Navigating the Husband, Wife & Mother-In-Law Matrix
The husband, wife, mother-in-law interplay is often a very sensitive three-way dynamic. It’s the Bermuda Triangle of marital or family relationships. When it works well, it brings joy and warmth into the family; when it does not, it often makes life a living hell! Usually it’s the mother-in-law and daughter-in-law dynamic which is the most fraught of all in-law relationships, far more so than men and their mothers-in-law, inspite of jokes often being made about the latter. Studies show, six out of ten married women find their relationship with their mothers-in-law strained or tension-filled. The relationship between two women is, usually speaking, more intimate and emotional than men’s. They focus on whether or not they feel a connection to their in-law. There’s also more than a little competitiveness that comes into play. And while one might think such competition is for the husband or son’s love, that’s not quite the case. Research reveals that the competition is more about the influence these two women have over him. Given that there are now signs that such a delicate relationship is coming under even further pressure, due to generational conflicts over the changing roles of women in a family, here are a few received wisdoms, from both Revelation and the lived experiences of people, to help navigate this often awkward three-way relationship:
1 – The intelligent husband never withholds one person’s right so as to give it to another. Rather, he gives each person the rights they are entitled to. This is especially the case vis-a-via his wife and his mother/her mother-in-law. We learn in the Holy Qur’an: O people! Give just measure and weight, nor diminish anything that is due to people. [Q.11:85] So love, honour and dutiful service to our mothers is one thing, but sheepish subservience to them is another thing altogether!
2 – The intelligent wife is one who acts with patience and wisdom, especially concerning her mother-in-law. She patiently bears any ill treatment she may receive at her-mother-in-law’s hands (or tongue). She acts wisely in that she repels bad treatment with good: by pardoning her, continuing to speak politely to her, and seeking to win her over with gifts and acts of kindness. This will also please the husband, as well as keep his heart. Allah says: Good and evil are not equal. Repel [evil] with what is better; then he between whom and you there was enmity shall become as a dear friend. But none is granted it save he who is steadfast; and none is granted it except he who is immensely fortunate. [Q.41:34-5]
3 – The righteous husband must know that the wife is under no obligation to live with her in-laws, unless she so chooses (or circumstances necessitate). Nor is it obligated that she serve or take care of them: although her innate goodness, and shari‘ah recommendation, will inspire her to do so. And when she does, both husband and in-laws must show their appreciation for it. By doing so, she would have gained God’s approval, as well as theirs. To not thank those who do us good, or to take their goodness for granted, shows lack of character and ingratitude to God! Our Prophet ﷺ taught: ‘He does not thank Allah who does not thank people.’1 For in-laws not to appreciate their daughter-in-law’s acts of help, service and kindness to them or her help around the house, is extremely poor character; it is ingratitude – God save us!
4 – The righteous wife will not demand living separately when financial means simply do not permit so. This should be made clear before the marriage takes place. If after marriage the couple fall upon financially difficult times, and find themselves living at the home of the husband’s parents, let the wife not keep insisting on her right to her own place during such hard times. Instead, let her be patient in this less than ideal predicament, as well as be supportive of her husband. Her piety in this matter may well be key: And whoever fears Allah, He shall appoint a way out for them, and shall provide for them from whence they did not expect. [Q.65:2-3] Allah, exalted is He, says about debts and debtors: And if the debtor is in straitened circumstances, then grant him a postponement until a [time of] ease. But if you remit the debt as charity, it would be better for you, if you did but know. [Q.2:280] Now if such is the Lord’s pleasure in the case of a creditor giving respite to a debtor, then what about a wife granting respite to her husband for the “debt” he owes her in terms of having their own place?
