Even if you love your spouse very much, dealing with your in-laws can be another story. Maybe things weren’t that difficult – maybe you’ve formed strong foundations or established effective boundaries. However, navigating the myriad emotions that come with in-laws dynamics is something that deserves more awareness, attention, and appreciation, says Jeffrey Grieve, PhD, a professor in the University of Maryland School of Social Work.
Griff is co-author of Marital relations: mothers, daughters, fathers and sonsCo-authored by Michael Woolley, Ph.D., MSW, DCSW, I interviewed more than 1,500 in-laws to share how these relationships, although complex at times, can be rewarding and reassuring. While popular culture and societal narratives would make us believe that in-laws relationships take a lot of work to maintain and can be messy (from Witness backing down?), what Gref found more optimistic: He sees that the majority of in-laws’ relationships tend to be good and that most families he met were comfortable and satisfied with their relationships despite some of the problems they expressed. Gref explains that even if the relationship is far away, you need to know that things can change, that conflicts will happen from time to time, and that most in-laws strive to make the relationship work from all of their points of view. So rest assured knowing that your mother-in-law probably isn’t trying to sabotage you.
Q&A with Jeffrey Grieve, Ph.D.
What are the factors that can make marital relations successful?
One of the things everyone should think about is how open are families to new members? From a historical point of view, do families always entertain lots of people in their homes? Did people grow up in families where new people come in all the time was fun and interesting, or did people grow up in a home that might have been more secluded, that they tried to keep to themselves. What are the limits of the nuclear family? What is the extent of extended family involvement? Specifically, what is the family’s history of getting married and bringing in new people?
All of these factors may drive how the son-in-law will be accepted into a new family and also how the son-in-law might feel about joining a new family. There are two processes here: Is my family open to accepting a new son-in-law, and is this son-in-law open to being part of a new family? These factors could frame this discussion.
The first part of your book explores the relationship between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law. What did you find interesting about this dynamic?
Specifically with regard to women, we find that mothers-in-law rated the relationship in their view as better than daughters. It’s a fairly positive looking relationship based on the answers we got from her mother-in-law’s point of view. It’s a little more temporary from a stepchildren’s perspective. They are not quite as fond of the relationship as the mother-in-law.
Now, mother-in-law may be wishful thinking and want it to be that way. Or it may be that stepmothers try to maintain boundaries around the relationship with the husband. Is there a third generation – grandchildren – involved, and is the daughter-in-law excited about her mother-in-law’s intervention, or is she a little reluctant? We know from our interviews that if parenting philosophies do not align with the mother-in-law’s view or the daughter-in-law’s perspective, it can make it difficult for them to build a satisfying relationship.
How do parents’ expectations of these relationships differ from those of children?
This is the big question. Many people don’t think much about their expectations in these relationships. The father-in-law will likely think about it. For example, in the case of heterosexual couples, mothers want to have a close and wonderful relationship with their daughter-in-law. They want it for two reasons: it gives them greater access to their son – it strengthens the relationship with their son. It gives them greater access to any potential descendants. So it is very important that the mother-in-law is on good terms with the daughter-in-law and that she maintains a good relationship with her.
We heard from a number of mothers-in-law. Some of them said that they did not have a good relationship with their mother-in-law and wanted to make sure that they had a good relationship with their daughter-in-law, and that they did not want their daughter-in-law to be treated the way they felt by their mother-in-law. So there will be some people who will enter into a relationship from a negative historical point of view. Then there are those who said, “I’ve had a great relationship with my mother-in-law, and I want to make sure I’m that kind of wonderful person for my daughter-in-law, too.” Broadly, this is the expectation of parents who have more years under their belt, more wisdom.
For sons, there isn’t much of an expectation because at this point, most of it is that they loved someone and decided to get married. Wisdom would have thought about the family into which they marry, but there are also people who marry without knowing the in-laws beforehand. Perhaps they live on the West Coast and their in-laws live in the center of the country or on the East Coast. Those are relationships that tended to struggle a little more than when there was a good acquaintance with each other, but there’s also scope there. It’s clear that some couples have very long conversations when they are dating and before the engagement. They talk about their parents, what life was like growing up, what they can expect from their parents and how they envision them as grandparents if they decide to have children, etc.
