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Loving the Same Man
Research at TWU probes into how mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law talk about each other.

“It’s not what she said it’s how she said it.”

This small sentence holds much weight as Trinity Western University researcher and Associate Professor of Education Allyson Jule, PhD is discovering. For the last year, Jule and co-researcher, Assistant Professor of Linguistics at the University of Memphis, Sage Lambert Graham, PhD, have been involved in a unique study surrounding the relationships between mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law. 

The trials of the mother-in-law and daughter-in-law relationship are nothing new. Pop culture has capitalized on it with hit TV shows and feature films such as Dharma and Greg, Everyone loves Raymond and Monster in Law. But while humour provides a bit of ventilation, research indicates that there is real and raw tension just below the surface, and even in the most positive of relationships.

In their study titled, “Loving the Same Man: Mothers-in-law and Daughters-in-law in Conversation about Each Other”, Jule and Graham interviewed several sets of Evangelical women using what is called Narrative Line Methodology and Avoidance Language to help them zero in on the subtleties of language.

Says Jule, “Tone is everything. Using applied linguistics to understand collaborative language versus competitive language is very interesting in that relationship, because there are so many roles happening and so many desires in that relationship. It makes language really interesting to study.”

Jule is no stranger to the examination of language and gender. Author of Sh-shushing the Girls, and A Beginner's Guide to Language and Gender, she has written and published numerous articles on gender and how language changes or rearranges based upon it.

“We wanted to know how these evangelical Christian women make sense of their relationship with one another and their role in the life of the other,” says Jule. “I want to know if their relationship reveals competition or mutuality and support of each other. Also, how power relationships between the women are negotiated, and how each woman represents her relationship with the man they have in common.”

The study had the women tell stories about their relationship to locate their own identity in relation to the other woman, and to find out how they are perceived or how they think they are perceived in the relationship.

“The relationship between these two women has often been seen as a conflictual relationship and we wanted to understand better why the relationship between two women who could be quite sisterly and supportive of each other because they are linked by a single man, the son to one, the husband to another, is often a very difficult relationship for both women,” says Jule.

Something that Jule found very interesting – and, she admits, not surprising – is that those in positive relationships were the only ones who wanted to participate in the study. However Jule did notice that even in relationships where there was intense love between the two women, the women still used negotiation strategies to interact with each other.

Says Jule, “We noticed that even though the women are in a close relationship, their need to be particular or individual requires that there be a kind of articulation of the story their way. So even though they would see the other as very positive in their life, they still need their own identity because the power relationship is still unavoidable.”

The researchers believe that exploring this often tension-filled relationship will add considerably to the larger understanding of women in conversation.

"Language can be so powerful in creating relationships and in dismantling them... it's the words that bring us closer to someone," says Jule.

The results of the study will be presented at the International Gender and Language Association taking place in Tokyo, Japan in the fall of 2010.

More information on Professor Allyson Jule can be found at

Erin Mussolum is the senior media relations specialist for Trinity Western University. Contact her at Tel: 604-513-2121 ext 3369, or

Originally published on the Trinity Western University website, January 2010.

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