Click here to print this page

Planning Retirement Online

Relationships 64    

                                 August 2007

Maggi Stamp, LaterLife's Relationship Counsellor

Every month Maggi Stamp, a qualified and experienced relationship counsellor for Relate and in private practice, writes about some of the emotional challenges we meet in later life.

For reasons of confidentiality Maggi never writes about a particular person's problems unless you have sent one in to be answered, but all her examples are based on problems raised by clients, family and friends over the years.  

You can write to Maggi at for her to respond in the column.


Problems with Daughter-in-law

Dear Maggi:

In your Relationship Issue No 16, you replied to a couple whose only son married a woman who is too cold to accept them, and they could not warm to her. I read all the comments, but disagree with one: I don’t think showing tolerance will improve things over time, especially not for the parents. I’ve tried.

Our son has been married nine years, I’ve never made a negative comment, never asked an inappropriate question, never offered my opinion when not asked and my daughter-in-law is still as cold as frozen fruit.

She is studying for her Ph.D, she never worked, she is always tired, and now, at 34, is pregnant (finally). She is even tired being pregnant. I can find nothing in her personality that makes her lovable. I don’t know what else to do.



Maggi replies:

It is so sad when the relationship between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law doesn’t work. I’m sorry to hear it. I wonder, have you spoken to her or your son about this? Unless you ask, there is no way of knowing if she too, deep down, would really like it to be different but has no idea of how to approach you.

After nine years, this will take some care and a great deal of diplomacy and subtlety. Whatever the reason this coldness began is almost irrelevant now. I’m very pleased to hear the baby is coming as often a child can thaw the ice in a family. The point is to try to start a new way of communicating that has nothing to do with the past, but everything to do with the future, your relationship with your new grandchild and his or her parents.

Sometimes it is we, the family elders who appear powerful, and therefore intimidating, for a newcomer in the family group. Perhaps your daughter-in-law felt this and put up her defences, fearing she would be judged not good enough for your son in your eyes. I’m sure this is not the case, but do have a think about how you look, smile, say things and express your feelings. Anything that might be misunderstood by someone outside of the immediate family is worth trying to change a little.

You see her as lazy. Has your son said this or is it your own judgment? If he said so, it is up to him to address things with her. If not, you can assume he is happy with the way things are in his relationship. It will not be identical to your own marriage or even the same as the way you would want to care for your son, but he is married to her and it is between them how they manage their workload.

A PhD is a gruelling period of study. I watched a son struggle with his doctorate and caring for a new baby, while being financially supported by his wife once she was able to return to work. It was very hard work for both of them, physically, emotionally, intellectually and financially, but I’m sure they would say, if asked, that their relationship has strengthened as a result.

Many people feel they are unable to complete studies due to family pressure and lack of understanding. I do hope she makes it through to the end. It will be something for them both to be proud of, and could allow you to feel that way too.

Bear in mind that having a baby can be such a pressure, that some women find it too hard to continue with their studies. If that were to happen, it is important that you would support her decision to concentrate on being a mother. You could be key in helping her not to feel she has ‘failed’ in any way, just taken a hard decision that will make the young family’s life a little easier.

It is likely that she is wary of you. Women often feel they will never measure up to their mother-in-law. They don’t have to, but they do need to build a healthy relationship with their husband’s family wherever possible. It feels that in this case, for whatever reason, this has been unable to happen.

  • You tell me how careful you have been in never saying the wrong thing. Well done for that, it isn’t easy at times to just stand back and say nothing. Perhaps now you could take the initiative again and start the thawing process?

  • You love your son. Try to see her through his eyes as the woman he loves and has chosen to spend his life with, not as a ‘frozen fruit’.

  • We sometimes expect too much of the family. Not everyone is going to feel devoted to and totally appreciative of new members. The best one can do in that situation is get to know them better and find out about their qualities and talents. Then you have something to build on over time. Perhaps understanding what others see will help. Showing your admiration of these qualities and talents will help enormously.

Here are a few approaches you might try. Smile and use your voice gently:

  • Offer her small, unsolicited appreciations of what she is doing or how she has handled something, or how she looks. Expect nothing back, that is not why you said it.

  • Let her know that you understand how hard it is to study at this top level in your thirties – especially now she is having the baby. Expect no thanks, this is not why you offered the observation.

  • Say things like: “I feel we have still got lots to share with each other. I look forward to that”; or: “I know we don’t talk much and I hope it isn’t because I haven’t encouraged you, but I do want us to be closer”; or: “I would like us to be more at ease with each other, how do you think we can make our relationship stronger?”

  • When you phone them and she answers, rather than ask for your son, try to ask her something specific about her week, especially if your son has said there was an ante-natal class, or some kind of meeting to do with her studies coming up. That way, when she asks if you want to speak to him, you can say how nice it was to chat to her before she hands you over.

    These and many other ways are small paving stones to create a path between the two families, your own and that of your son. Small they may be, but essential and powerfully effective.


You can write to Maggi at for her to respond in the column.

back to the Relationship Counselling Index


Advertise on