The Bitterness of (Coffee and) Domestic Violence

December 5, 2023

Domestic violence is an increasingly discussed issue with global prevalence. However, there is an often-overlooked form of domestic abuse involving mother-in-laws (MILs) perpetrating harm on their daughters-in-law (DILs). This pattern of abuse, witnessed in my family and numerous others, perpetuates trauma across generations. Such violence encompasses emotional, financial, and physical abuse, inflicting lasting and immediate consequences on the women and bystanders. Unfortunately, much of the research concerning this topic does not categorize it as abuse but rather as “negative practices” or “poor communication,” contributing to the normalization and justification of abuse, which is only aided by the DILs who go on to continue the cycle of abuse.

Coffee’s dripping down the walls – black, Turkish, the sort most around here drink. My mother stands a few steps away from it, swollen with child, cezve in hand. I do not know what happened. The memory is hazy around the edges, grasping at me but never reaching my fingers. My uncle – young now, much younger then – leads my sister and me, two tiny, chubby girls, out of the living room. One scene succeeds the previous. I handed my uncle a Barbie doll, clad in a gorgeous green dress, and asked him to tie the pretty pink sash she’s got around her waist into a bow. He does. His hands are shaking terribly. The scene ends. My recollection goes no further and only loops back to coffee stains on a white background. I’ve still got that Barbie.

Years later, I will be older. Older, more often than not, means wiser. At times, I will ask my mother what happened – and other times she will open up without any inquiries from me. Through these conversations, I will come to find she carries heavy burdens, more uncovering as the seasons fly by. I know now – that day, the grandmother from my father’s side had been spouting the most-vile words one could, and my mother, in a state of mental disarray, panic and immeasurable hurt, carrying an unborn child, will throw her arms out, splashing coffee on the pristine walls.

I’ve come to find out that the verbal, merciless attack my mother faced that day, was and would be one of countless. More than a decade has passed since then, old wounds turned to gnarly scars, but such conversations are brought up often and I am to discover that my mother is not the only one to go through such misery. My aunt is, as well. My maternal grandmother. Her sisters. My paternal grandmother. My friends’ mothers and grandmothers. It starts to feel like a pandemic.

When this topic is brought up with my girl friends, we giggle over the fact that we’re never going to live with our parents-in-law. After giggling we sober up, and the mood turns somber as we realize that once again, we have met another person whose family has lived through such trauma.

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the term “domestic violence” is defined as “of or relating to the household or the family”. However, I’ve noticed that most sources primarily address intimate partner violence, including Mayo Clinic, Psychology Today, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the United States Department of Justice. These sources do not explicitly mention that domestic violence can originate from a variety of individuals, extending from partners and family members to caretakers, roommates, and even landlords, as highlighted by

This aspect of domestic violence (D.V) has not been researched enough and it is often encompassed within the much too general term “family violence” which in most cases still narrows down to intimate partner violence.

A research article published in 2019 regarding violence against Afghan women by, among others, mothers-in-law, also discusses this, mentioning that while “…(the concept of intimate partner violence) realistically captures women’s primary risk in many global regions, it does not necessarily do so as well in settings where after marriage women often move into their husband’s parent’s home or set up home with their mother in law”.

The lack of research on this type of violence comes as a surprise considering how widespread this phenomenon is.

While lacking official numbers, a simple search on the Internet gives an insight into what some women experience with their mother-in-law. One Reddit subreddit is called Mother in Laws from Hell (r/motherinlawsfromhell), with over 65k members. Another example is from the incredibly famous social media app – TikTok, where the hashtag Mother-in-Law problems (#motherinlawproblems) in the moment of writing this article had over 490 million views.


Family violence is linked to many consequences, long-term and short term – affecting the health, social and economic aspects of both the victim and those witnessing it. Negative MIL practices include criticism, threats, accusations, lies, unsolicited advice, failure to provide support, ignoring/ridiculing certain parts of the DIL’s family, direct mistreatment, and more, all in varying degrees. Research also tells us that communication between MIL and DIL tends to be not only dissatisfying, but also hurtful, and such a poor relationship impairs the marriage of the daughter-in-law. “Curse of the Mummy-ji: The Influence of Mothers-in-Law on Women in India” speaks of this, too – showing us that if DIL and MIL live together, the daughter-in-law’s mobility and ability to form social connections in her community is lower. Therefore, more research is needed on violence perpetrated by mothers-in-law (MIL) on their daughters-in-law (DIL), which might enable stakeholders to actively inform people of its existence, as well as identify and prevent it more easily.

