Geoffrey Greif Ph.D.

Buddy System

Lesbian Daughters-In-Law, Gay Sons-In-Law, and the In-Laws

With gay marriage now legal, acceptance by parents-in-law can take time.

Posted Jun 09, 2019

How do in-laws adjust to each other? How are sons-in-law and daughters-in-law accepted by the parents of their spouse? It is a familiar trope that daughters-in-law struggle with their mother-in-law. Few tropes exist about how sons-in-law and fathers-in-law get along. In a just-published article in the Journal of Gay & Lesbian Social Services, Judith Leitch, Michael Wooley, and I analyzed interviews with married lesbians and gays that were intended to learn about their relationship with their same-gender parent-in-law. Part of a larger study of in-law relationships, we wondered about sons-in-law and their experiences with fathers-in-law and daughters-in-law and their experiences with mothers-in-law, post-Obergefell v. Hodges, the 2015 landmark Supreme Court decision that legalized same-sex marriage. According to sources, over 10 percent of all lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people are married now, after the Supreme Court ruling, up from 7.9 percent prior to the ruling. Specific states had legalized marriage before, beginning with Massachusetts in 2003, but by 2015, it was legalized nationally. By 2017, the Pew Research Center documented, societal support for same-sex marriage had increased. 

Sons-in-law and daughters-in-law in our overall research were given a 100-plus item survey and then interviewed with open-ended questions to learn about their experiences. Within the close to 400 interviews were children-in-law who described themselves as gay or lesbian. We highlight five in the article (two women and three men) and offer common themes raised during the interviews. (Corinne Reczek, a sociology professor at Ohio State University, has done landmark research on the topic and helped to guide our thinking.) Learning about their experiences may help to normalize the experiences of others in a same-sex marriage or who have children in a same-sex marriage.

1. Many of those interviewed struggled with acceptance by one or both of their parents-in-law. This went, at times, hand-in-hand with their spouse being accepted as gay and lesbian by his or her parents. When the spouse was accepted by his or her parents, the interviewee was more likely to be accepted. Notably, though, one gay man who was interviewed had a husband who was not out to his parents, and those parents did not know the couple was married. Another gay man felt that, while his father-in-law was accepting of him, he should still keep his distance from him. The father-in-law's Latinx culture and rural lifestyle in a South American country made the son-in-law doubt the sincerity of the acceptance. The son-in-law was also haunted by knowing that his husband had been ill-treated by his father and so had a difficult time wanting to be close with him.

2. Relationships usually improved with time. As we found with the heterosexual couples we interviewed, people adjust to each other over the years. The interviewees generally felt more accepted as their parents-in-law got accustomed to the marriage and the relationship being more permanent. With time, people mature and learn to live with each other and accept each other's idiosyncrasies. The broader social context has also changed, as noted by the Pew Research Center.

3. While parents-in-law became increasingly accepting, there was often someone else in the family who was not accepting. It could be a sibling of the parents-in-law or a sibling of the spouse of the interviewee. Sometimes the father-in-law was not accepting while the mother-in-law was. This lack of acceptance made family gatherings more uncomfortable.

4. Acceptance by the mothers-in-law, according to the daughters-in-law, came as more of their friends and social circle either had children who were lesbian or gay, or their friends and social circle became more socially aware. When their social network was more accepting, it helped to move the parents-in-law towards greater acceptance. 

5. Feelings of ambivalence toward family members are typical. As Reczek writes of the simultaneous holding of positive and negative feelings towards someone, we saw in a few of the cases mixed feelings towards parents-in-law. More common earlier in their relationships, a few resolved themselves as ambivalence diminished into more positive feelings.

These relationships are similar in many ways to heterosexual relationships between in-laws—some feel fully embraced by their in-laws, and some feel the relationship is a struggle. But some lesbian and gay relationships also carry the burden of their trying to interpret family behavior through the lens of their sexual orientation. The sons- and daughters-in-law are aware that there may be a family member or a friend who is troubled by the marriage, even though the father-in-law or mother-in-law is loving and supportive.  

Some people we have interviewed in our ongoing research since the article was written feel that their sexual orientation has nothing to do with their in-law relationship, while others feel it is present in some form, even if it has been put in the background. We look forward to the day when the Pew Research Center will share even more positive data about the increasing acceptance of lesbian and gay marriage even as we note the high rate of mental illness among gay and lesbian youth who are not accepted by their families, by some communities in the U.S. and around the world.

References

see Greif, G. L., Leitch, J, & Woolley, M. E. (2019). A preliminary look at relationships between married gay men and lesbians and their parents-in-law: Five  case studies. Journal of Gay & Lesbian Social Services, https://doi.org/10.1080/10538720.2019.1615591