The weird science of in-laws
What experts know about the family relationship with no rules
’Tis the season of in-laws: that special time of year when married people all over the country prepare to unite under one roof with the families that brought their significant others into the world. Careful questions will be asked about how work has been going. Offers to help with the dishes will be extended with practiced earnestness. Some tongues will be held; others won’t be.
The awkwardness and frequently oppositional nature of this annual ritual has been covered from just about every angle by stand-up comedians, sitcom producers, and novelists. Even people who have never experienced an in-law relationship firsthand have a sense of the tricky and precarious work it requires. But as familiar as most of us are with the archetypes of the “monster-in-law” and the cartoonish loser who has tricked some respectable couple’s beloved daughter into marriage, there is little standard protocol when it comes to actually negotiating the in-law relationship. Many newlyweds don’t even know what to call their in-laws (first names? last names? Mom and Dad?), while parents may alternately treat the strange new human in their midst as a child, a house guest, and a hostile intruder.
You’d think American society would have this figured out by now. But if anything, the in-law conundrum only seems to have grown more complex with time.
Luckily, social scientists have extended families, too, and a number of them have put the in-law experience under a microscope. Some of what they’ve found will probably make you worry, as research suggests our relationships with our in-laws are consequential not just for a smooth Thanksgiving, but for a long and happy marriage. But the findings also contain lessons that might help you understand your task, and alert you to some pitfalls of in-law life that might otherwise sneak up on you.
Above all, the research indicates that feeling like a cautious, confused animal about your in-laws and the role you play in each other’s lives is completely normal, and even justified. By appreciating all the ways in which it’s unlike any other relationship, we have a chance to get past the anxiety, hostility, and tension we’ve been conditioned to believe is inevitable.
The in-law relationship as we know it began taking shape during the opening decades of the 20th century, according to Evergreen State College professor Stephanie Coontz, author of “Marriage: A History.” Before that, she said, getting a pair of in-laws was practically the point of getting married. It was common for people to choose their spouses based on who their parents were, and what kind of advantages—professional, financial, social, or otherwise—might come from being associated with their family. In those days, it was expected that parents would stay intimately involved with their adult children’s lives long after they were married. Even after people started marrying for love, it was understood that both husband and wife would maintain close ties with their parents.
All that changed in the 1920s, when it became conventional wisdom in America that newlyweds had to separate from their parents as much as they could—and to focus on each other first and foremost. “There was a sense that for too long, parents had had too much influence over their grown kids, and that people were too dependent on their parents,” said Coontz. “So you started getting this advice that said you’ve got to break with your parents, that you’ve got to put your spouse absolutely, completely first, and that it’s a major, major problem if you don’t.” There was even a 1926 play on the subject, “The Silver Cord,” which ended with the female protagonist denouncing her husband’s mother for trying to smother her son, and triumphantly announcing that her days of meddling in their young household were over.
Ultimately, a new paradigm solidified, according to psychologist Terri Apter, who interviewed about 50 families while writing a book on in-law relationships, “What Do You Want From Me?” Today, Apter said, most Americans enter into marriage with the idea that it will bind them first and foremost to one person. “The expectation is that you are individuals, and you’re going to form your own household, and that’s it, while the in-laws are seen as add-ons that are not an essential part of your marriage,” said Apter. But in practice it seldom works that way, especially for women. According to Apter’s study, more than 60 percent of married women experience sustained stress because of their mothers-in-law—compared to just 15 percent of men. So common is in-law-related anxiety that there’s an entire 1996 book targeting therapists whose patients are having marital problems due to “unhealthy in-law relationships.”
It’s tempting to assume that such in-law strife must be rooted in cultural differences, or in the clash of particular personalities. But researchers believe there’s something uniquely and inherently difficult about the relationship itself—as Apter put it, “The problem is really structural.” The basic fact of an outsider joining a family, in other words, provokes a fundamental anxiety in parents about how their lives and their bond with their child will change, while the young people in the equation are skittish about assimilating into the deeply established patterns of someone else’s clan.