Is it important to have good marital relationships for your marriage to be successful?
If you feel that you have to set strict boundaries because there is a level of interference that you are not comfortable with on either end of the family and you can, as a team, maintain those boundaries, that’s great. But relationships in law can also be very important because you are sending a message to your children. If you maintain good relationships with your relatives and grandparents, you create a legacy about the importance of parenting as they get older.
One of the reasons why you would want your child to marry a kind and loving person is because you want your child and his wife to be there for you and perhaps take care of you when you get old and sick. Parents also want to help out with childcare or help the kids financially if they need it, so there are huge benefits to having all hands on deck. Everyone in the family works together to deal with issues related to the pandemic or issues that come as a normal part of life as we age.
What is the impact of the epidemic on marital relations? Are relationships becoming more tense or are people getting closer?
In many cases now, there are pods featuring grandparents who need them to take care of children. These can help build and strengthen the relationship. But if there are tensions in the relationship and it is difficult to meet together safely, you may find that the distance increases, especially if there is a feeling that another group of grandparents or in-laws are closely involved. If you are jealous, out, or unincorporated and there is jealousy associated with a lack of good relationships and you see other grandparents with more access to your grandchildren, you may have a hard time. It can work to crystallize some of the weaker relationships. It’s also an opportunity, if everyone is working together in a pod, for example, or were doing well before the pandemic, to improve their relationship even further.
Did you find it important for both sets of parents to have some kind of relationship so the whole dynamic works?
They don’t have to have a meaningful relationship. Oftentimes, there is one group of grandparents or in-laws who live on a different coast, and that is just the case. If a group of in-laws live in the same city and are close to their children and another group of in-laws is not included, this will be an even bigger problem. Then, it’s really up to the kids and stepchildren to figure out how to be as inclusive as possible and balance the needs of their parents and in-laws.
It is up to the couple to figure out how to involve their parents and how to support each other in doing so with their parents and vice versa. This is part of the border issue, too. When a couple’s parents’ conflict bleeds into a couple’s marriage, there are more problems and more eggshells to walk on.
If your relationship with your husband’s husband is strained, how can you improve it?
Try to figure out how to get to the same page with your own parenting philosophy. Many of these problems become worse for children of couples when they have children. For example, no matter how close I felt to my husband’s parents when I got married, I can figure out how to ignore them if something happened that I didn’t like. When I had kids, it became very difficult to navigate the grandparents if I wasn’t OK with how or what they were teaching my kids. So she’s trying to figure out how to balance that.
Another thing we found important was working on finding the things you enjoy doing and showing respect for what your in-laws’ parents enjoy. I wouldn’t expect one to become a master chess player if they’ve never played chess before, but at least they care.
The third thing to think about is whether friction has anything to do with jealousy. Pay attention if there is a distance between you and your in-laws and try to reduce jealousy.
The fourth point is to know what role they and your wife play in this matter. Sons and daughters play a major role in the in-laws dynamic, so be aware of that.
What did you find interesting or surprising in your research?
What’s interesting is that some of these roles that we traditionally think of as men’s and women’s roles still tend to be men’s and women’s roles. For example, women are still more involved in caring for children and taking an interest in the emotional life of the family than men. Second, the metaphors about mother-in-law are unfair. It is important to reformulate the concept of mother-in-law and recognize that what is often seen as interference is love, anxiety and a reflection of the role that women play in the family. Third, and related to the first, we found that men do not participate in family life as much as women. We wish men would be more involved and involved – not to put away her mother-in-law but to play a more equal role. These ideas of how we socialize still exist. There have been great changes in men’s and women’s roles, all for good, but we still have some way to go.
Jeffrey Grave He is Professor of Clinical Social Work at the University of Maryland School of Social Work, where he was associate dean from 1996 to 2007. He received his MSW from the University of Pennsylvania and his Ph.D. from Columbia University’s School of Social Work. He has written over 135 magazine articles and book chapters and authored fourteen books on parenting issues, adult friendships, adult siblings, and kinship relationships.
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