, without exception, or is dismissive, critical, overbearing and expects complete subservience.

She expects you to please her and do everything as she demands or for her approval. If you fail, she feels she has a right to complain about you to anyone who will give her an ear - even the poor watchman who just wants to finish his work shift without any drama.

No life decision can be made without her impute or approval. Yes, mothers-in-law are notorious for being controlling and overbearing. And like any toxic individual, a toxic mother-in-law is emotionally, mentally and physically draining.

Intrigued by just how common stories of controlling mother-in-laws abound, Eve Magazine spoke to two relationship experts to try and understand the genesis and a solution if one actually exists.

According to Benjamin Zulu, a counselling psychologist and motivational speaker, the reason why some mothers-in-law are overbearing and controlling can be caused by a number of reasons.

Zulu says mothers-in-law are controlling because of three reasons: Failure of parents to individuate themselves from their child, the mistaken notion that a child is your property and they cannot do anything without your permission and, lastly, money.

“Some mothers fail to sever the mother-child bond that is formed from the moment their child grows in their womb and to allow their relationship with their child to change and evolve as the child becomes more independent. They fail to leave room for their children to be independent and sever the emotional ties with their mother so that they can leave room to define themselves away from their relationship with their mother,” he says.

“Secondly, controlling mothers believe their child is their property and they own them. That even though their children are grown and independent they should not buy a house, start a business or even take their own child to a particular thing or do anything without their permission.”

Additionally, Zulu says, money plays a big role in motivating this type of dysfunctional and toxic behaviour that some mothers adopt with their married children.

“When a child is young some parents give everything to their child and make all the sacrifices so that their child can succeed. They give up everything including their personal life and finances and so it can be tough for them to watch another woman or man (spouse) reap the benefits of their hard work and sacrifices,” he says.

 Parents should not make children feel like they owe them for everything (Photo: Courtesy)

The counselling psychologist says parents should not make their children feel like they owe them because they sacrificed everything for them when they were growing up.

“It is so bad that sometimes some men will send money to their mothers, who will decide how much to give to their wife for their upkeep.”

He says sometimes controlling mothers are birthed from women who gave everything to their children and neglected their own marriages.

Or women who were single and thus choose to put all their focus on their child, making them almost play the role of a boyfriend, and so any woman who comes in is a threat to them.

Zulu warns that it is not just married women who may struggle to deal with the controlling mothers-in-law, but that married men also share in the struggle.

“If you marry a first daughter either by birth or responsibility, be prepared to deal with a controlling mother-in-law. First daughters often carry the responsibility of their whole family on their shoulders.

“They are emotionally enmeshed or inappropriately entangled with family even after they get married. As a result, when married they are burdened with dealing with two families. She spends too much time with family and dealing with their issues, and you cannot separate her from her mother.

“Often, her family may feel like they own her and so if her mother is alive, she will definitely interfere with her daughter’s marriage and family life in a bid to keep her close and maintain control over her,” he says.

He has a solution to this. “Talk with your husband or wife and let them deal with their mother or leave. Never fight with the in-law; you will lose, save yourself.

If you have grievances take them to your partner. Let your partner deal with his family and not you. If your partner cannot defend you against his people, then you are alone.”

In the same vein, Jackie Keya, a family mediator, psychologist, counsellor and life coach, says there are many reasons that make mother-in-laws overbearing.

“Before jumping into the reasons for a controlling mother-in-law, I must mention that not all mothers-in-law are overbearing. Some of the reasons that make some mothers-in-law overbearing are not limited to these, but may include repeated behaviour patterns normalised by socialisation.

“We live in a society where it has been normalised for a mother-in-law to be overbearing. Where a mother-in-law word is always ‘right’ and it is/was a taboo to even stand up to her even when you are suffering - even when it is obvious, she is on the wrong,” says Keya.

“Secondly, some mothers become controlling because they believe they know what is best for their child, never mind their child is an adult and married, or believe they are losing their child to their spouse and, therefore, meddles in the couple’s life.”

Then, according to Keya, money, and the relationship a mother has with her child can also play a big role.

“A mum who significantly contributes financially to a couple’s life and pays the significant bills may believe that she has the right to. This is because by her making a financial contribution it may blur the boundaries,” says Keya.

“The relationship a mother has with their child is also a factor. Some mothers-in-law are not overbearing to all their daughters or sons, but they could be an overbearing mother-in-law to their favourite child’s spouse that does not know how to set boundaries.”

She adds that an unhealthy co-dependent mother/child relationship can also be a reason.

“An unhealthy co-dependent mother/child relationship could be the reason your spouse may not be using their capacity to support or defend you from their mother. This is because they may not know how to say ‘no’ to their mother. Therefore, they unknowingly create an environment for mother-in-law drama to thrive.”

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