5 – The just husband, if ever he discovered his mother is being unjust or offensive to her own daughter-in-law (and such isn’t a one-off incident), will advise that she stops such behaviour. For a mother-in-law could then be on the verge of becoming a monster-in-law! The Qur’an says: Those who offend believing men and believing women undeservedly, bear the guilt of slander and a manifest sin. [Q.33:58] Advice can be either offered directly, or by wisely involving another family member. What cannot be countenanced is for a husband to continue letting a wife suffer hurt or ill-treatment without doing his best to put a stop to it. When Allah states: Men are maintainers and protectors of women, [Q.4:34] husbands aren’t just legally obliged to be financial maintainers, but to be physical and emotional protectors as well. How can a husband be his wife’s protector if he allows his mother to, for example, poison his heart against his wife; or allow family and relatives to bad mouth her, causing her emotional or psychological hurt. Astaghfiru’Llah! The famous sage and saint, Fudayl b. ‘Iyyad once remarked: ‘By Allah! It is not lawful for you to hurt a dog or a pig without just cause, so how can you harm another Muslim?’2
6 – The just wife realises that her husband’s attempt to advise such a mother is unlikely to be easy or straightforward, though he is expected to do his best. For in doing so, he can’t raise his voice at her, or rebuke her in a way a senior may do to a junior. The Qur’an says: Your Lord has decreed that you worship none save Him and show kindness to your parents. If either or both of them reach old age with you, do not [even] say ‘fie!’ to them, nor rebuke them, but speak to them kindly. [Q.17:23] Given the constraints around how parents might be ‘corrected’ by their own children, the just wife acknowledges her husband’s attempts may not yield the fruits she hopes for. What should she then do? Well the godly course of action comes to us in the following hadiths. Once a lady suffering from epilepsy came to the Prophet ﷺ and said to him that she suffers from epilepsy and that during her fits, her clothes loosen and her body becomes exposed. She asked the Prophet ﷺ to pray to Allah that she may be cured from her epilepsy. The Prophet ﷺ replied: ‘If you wish, patiently-endure and yours shall be Paradise. Or if you wish, I can pray to Allah to cure you?’ She said: ‘I will patiently endure.’ And then added: ‘But pray to Allah that my body doesn’t get exposed.’ So the Prophet ﷺ prayed for her.3 Of course, the lady’s patience was a choice, reaching for the deeper degrees of faith and the higher degrees of godliness. But patiently enduring (sabr), even if not by choice, but due to circumstance, is still a lofty level of faith and deeply pleasing to our Lord.
7 – As for the loving and loveable mother-in-law, she is a piece of paradise in this world. This is the type of lady whose hope and prayer is for her son and his wife – her daughter-in-law – to have a happy, loving and blessed marital life; her attitudes and actions being a testimony to her righteous hopes and intentions. This is a woman who tries to live by the prophetic principle: la darar wa la dirar – ‘There is no harm, nor reciprocating harm.’4 It’s a mother-in-law who, although there may be the occasional lapse of beautiful behaviour and kind conduct from her, exemplifies what a decent, godly and kind Muslim mother-in-law should be. That is to say, good mothers[-in-law] want their sons and daughters-in-law to have good marriages. So she doesn’t meddle in their affairs, nor dictate how they ought to live their lives, nor put the daughter-in-law under constant scrutiny or into an anxious, defensive mess; and nor believe that she is the ultimate authority on parenting.
8 – As for the difficult, meddling or judgemental mother-in-law, that’s a different kettle of fish. If she’s not creating some drama to seek attention or assert her authority, then she’s being pushy, judgemental, spiteful or demeaning towards her daughter-in-law. If not, she is sowing seeds of fitnah between her and her husband, excluding her from family affairs and gatherings, or poisoning the son’s heart against her – all with intent. Such conduct may arise from her struggling with loss of influence over her son; or thinking she’s lost his affection; or not feeling needed by him any more. Or it could be from ego-driven motives; from a nasty, jealous, controlling nature she may have. It could be more vindictive in that, for no just reason, she hates her daughter-in-law. Whatever drives this toxic behaviour, is simply unacceptable. The Prophet ﷺ said: ‘Shall I not tell you what sets the best of you apart from the worst of you? The best of you are those from whom goodness is expected and people are safe from their harm. The worst of you are those from whom goodness is not expected and people aren’t safe from their harm.’5 If such a women doesn’t fear God and amend her ways, she is likely to find herself on the wrong side of Allah’s pleasure on the Day of Judgement, and on the right side of divine punishment.
