The central character of SHE is Bella, who I based on a number of different horror stories I had heard over the years about the all too common problem of the daughter-in-law from hell. I have several friends who only have sons and we have often talked about their fears that they will end up with a daughter-in-law from hell. They fear it because everyone knows someone who has had a girl join the family and tear it apart and they are powerless to stop it if they’re unlucky enough for it to happen to them.
For the most part, the families have to grit their teeth and say nothing, as they understand that their son/brother will always side with his wife. But sometimes, the situation becomes so untenable that it causes the family to rupture and the damage is permanent. Here are just a few of the stories that inspired me!
Clare and Marcus initially liked their son Calum’s partner, Katie. She was friendly and vivacious and seemed to fit in well with the rest of the family. But as soon as they got married, things turned ugly. Katie decided that she no longer liked Clare and refused to see her. She would ignore her phone calls and if they visited, Katie would insist on either waiting in the car outside or going shopping while Calum visited alone. They bought a new house which Clare and Marcus were never invited to and they stopped asking them to join them for Christmas as Katie had said they would only be spending Christmas with her mother in future. Clare says: ‘There were times when I just wanted to scream at Calum for letting her behave like this but he was hopelessly in love with her and I knew he was grateful to us for not making a fuss. For our part we didn’t want to lose our son, so we just had to keep our mouths shut, however much it hurt us deeply.”
When they had children, things improved slightly for a while, as Katie realised that they could use Clare as an unpaid childminder, allowing her to go back to work. Clare says: ‘We both fell in love with the children and were happy to have them whenever they wanted. Katie was still incredibly cold towards me but I learnt to ignore it, as seeing the children made it worthwhile.”
But when Katie met someone else through work and left Calum, that’s when the bomb she had placed under their family, finally exploded. She took the children to live with her new partner nearly 50 miles away and Calum only had access every other weekend. ’She has destroyed all of us,’ says Clare. ‘I can’t forgive her for what she has done to Calum, to us and most of all, to the children, who I know miss us desperately. There isn’t a day goes by when I don’t wish he’d never met her.’
Jude also regrets the day her son Mark met his girlfriend, Kelly. The couple were together for two years, during which time she became more and more possessive, until Mark had become completely isolated from all his family and friends. ‘We were worried sick about him,’ says Jude. ‘Every time we saw him – which wasn’t often – he seemed guarded and unhappy. Eventually, his twin brother managed to get him alone and he persuaded him to pluck up the courage to leave her.” That should have spelt the end of the whole unfortunate period but unbeknownst to them, their troubles were only just beginning. Jude recalls: ‘About two weeks after he left her, the police turned up out of the blue one night and arrested Mark. Kelly had accused him of rape. We tried to explain that she was just getting her revenge for him leaving her but the police were obligated to take the accusation seriously.’ For the next year, as the case proceeded slowly through the system, Mark lost his job and was subjected to abuse from Kelly’s friends and family. Just two weeks before the case was due to come to court, Kelly suddenly dropped the charges. ‘She had apparently met someone else and had tired of her vendetta against Mark,’ Jude says. ‘But Mark couldn’t move on so easily. He suffered panic attacks and had a breakdown through all the stress. He became terrified of going out in case he met her or her friends and in the end, the only solution was for him to move away from the area. She destroyed his life and I was so enraged that, even today, I still feel murderous towards her.
For others, the daughter-in-law from hell is still a fixture of their daily lives. Sandra’s son Matt met his wife Izzy when they were at university in Bath. His brother was at the same university and the boys, who had always been very close, shared a flat. When Sandra went down to stay with them for Christmas, Izzy took offence at something Sandra said (to this day she doesn’t know what) and stopped speaking to her. She then discovered that Matt’s brother’s girlfriend had had a couple of dates with him when they were in their early teens and she stopped speaking to them too, insisting that Matt did the same. They moved away and had no contact with the rest of the family for several years, until they had their first child. Sandra wasn’t allowed to see the baby but she was at least allowed to speak to Matt on the phone to find out how they were getting on. Gradually, she started to see them and rebuild some kind of relationship with their son and Matt. Izzy still refused to speak to her. They now have two children who they leave regularly with Sandra and she is so grateful to have contact that she doesn’t mention the fact that Izzy has never really spoken to her or thanked her for anything. Matt still doesn’t speak to his brother, who married his girlfriend and has a great relationship with Sandra. ‘It’s a sort of uneasy truce,” says Sandra. “It breaks my heart that my sons don’t speak to each other anymore but I just have to hope that one day, they will be reconciled. Until then, I’m just going to do everything I can to keep the lines of communication open.”
Sofi Robinson, a Systemic Family Psychotherapist, says she sees this issue from all perspectives in the course of her work. ‘I’ve had both mother-in-laws and daughters-in-laws who have come to me to discuss a difficult relationship. In slightly rarer cases, it is the son who comes to therapy, to explore his feeling of being torn between his mother and his wife.’ Sofi says that often the key is to try to see things from the other perspective. ‘For example, the mother-in-law might describe the daughter-in-law as being a nightmare because she took umbrage at an apparently throwaway comment but it could be that what was said has unlocked painful memories or triggered deep insecurities going back to childhood and made the daughter-in-law feel like she was being attacked.
Sofi advises treading carefully in any discussions with your son. ‘I would advise in-laws not to make things difficult for their son by being openly critical or judgemental. Becoming angry and confrontational on behalf of their son will only escalate any conflict.
They can be supportive by listening, showing empathy, asking questions and trying to see things from the daughter-in-law’s point of view. However, if you sense that he is unhappy and that there is a worrying element of coercive control in the relationship, make sure he knows that you are there to support him, so that he is able to either turn the situation around, or leave the relationship.
‘I always recommend maintaining contact, but not at all costs. If the situation is having a detrimental effect on your wellbeing or mental health, sometimes it is best to take a step back.’