What makes the in-law experience so distinct from other social situations, according to Sylvia Mikucki-Enyart, an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin Stevens Point, is that the feelings of the people we’re dealing with are actually of secondary concern. In most new relationships, we’re simply wondering how the other person feels about us. With in-laws, we’re looking at an “entirely new type of uncertainty,” Mikucki-Enyart said, because we’re concerned primarily with how it affects our connection with a third party—namely, the married kid who has brought us together.
So what have researchers learned about the way these puzzling relationships play out? A 2008 study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships reported that children-in-law felt like part of the family when parents-in-law shared personal information, including family history and stories about their spouse’s childhood. But not all forms of “disclosure” served to create feelings of closeness—attempts by parents to bond with their children-in-law by gossiping about other members of their family seemed to backfire, and in some cases, so did attempts to engender intimacy by discussing their own marital problems. A study by Christine Rittenour, an assistant professor in the communication studies department at West Virginia University, found a similar effect: Daughters-in-law liked it when their mothers-in-law disclosed just enough personal information, but really didn’t like it when they disclosed too much.
Perhaps the most important takeaway from the in-law scholarship is that these relationships can have a powerful effect on people’s marriages. This was underscored by the results of a longitudinal study led by Terri Orbuch, a sociologist at Oakland University in Michigan. For the past 26 years, Orbuch has been conducting regular interviews with a set of 373 Midwestern couples who applied for marriage licenses in 1986, in an effort to understand what keeps people together or causes them to break up. This year, Orbuch published a study in the journal Family Relations saying that the level of emotional closeness a person feels toward his or her in-laws during the first year of marriage has a surprising effect on the risk of divorce down the line. Orbuch found that men who were close to their in-laws after a year of marriage were 20 percent less likely to get divorced than men who weren’t. Oddly, for women it was just the opposite: Those with close ties to their in-laws were 20 percent more likely to get divorced.
By way of explanation, Orbuch theorizes that women who form intimate bonds with their in-laws at an early point are more likely to have failed at putting up “emotional boundaries,” which makes them more likely to stress out about the relationship later on and interpret advice from in-laws as criticism or meddling. “Women who feel less close to their in-laws have put up walls,” Orbuch said. “They’ve set boundaries, both in terms of what can be said, and in terms of not taking what is said personally.”
Research indicates that women in general are much more likely to clash with their mothers-in-law than men are, even though the vast majority of the jokes about in-laws are told from the perspective of the put-upon husband. Apter has observed one particular challenge for 21st-century married women: Despite the fact that they’re no longer living in a time when women are expected to put aside professional ambitions for homemaking, even the most career-oriented mothers-in-law seem to think their sons deserve a wife who will prioritize taking care of him and the kids.
“Even women who were committed to women’s equality...when it came to their daughter-in-law, they had a different set of expectations and norms,” said Apter. “Whatever they would say about women in general, they would criticize a daughter-in-law who did not put her husband first, who did not put her children first.”
If you’re struggling with your in-law relationship, you’ll find that there’s no shortage of advice out there: A quick glance at Amazon reveals dozens of self-help books on the topic, from “Toxic In-Laws: Loving Strategies For Protecting Your Marriage” to “Reluctantly Related.” But a central takeaway of in-law research is that, above all, these relationships don’t come with a lot of clear rules. In the words of Deborah Merrill, a sociologist at Clark University, “unlike other family bonds in Western society, in-law relationships are ambiguous and without normative expectations.”
“During my research I actually felt sorry for mothers-in-law,” Christine Rittenour said. “Because when I flat out asked daughters-in-law, ‘What makes you happy about this relationship, what makes you [unhappy]?’ some of the responses were exactly the same. The same things that were making some daughters-in-law satisfied were making others dissatisfied....And I thought, these poor mothers-in-law, what the heck are they supposed to do?”
One answer seems to be: Don’t try to paper over the ambiguity, but face it head on. The fact is, in-law relationships are unique precisely because, unlike the social situations we’re accustomed to by the time we’re getting married—making friends, meeting co-workers, getting to know someone on a date—we have nothing in the way of what psychologists call “behavioral scripts” to fall back on as we navigate them, other than the scary stereotypes we’ve absorbed from popular culture. Those stereotypes, needless to say, are not going to help anyone this Thanksgiving. Better for all involved to admit we don’t know what we’re doing, and then, together, to write a new script from scratch.