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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Meet the in-laws

Jennifer Lopez and Jane Fonda butt heads in
Sharon Jayson USA Today

Mother-in-law jokes, it seems, never go out of style. And in the past few weeks, movies, TV and even Washington speechwriters seem to be turning up the heat on the curious relationship between mothers-in-law and their daughters-in-law.

Jane Fonda and Jennifer Lopez take the stereotypes to new highs (and lows) in the movie “Monster-in-Law,” which opened two weeks ago. It grossed $24 million over its first weekend. TV’s “Everybody Loves Raymond” finale last week ended nine years of jabs by Ray’s mom and wife. Even the first lady couldn’t resist ribbing the Bush clan’s white-haired matriarch recently.

So is this infamous tension for real or just fodder for the laugh track?

“The difficulty is not a myth,” says psychologist Terri Apter of the University of Cambridge in England. Apter’s experiences as a daughter-in-law prompted her to spend the past 15 years of her 20-year marriage studying this emotion-filled relationship, which will be the focus of a book.

“In the presence of my mother-in-law, all my normal virtues fail to function,” she says. “With my mother-in-law, I feel that somehow the air has been sucked out of my life.”

Deborah Merrill, an associate professor of sociology at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., is doing similar research, also for a book. She agrees that hurt feelings and misunderstandings on both sides are genuine. “One of the causes of difficulty in these relationships is that nobody really knows how they’re supposed to act or what they’re supposed to do,” she says.

The two say differing expectations (often with an underlying turf battle) underscore the complexities. Mothers-in-law say they feel rebuffed by daughters-in-law who take their comments the wrong way. Daughters-in-law say their husbands’ mothers are judgmental and overly critical. Marriage has suddenly created an instant family in which the only common interest is the man they either raised or married.

Merrill says her research uncovered more positives than she expected; women say “overall, we do get along well.” But there also are troubling exchanges. “I have never had anyone say their mother-in-law tried to sabotage their relationship, but I have had them say their mother-in-law ‘gives me a really hard time,’ ” she says.

Beverly Freid of Glen Rock, N.J., had an up-close look at such tension when she was growing up.

“I had two grandmothers who were very bad in-laws,” she says. “We would sit down to dinner, and my grandmother would serve everybody but my mother. She would leave her sitting without any food. And my mom’s mother would say ‘Why don’t you leave him and take the kids and move in with me?’ “

Her parents weathered the negativity and earlier this year celebrated their 50th anniversary. Still, those recollections were so vivid that six years ago Freid and her husband launched Mother-in-Law Stories (, a Web site where families can vent.

Although Freid says she and her mother-in-law, Maggie Freid, get along well, Apter says “problematic” is the relationship norm.

“I would like there to be a shift in the culture where we could name it as a difficult relationship without turning either the mother-in-law or daughter-in-law into a monster,” Apter says.

Still, she cites Italy’s National Institute of Statistics, which she says found that the duration of the marriage increased with every 100 yards between couple and mother-in-law.

Jeri Solberg of Lansing, Kan., says her mother-in-law’s Minnesota home seven hours away has fostered a “good, respectful relationship.” Solberg, who has been married 13 years, says this mother-in-law is very different from her first husband’s mother, who she says came between her and her husband. That marriage, when she was 18, lasted 61/2 years.

Perhaps the biggest surprise entry into the mother-in-law fray was Laura Bush, whose quips about Barbara Bush yielded guffaws at a this year’s White House correspondents’ dinner.

“Speaking of prizes brings me to my mother-in-law,” Bush said. “People think she’s a sweet, grandmotherly, Aunt Bea type. She’s actually more like, mmm, Don Corleone.”

On the sitcom “Everybody Loves Raymond,” creator, producer and writer Phil Rosenthal says the complicated relationship between mom Marie and wife Debra came from his childhood.

“My mother could never do anything right in her mother-in-law’s eyes,” he says.

His parents have been married almost 50 years, but Rosenthal says the show’s depiction of the tense mother-in-law/daughter-in-law relationship struck an unexpected serious chord with some viewers. They said it hit too close to home.

“It’s not funny to them,” he says. “I never thought it would cross over into painful for anybody.”