Karen and Bill have been married for two years. They get along well, except for the visits from Bill’s parents. His dad is a fine person and easy to have around. Bill’s mother, Helen, is the problem.
Helen is a super housekeeper. At Helen’s house there is never a scrap of paper where it shouldn’t be or a dust ball anywhere. Her windows shine, her appliances shine – the house and everything in it could be brand new.
Karen and Bill share the housekeeping in their apartment, but they both work full time and enjoy having a chance to kick back when they are not working. Mail does pile up, and sometimes there are dirty dishes in the sink. So when Bill’s folks are coming, they go into high gear cleaning up. But no matter how much they clean, Helen always finds something that needs her attention when she arrives.
Karen’s frustration has been mounting over the years of their marriage, so this last time, she set out to make things spotless. She even enlisted the help of her friend, Sue. The two of them spent the Thursday night before Helen’s weekend visit cleaning – four hours of vacuuming, dusting, scrubbing and waxing. Karen was sure Helen would have nothing to clean this time! But sure enough, she had missed the pipes behind the sink in the bathroom, and the kitchen trashcan had some coffee stains inside.
Karen was so frustrated she couldn’t enjoy the visit, and when Helen left she cried to Bill, “Why can’t she just come and visit? Nothing I do is enough!” Bill’s answer was, “Oh honey, that’s just how mom is. She doesn’t mean anything by it.” Karen still feels frustrated in meeting the impossible standards of her mother-in-law. What can Karen and Bill do?
Although cleaning may not be the in-law issue you personally deal with, it reflects one of the many ways interference by in-laws can bring tension to a marriage. Strategies for addressing interference from outsiders, however, remain the same:
Abandon the ketchup bottle
In talking about conflictual situations, couples sometimes use the “ketchup bottle” approach. You know, when you can’t get the top off the ketchup so you just try harder? Usually you have to try something new before it opens. If Karen thinks cleaning for six hours next time will do the trick, she’ll likely end up even more frustrated.
Put yourself in the other’s shoes
Karen needs to try to figure out why Helen is so determined to find things to clean. Maybe she feels awkward sitting around with no tasks to do. Maybe she’s been praised for her cleaning ability and feels it’s her only talent and wants to make sure everyone knows it. Maybe she knows that Bill and Karen have to clean after working 40-hour weeks so she wants to help out when she’s around.
Without asking Helen, we won’t know what her motivation is, but trying to understand what’s driving her may make it feel less like a competition.
Talk with your spouse about it
Karen probably wants to talk to Bill about her feelings – not to complain about his mother, but to brainstorm solutions. That will make it feel like a problem they share, rather than an issue that comes between them.
A hint for the interferer
If you are reading this and identify with Helen, you may want to ask yourself why you are cleaning Karen and Bill’s house. You may feel critical of Karen as a housekeeper, but there are other ways to share your expertise. Maybe you could share time-saving tips you have discovered over your years of housekeeping. The last thing you want is to cause problems between Bill and Karen. Nobody wins if the young couple is unhappy. If your motive is to give them a hand because of their busy lives, then you need to offer your help directly, and ask if there is a particular project they could use help with.
A hint for the supportive spouse
If you are Bill, then you need to listen to Karen’s frustration and, without condemning your mother, try to help Karen figure out why your mom is behaving in this way. Your first job is to support Karen and listen to her feelings. You may need to have a conversation with your mother along the lines of “Mom, Karen and I split the household tasks, and when you come and start cleaning it makes us feel like we’re not doing a good enough job. We’d appreciate your suggestions, but when you and dad come we’d like to have fun with you.”
There’s not one right solution to in-law dilemmas, but there are some underlying principles:
- Couple unity has priority over other relationships.
- If something needs to be said it should come from the child to his or her parent, not from in-law to in-law.
Kathy Beirne is editor of Foundations Newsletter for Newly Married Couples. She has a master’s degree in Child and Family Development. Kathy and her husband, Steve, live in Portland, ME.