9 – Then there’s the selfish or spiteful daughter-in-law who is constantly trying to create schisms between her husband and his mother – and yes, this can and does occur. Like the mean mother-in-law depicted above, she too must fear God and reign in her ugly attitude and conduct. This is the daughter-in-law who – despite her in-laws accepting she neither has to obey them, cook and clean for them, or seek their permission to visit her parents; and that she has the right to live separately, without their interference – is still the cause of intentional friction and fitnah. Be it from paranoid suspicion, unjustified insecurity, an obsessive or neurotic jealousy, or a cruel and cunning nature, this is someone who divides mother from son, withholds grandchildren, sabotages family get-togethers, emotionally manipulates and controls her husband, and rains down misery on others; especially her mother-in-law. Perhaps divorce is the solution, especially if there are no children in the equation. Or it might be a case of the husband and his family making this their personal jihad by patiently persevering and heaping as much kindness upon her as possible, in the hope of softening her heart or making her feel awkward and remorseful.
10 – And let’s not forget the sulking, ill-tempered or controlling son-in-law. Although the Qur’an states: House them in your own homes, according to your means. And do not harass them, so as to make life intolerable for them [Q.65:6], there are men who are in the habit of harassing their wives and making life insufferable for them. One way in which a husband can make like difficult for his wife is by not trying to foster a cordial relationship with his in-laws, but rather is frosty towards, or disrespectful about, them. Such a son-in-law puts down his in-laws in front of the wife, doesn’t give them their dues as elders, stops the wife from visiting her parents – often over petty matter, and is usually sulky or moody when it comes to his in-laws. Husbands should be cautioned against acting like mini tyrants with family, as well as reminded about the prophetic hadiths like: ‘The believers with the most perfect faith are those who have the best characters, and who are kindest and gentlest to family and relatives.’6
In conclusion. So what can those in such trying in-law relationships do? Well they can use this as an opportunity for growth: in terms of their own piety and connection to God, and in terms of reigning in their egos and being more patient when dealing with others. The truth is, that whenever we have a continual conflict with someone, or if someone “pushes your buttons,” it’s a good indication that there is inner work to be done. The Qur’an says: Repel [evil] with that which is better; then you will see that the one between you and whom there was enmity shall become as a dear friend. [Q.41:34] There’s also these words of our Prophet ﷺ: ‘The one who keeps ties of relations is not the one who [merely] reciprocates. Rather, it is the one who keeps ties even if others cut-off from him.’7
We must heed this hadith too, which acts as a baseline for how we Muslims ought to treat others: ‘A Muslim is one from whom others are safe from his tongue and his hands.’8 To flesh this baseline out a little more, consider these words of Yahya b. Mu‘adh al-Razi, one of Islam’s early pietists: ‘Let your dealing with another believer be of three types: If you cannot benefit him, do not harm him. If you cannot gladden him, do not sadden him. If you cannot speak well of him, do not speak ill of him.’9 The root of this all, in respect of how best to deal with in-laws (or anyone else, for that matter) is given to us in these words of the venerable saint, Shaykh ‘Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani: kun ma‘a’l-khalq bila nafs – ‘Be with people without [your] ego [interfering].’10
As for specific practical guidance on how to deal with in-law tensions; on the best way to alleviate buried resentment or unhappiness with an in-law, we might consider acting on the following – particularly between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law:
Each person knowing what rights (huquq) Allah has given to people is key in all this, as is knowing that Allah has forbidden that we mistreat people, be cruel or nasty, let alone be unjust to them by not observing their rights. Rather, each in-law should keep to the limits Allah has ordained in terms of how they treat one another: Transgress not the limits, Allah loves not those who transgress the limits. [Q.5:87] The Qur’an also stresses: And do not deny people the things that are their due. [Q.11:85]
Helping the mother-in-law to realise what rights her daughter-in-law has, or visa-versa, should be done through discussion and kind persuasion, without putting the one in the wrong on the spot or humiliating them – which is only likely to make a delicate situation harder to resolve. Without coming across as preaching or lecturing, the one in the wrong should be gently reminded about the standards of fairness and beauty the Prophet ﷺ has taught us to live by: ‘None of you [truly] believes till he loves for his brother what he loves for himself.’11 And since none of us would like our rights denied us or trampled over, nor be humiliatingly corrected or harshly advised when we are in the wrong, then likewise we must not behave like that towards others. It’s as simple as that.
