Are you in competition with your mother-in-law?

My friend, Patricia, recently got engaged to her boyfriend of seven months. She was ecstatic when she called to share the big news. Naturally, I couldn’t help but express my concern over the seemingly rushed decision the two had made.

“He is an orphan,” Patricia candidly informed me. “Mothers-in-law are a deal breaker for me. I knew Ted was the one the moment he told me he had no parents.”

I have known Patricia for over fifteen years. I always thought of her as a kind and compassionate person but hearing her talk this way had me wondering when my friend had become such a harsh and inconsiderate person.

However, as my conversation with Patricia progressed, I was reminded of another friend of mine, Muthoni, who is constantly complaining and threatening to leave her husband of five years because of constant interference from her mother-in-law.

This had me questioning; are mothers-in-law really that daunting in marriages?

Dealing with in-laws in Kenya

A recent study by a private university, Dakar University revealed that infidelity and interfering in-laws are to blame for rising divorce rates in Kenya. The study revealed that 97 percent of the respondents blamed interference by their in-laws for their divorces. Of the 97 percent, 40 percent specifically pointed at their mothers-in-law as the greatest threat to their marriages.

Causes of friction between mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law

Image: @AtlantaBlackStar


This rivalry occurs when either or both women decide to be in competition with the other for the affection and attention of the man in question. It is a game of testing and seeing who the man responds to first or the most. It is also about who is more important to him and thus, most entitled to his love, care and attention.

Jealousy and envy

Muthoni once lamented;

My mother in-law hates it whenever Kelvin [her husband] buys something for me, especially if it’s something she doesn’t have. She doesn’t like that we built our house first. She expected Kelvin to built a house for her first. She’s always talking about how much she sacrificed for him to be where he is today. She makes me feel like I don’t deserve any of the things my husband does for me. She would rather he did them for her first.

If you’re a mother, you probably sympathise with Muthoni’s mother-in-law. And if you’re a daughter-in-law, you are most likely to take Muthoni’s side. The question is, who is right between the two?


A mother expects her son to take care of her when he is grown and working. Likewise, a wife expects her husband to take care of her and their family. The problem usually arises when one feels more entitled to that care than the other. But who really should be the man’s main prerogative? Should he pick one over the other or should he create a balance?

Finding a middle ground

Define boundaries

The boundaries I’m talking about are the legal and moral responsibilities of the parties involved.

Only a mother would understand how much a parent sacrifices just so her child can have a good life. It is every mother’s hope that she raises her children in such a way that one day they would, in turn, take care of her. Even though a child never asked the parents to give birth to them, they naturally expect their parents to love and take care of them until they can stand on their own.

It is normal for a mother to expect the same kind of Iove and care from her child when he grows up. Unfortunately, whereas the mother is legally and morally compelled to provide that care, the son is not held to those responsibilities. Well, maybe not completely or explicitly. A son is and should morally be compelled to take care of his parents when they are obviously not able to do so by themselves.

Communicate the boundaries

Because the man is the one at the centre of the supposed competition between mother and wife, it is his responsibility to spearhead communication. By law, a man is required and expected to love, cherish, honour and care for his wife. An unmarried son is free to make his mother his prerogative. A married son does not have that freedom. Through marriage, his wife automatically becomes his first priority, his mother secondary. The wife is after all “one and of the same flesh with him.”

Be compassionate

A husband being ‘one’ with his wife does not mean that the wife is more important than the mother. Neither does it absolve the son from taking care of his mother or parents. It simply means that his priorities have shifted. This also does not mean that the wife should demand priority over the mother-in-law even in situations where stepping aside for the mother would not bring marital complications.

Marriage is about communication, compromise and understanding. Any good wife should discern when to demand or expect preferential treatment from her husband and when to step aside and allow others to be taken care of instead. A wife that allows the mistreatment of her in-laws by her own husband probably does not love him sincerely. If she loves him, she will love his family as well.

Similarly, any mother that disrespects or disregards her daughter-in-law does not love and respect her son at all. She does not trust his choices and she probably has not raised him well enough to be a man that can stand on his own without her interference. Most importantly, there can never be a winner between a mother and a daughter-in-law in competition. When the competition is wrong, the prize too is wrong and should not be celebrated.

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