A Nairobi woman filed for divorce, giving her husband the option of kicking out her matronly live-in mother-in-law or end the marriage.
Unlike many other cases where infidelity, cruelty and desertion, among others, are often cited as reasons for divorce, in the case between a certain Hussein and his wife Dayman, the main bone of contention was the husband’s mother.
The mother of two, who lives in Nairobi’s Langa’ta estate, had only one complaint.
She accused her mother-in-law of having taken over control of their house, micromanagement and having reduced her to a mere house help.
Efforts to have the matter settled out of court, preferably by elders, flopped.
Principal Kadhi Sebastian Ratori had no option but to grant the woman her wishes.
The marriage was dissolved, with the city oil distributor choosing to live with his mother and send away his wife.
Most wives suffering in silence, avoiding fights
The case is currently the talk of town, with many people claiming that this is what millions of wives go through in marriages, but suffer in silence.
“Most mothers-in-law become matronly because they feel excluded from their sons’ lives by their wives. This always leads to unreasonable jealous love, which if not contained, can break a marriage. The mutual unease is toxic,” says Michael Olum, a city resident.
Apparently, this tug-of-war between wives and mothers-in-law is an age-old phenomenon, the stuff of sitcom jokes and Greek mythology, which if not handled diplomatically can destroy a marriage.
According to Olum, who claims he is lucky because his wife and mother get along, the wrangles often arise from the assumption that each is criticising or undermining the other.
Who is boss: Status war as each try to mark territory
“If you ask around, on average only two in ten women like their mother-in-law. To understand how deep-seated this tension is, just invite your mother to live with you for some days. It will not take three weeks before the two women launch a nasty cold war,” jokes Olum.
When you keenly study family dynamics, especially during gatherings or get-togethers, wives and mothers-in-laws struggle to establish or protect their status, with both considering each other a threat.
Winnie Wangare, a businesswoman in Nairobi says mothers-in-law are mostly the cause of these rivalries because some seem not to care about boundaries and are clueless about their places (behind wives?) in these marriages.
“Common sense, for instance, dictates that it’s the duty of a man’s wife to cook for him, not a visiting mother in law. The impasse starts when such mothers insist on cooking and generally micromanaging such homes, obviously to the chagrin of wives,” says Wangare.
She adds that the tug of war starts when such mothers are stopped from taking up such wifely duties.
Some, she says, throw a spanner in the works by sulking or finding fault with virtually everything the wife does.
“Some will just start by being mean, visiting unannounced, overstaying visits, or making snide comments about the wife’s cooking or housekeeping skills…just anything, even her sitting style or dress code,” says Wangare.
Considering the fact that women have a primeval need to stake their turf, Wangare argues, each time their territories seem to be under attack, a nasty cold war is always launched.
Sulking, sabotage, sex and other common tools of battles
“One common tool of battle when women are engaged in cold war; usurping the power of the other woman, making her (or at least to appear) less important in a desperate bid to increase one’s own value,” says Wangare.
She goes on to add that there are other many ways women fight this war.
Some mothers-in-law can even oversalt your food while cooking to cast you as a horrible cook or just to get something worth complaining about.
According to one mother-in-law, a certain Alice, most problems can be traced back to the fact that every woman has her own way of doing things; from basics such as cooking, cleaning or raising children.
“Being older and experienced, most mothers-in-law often interpret the decisions of their daughters-in-law to do things differently from them as a rejection of their own styles or choices,” says Alice, warning that this is a recipe for disaster.
She adds that it gets worse when women expect their husbands to side with them, only for them to back their mothers or feign ambivalence when deep down they are in support of their mothers.
“One thing women must understand is that inevitably, a mother’s unconditional love will always win over any female bonding, including that to a loving wife,” says Alice.
Alice says that mothers’ conflicting feelings of both pride and loss when a son marries, together with the tendency of most women to be overly sensitive to criticism doesn’t make the situation any better.
Experts warn that for these wrangles to reduce, couples must increase the distance between them and their in-laws.
“Couples are advised not to let their in-laws, especially mothers-in-law, invade their homes and take charge. Only husbands can necessitate this,” warns Luke Were, a city-based counselling physiologist.
The life coach advises men that they have to be bold enough to tell off their mothers when they cross the line, especially when they seem to undermine the woman of the house.
“Wives, on the other hand, must be diplomatic about these wrangles. It’s unwise to antagonise a mother-in-law because it’s a fight you can’t win. Like many are wont, you are better off using the most powerful weapon wives have over mothers-in-law; sex,” advises Were.
A man will feel the heat and will gradually realise that, the happier his wife is, the better the love life.
“With time, he will realise that the more he sides with his mother or lets her get away with overstaying her visits and micromanaging the household, the worse her mood and attitude gets, consequently affecting their sex life,” laughs Were.