A new study has shed some light on the influence in-laws can have on a relationship, and what kinds of dynamics are positive and negative. There are many surprising things about this study, but one thing I want to emphasize right from the start is that the study was a 26-year longitudinal study. That is really fantastic. Let’s get to the goods.
Terri Orbuch from the University of Michigan began the study in 1986 with 373 same-race couples in their first year of marriage. The couples were all between the ages of 25 and 37 when the study began, and Orbuch kept up with them ever since. Intuitively, you would expect that if people have good relationships with their in-laws, it will be nothing but positivity all around. But this is not the case.
When a husband was close with his wife’s parents, it was good for the couple – the risk of divorce decreased by 20%. When a wife was close with her husband’s parents, it was bad for the couple – the risk of divorce actually increased by 20%. So the closeness of the son-in-law relationship is generally more important than the closeness of the daughter-in-law relationship, which may actually be detrimental. That is fascinating, and slightly disconcerting.
Orbuch says the findings probably are due to the differences in how husbands and wives approach their relationships with their in-laws. As the Wall Street Journal reports:
The wife who feels close with her husband’s parents may find it difficult to set boundaries and over time may come to see their close relationship with her as meddling. “Because relationships are so important to women, their identity as a wife and mother is central to their being,” says Dr. Orbuch. [. . .] “They interpret what their in-laws say and do as interference into their identity as a spouse and parent.”
Men, for the most part, don’t have this problem. Their identity as a father and a husband is often secondary to their identity as a provider, Dr. Orbuch says. As a result, they don’t tend to take what their in-laws do so personally.
The research posits that it would be best for in-law parents to avoid offering advice on parenting and other such important topics to their daughter-in-law. That’s because women are more likely than men to perceive advice as interference. And to those who have a son-in-law, it’s best to make an effort that shows that he is considered a part of the family.
For wives, the Orbuch suggests that it’s important to maintain boundaries with in-laws, especially regarding marriage, parenting decisions, and personal issues. “Reassure your in-laws that you want a close and loving relationship, but learn to say no. If conflict arises, ask your husband for help settling it.” And for husbands, it’s not just directly beneficial but also indirectly beneficial to have a close relationship with in-laws. When the husband cares for the in-laws, the wife feels cared for too.
In the end, it’s nothing that a little bit of careful communication can’t solve. Otherwise, you may get crossing boundaries, unintentional offensiveness, and a lack of trust. To give an idea of what this looks like, enjoy one scene from the 2000 comedy movie “Meet the Parents.”