What science has to say about the dreaded in-law relationship

by Marc Wilson / 27 August, 2018
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In-law jokes aside, it’s worth fostering good relations with your spouse’s parents. 

It is entirely coincidental that my in-laws have come to visit and I’m writing about in-laws. It is all the fault of [censored], a colleague whose observations set me thinking, “What does science have to say about in-law relationships?”

Amazon has a lot of movies and TV series about in-laws, and I think it’s fair to say two things: as a rule they tend to dwell on the negatives of the relationship; and mothers-in-law, in particular, receive the pointy end of the stick. Prosecution enters into evidence Monster-in-law, Evil-in-law, Murder-in-law, etc.

It’s been suggested that the crazy notion of marrying for love is a relatively new thing in Western society, and that until little less than a century ago, the point of getting married wasn’t to gain a spouse so much as to garner the extended-family benefits that go along with nuptials.

Although this may no longer be explicitly the case, the value of an extended family is obvious now as always – family, be it yours or that of your spouse, can be a source of financial, physical and emotional support.

Along these lines, there’s a good track record of sociological research that shows that close family relationships can promote marital success in a variety of ways. As well as maybe offering you an interest-free loan, your own parents can provide a shoulder to cry on and advice when the marital waters are roiled, as often happens in the early days post-wedding.

They can give people a point of stability, or a place to belong – and stress, frustration and yuletide grumpiness when the whole clan descend on your previously peaceful home. This is particularly likely when one or other party is “over-enmeshed” with their family of origin – a certain balance needs to be struck between independence and reliance.

And what about in-laws? Is the stereotype of the Jane Fonda-esque monster-in-law a fact or a fiction?

“Love doctor” Terri Orbuch.

Of course, it’s not as simple as that. On the one hand, you don’t get to choose your own parents, making it one of those box-of-chocolates-type scenarios if you accidentally pull out the hazelnut-centred parent (I personally like hazelnuts, but I asked my wife what sort of chocolate she’d be disappointed to pull out and that’s what she said).

But, if you can’t choose your parents, the same can also be said of your in-laws. “In-law relationships are involuntary ties,” notes Terri Orbuch, an American university professor who has somehow managed to trademark the label “the love doctor”.

Orbuch has, among other things, spent years tracking marital success from vow to woe (in those cases where it has ended painfully, that is), and says that not feeling at home with your in-laws is a particularly stressful place to be.

Indeed, other research has shown that marital satisfaction and commitment can be predicted by the quality of the relationships with in-laws. Wives have it particularly hard.

Orbuch and her colleagues have shown that if a spouse feels close to their in-laws early in marriage, the odds of divorce within 16 years are reduced by about a fifth.

At this point, it’s important to note that many married folk have a tickety-boo relationship with their in-laws. In fact, there’s a strand of research that shows that spouses are more likely to experience conflict with their own families than that of their partner.

Intriguingly, conflict with in-laws may increase when a couple have children, in spite of the fact that in-laws, as well as one’s own parents, can be a source of support (and free childcare, or as free as emotional blackmail may be). Ironically, this is because it makes in-laws more like one’s own family, and therefore more conflict-worthy. Again, it can be particularly tough on women, and more so if the husband’s mother has a significant role in childcare.

Of course, I have fantastic in-laws. I guess I’m just lucky I didn’t pull out the hazelnut swirl.

This article was first published in the August 11, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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