It’s very likely that the conflicting parties will have to have an honest, well-intended chat to sincerely try to understand each others expectations and outlooks on marriage and life; and to bridge the generational divide, especially when it comes to raising and educating the [grand]children. The best conflict resolutions are usually those that entail attempting to see things through the eyes of the ‘other’, where there is some give and take, and where we accept that some human failings can’t be so readily changed. And this is where …
We need to be forgiving and be ready to overlook peoples’ faults for the sake of Allah, and sometimes also for sake of keeping the peace and one’s own sanity. Our Prophet ﷺ said: ‘None forgive, save that Allah increases them in honour.’12 In another hadith: ‘No one is wronged and bears it with patience, except that Allah will increase them in honour.’13
Something else to seriously consider is: not to blame everything on the mother-in-law (or daughter-in-law). For it could well be the consequences of our own sins and disobedience to Allah (such as missing prayers or not paying zakat, not having a halal income, making false insurance or benefit claims, watching haram images on TV or the internet), and not their bad behaviour, that are more at play in causing the conflicts or tensions: Whatever good befalls you is from Allah, and whatever calamity befalls you is from yourself. [Q.4:79] Elsewhere we read in the Holy Qur’an: Whatever calamity befalls you, is for what your own hands have earned, and He pardons much. [Q.42:30]
Then there’s always the reality that some people just don’t gel. So let’s try not to compare our relationship with our in-laws to anyone else’s, or naively think it’ill be picture perfect. It could well be that we need to consider keeping expectations with the in-laws realistic and reasonable.
Lastly, earnest du‘a and working on our relationship with God, along with a little wisdom; good adab; more compassionate thinking; patience; forgiveness; behaving with fairness; utilising the art of compromise; and reigning in the ego’s tendency of oneupmanship, are powerful tools in countering and resolving conflict or tension between in-laws.
We ask Allah for His kindness.
1. Al-Tabarani, al-Mu‘jam al-Kabir, no.519. It was declared as sahih in al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1995), no.416.
2 Cited in al-Dhahabi, Siyar A‘lam al-Nubala (Beirut: Mu’assassah al-Risalah, 1998), 8:427.
3. Al-Bukhari, no.5652; Muslim, no.2576.
4. Ibn Majah, no.2340. The hadith, with its collective chains of transmission, qualifies for being no less than hasan, if not sahih. Cf. al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1995), no.250.
5. Al-Tirmidhi, no.2263, where he stated: ‘This hadith is hasan sahih.’
6. Al-Tirmidhi, no.2612, where he graded the hadith sahih.
7. Al-Bukhari, no.5777.
8. Ahmad, Musnad, no.7086; al-Nasa’i, no.4995. Shu‘ayb al-Arna’ut graded the chain to be sahih in Musnad Imam Ahmad b. Hanbal (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1996), 2:224.
9. Cited in Ibn Rajab al-Hanbali, Jami‘ al-‘Ulum wa’l-Hikam (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1998), 2:283.
10. Cited in Ibn al-Qayyim, Madarij al-Salikin (Cairo: Dar al-Hadith, 2005), 2:266.
11. Al-Bukhari, no.13; Muslim, no.45.
12. Muslim, no.2588.
13. Al-Tirmidhi, no.2325, where he states: This hadith is hasan sahih.