To many similar stories

I have previously mentioned that many of my girl friends share similar stories. This fact is supported by Cambridge University psychologist Terri Apter, who claims that three quarters of couples experience conflict with their in-laws, with MIL/DIL relationships being the trickiest. Apter also shares that over 60 percent of women complain of having bad relations with their MIL. We see similar results with Rittenour and Koenig Kellas – lots of women report tension in the relationship they have with their MIL, as well as negativity.

In Afghanistan, out of over 900 women interviewed, 14 percent have been victims of physical violence from their MILs. This research also highlights the fact that emotional and physical abuse by MILs is seen in many settings, from Mexico to India. Another research done in Afghanistan reports that abuse by MILs stands at 23.7 percent. Oftentimes, these so-called “negative practices” spread out further, reaching even the son/spouse and grandchildren. My own example can be taken. My father, siblings, and I also, were often targeted. As I grew older, I consistently refused to tolerate any form of negativity or slander from my grandmother, whoever she might be taking a shot at. This had me ignored and targeted with hurtful and toxic comments.

We have to label it properly

On the other hand, what is common about the research regarding this topic is that it seldom uses the words “violence” or “abuse”. The MIL’s tendencies are labeled as “negative practices,” “poor behavior,” “hurtful messages,” “hurtful behavior,” and often the notions of “poor communication” and “poor relationship” are used. My question is, why are we avoiding labeling these “negative practices” as domestic violence, even if they tick most of the checkmarks used for intimate partner violence? There are most certainly dozens of signs of psychological abuse reported, as well as physical, as seen above. Financial abuse is also a large part of these so-called “negative practices”. For example, in Mumbai, in 77 percent of cases, in-laws were the main perpetrators of financial and emotional abuse. I can confirm this from stories told by family members, as well – financial abuse is another undeniable aspect of MIL violence on DILs.

Additionally, an article in Croatian delves beyond the numbers, sharing directly DILs’ experiences and what they have gone through with their MILs. Some quotes are a harsh wake-up call, and go to further convince that indeed, we can not call this any other name, but abuse. While we can call them daughters-in-law, we can also call them victims.

“I went through hell with my mother-in-law; how much that woman mistreated, insulted and humiliated me…. She would call my relatives and chase them around town in order to insult me.”

…(because I refused to lift a heavy wardrobe while pregnant) she started banging on my door, cursing, insulting and calling me abusive names, and eventually threw me out of the house when I was six months pregnant.”

“She called me a *hore for six whole years!”

“(MIL) was aggressive, so in addition to verbal abuse, I also received slaps from her many times.”

“I could write a book of pain and sadness because of everything I have experienced, gone through and cried a sea of tears… I have lived through insults I’ve never heard of in my life!”

Again, why is it that we are avoiding proper labels? Is it because we do not see women-on-women violence as just that – violence? Or is it because it has become so normalized that we simply cannot match it up to the concept of “domestic violence”?

The normalization of what must not be normalized

What is worrying is the normalization and justification of such “poor relationships”. MIL abuse towards her DIL is often used for comedic effect, too – predominantly in movies and shows, which further go to desensitize the public towards the dangers of it, so contributing to normalization. One of these movies is Monster-in-Law starring Jennifer Lopez, who goes on to battle her MIL’s attempts to sabotage her wedding, ventures at poisoning her with peanuts (Lopez’ character is highly allergic), attempts at manipulation, and more. Other examples include Marie Barone in Everybody Loves Raymond and Trix Gilmore in Gilmore Girls. While humor has proven to be effective in many instances, these shows and movies have yet to open discourse that is helpful.

Lessons to be learned

Let me end this article the way I started it – with my mother.

She often laments how her mother didn’t teach her better – not to withstand any mistreatment. My mother tells me it is crucial to teach daughters to recognize abuse and show them their worth. She also mentions that oftentimes it is the sons who enable, allow and support this – so, it is crucial to teach your sons to recognize abuse, to condemn it, to stand in its way, and to never be bystanders. After these wise sentences, my mom will let a smile take over her face, as she mentions that the only reason our family is where it is – healthy and happy, is because my father loves her very much. Dad will roll his eyes and try to deny it, as though him loving her abundantly isn’t a secret everyone knows.

Empower the victims and teach them that after healing, the most important thing to do is break the cycle and pattern of abuse. The only difference between my two grandmothers is awareness – one chose to pass on cruel words and abuse, and the other chose to learn from what she has gone through and make sure that no other family member or daughter-in-law goes through such hurt.

My mother, and many other victims of MIL abuse, will never be the same as before. Whether this change will perpetuate violence or not depends upon the awareness of the daughter-in-law and of the people who stand behind her.

Author: Amina Kaja


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