Fathers-and-Sons-in-Law: When Things Go Well
Little is known about sons-in-law. What helps them with their fathers-in-law?
Posted Jul 11, 2017
Sons-in-law and their relationships with their father-in-law have been in the news lately with the current White House configuration. But, in presidential politics, sons-in-law, when married to a President’s daughter, have been hanging around in the past, too. David Eisenhower was a presence, though not a significant one, in the Nixon White House, due to his marriage to Julie Nixon. Charles Robb, a U.S. Marine Corps Captain, was a presence, though not a significant one, in the Johnson White House, due to his marriage to Lynda Bird.
Social science research does not give many clues to this relationship except in relation to caretaking for older parents (the wife’s/daughter’s parents). Offering a beginning understanding of sons-in-law who have positive relationships with their fathers-in-law may help us grasp what is happening not only nationally but also personally. With more than 2 million couples marrying each year in the U.S., the need for understanding in-law relationships, beyond cartoon caricatures of mothers-in-law, is significant.
The 48 sons-in-law reported on here are part of a larger on-going study of in-laws, being conducted by Michael Woolley and me, that focuses on same-gender in-law relationships, i.e., sons-in-law with fathers-in-law and daughters-in-law with mothers-in-law. Here we look at the men's relationships. Relationship components that are explored include how the son-in-law viewed the father-in-law and how the in-law relationship functions. Clinical interventions with couples and families can be carried out more effectively with a better understanding of how these in-law relationships function.
Master of Social Work students in an advanced research class at the University of Maryland School of Social Work administered a 100+ item survey and interviewed people over the age of 21 who had a living in-law of the same gender. No two members of the same family were interviewed. As per IRB approved procedures, students could interview people they knew, people whose name they acquired through acquaintances, and people they met in public places which included malls and train stations (see the authors for more information on the research methods).
The responses on the questionnaires were sorted by positive and negative responses to selected questions. If there was agreement (agree or strongly agree) by the son-in-law with the statement, “We (referring to the father-in-law) have a very close relationship,” we looked at whether there was agreement with a series of other questions. Next we read the qualitative interviews with the respondents who were sorted to be in positive relationships as per our criteria. The interviews provide a rich preliminary understanding of how the SIL view the father-in-law when the relationship is highly positive. Given that little is known about this relationship we chose to focus on those that appear to be working well so that social workers could have potential models to offer to families where male in-laws are struggling.
The 48 sons-in-law ranged in age from 21 to 64 years old with the majority being younger than 39. Two-thirds are White, one-fifth African American, and the remainder are Hispanic/Latino and Asian American. Almost half identified as Protestant, one-fifth as no religion, agnostic, or atheist, one-fifth as Catholic, and one-tenth as Jewish, and one-sixteenth as Muslim. One-quarter married women of a different religion and one-eighth married women of a different race. The sons-in-law reported being married from 5 to 37 months and the number of years of education ranged from high school to advance degree with almost one-quarter having a high school diploma only. Slightly more than half reported being middle income, over one-quarter upper-middle or upper income, and the rest were lower-middle or lower-income. Two-thirds reported having children from the marriage.
Our goal in this study is to describe son-in-law reports of positive relationships with their fathers-in-law. We first give a few descriptive statistics from five point Likert scale (strongly agree to strongly disagree) survey items. To the statement, “We have a very close relationship” 40% of sons-in-law strongly agreed or agreed. To the statement, “Overall, I admire my father-in-law,” 58% strongly agreed or agreed. To the statement, “I can ask him for advice,” 56% strongly agreed or agreed. To the statement, “I maintain some emotional distance from my father-in-law,” 44% strongly disagreed or disagreed. To the statement, “I feel I have to walk on eggshells, 65% strongly disagreed or disagreed. To the statement, “My father-in-law did not approve of this marriage, 81% strongly disagreed or disagreed. Nine of the 48 sons-in-law responded to all six questions indicating they had a very positive relationship with their father-in-law. The qualitative data with three sons-in-law helped us understand how the relationships operate.
A number of themes emerge from these son-in-law interviews that help us understand what may contribute to highly satisfactory relationships with the father-in-law. One way to conceptualize these relationships is to consider factors related to: 1) factors related of the son-in-law; 2) factors related to the father-in-law; and 3) the relationship between the two.
Factors Related to the Son-in-law
Some of the sons-in-law indicated that their relationships with their fathers-in-law were strong due to their wives. One son-in-law said because the in-laws (her parents) were important to his wife, they were important to him. He also gave the corollary of that – because he means so much to their daughter (his wife), he means a great deal to his in-laws. The presence of children is also noted as bringing sons-in-law and fathers-in-law closer, both because of the increased time spent together and because of the way the time is spent when they are together (“being silly” and sharing books, as one son-in-law reported). A similarity in family structure (“My father-in-law and I both have daughters”) is also mentioned as a reason for closeness. Finally, the importance of family is emphasized as a shared value. One son-in-law went further and said that his father-in-law referred to him as a son. Another son-in-law noted that he was the first male to marry into the family and thus was like a son.
Other factors, such as the son-in-law’s own experiences being parented and the son-in-law’s observing his parents interact with their parents-in-law, are also in play. One son-in-law was out of contact with one of his parents. That might have led to a greater appreciation for his in-laws. Another describes watching his mother take care of her in-laws and a third noted his parents’ good relationships with their in-laws.
Factors Related to the Father-in-law
The fathers-in-law are described in positive terms, even after some of the nine sons-in-law experienced conflict with their in-laws. The adjectives used include good person, funny, understanding, expressive, talkative, predictable, a support system, proud, distant, and caring. One father-in-law is part of the parent-in-law team that supports the daughter and son-in-law financially, emotionally, and educationally. Another father-in-law is described as “no drama.” With the exception of one son-in-law who feels his in-laws and wife are too close, others are appreciated for maintaining boundaries.
Factors Related to the Relationship
The other quality in making these relationships successful is the good fit between the father-in-law and the son-in-law. This fit could be driven, in part, by the factors listed above. One says they are friends. Another son-in-law says they are “buddy-buddy.” The fit is exemplified by a son-in-law who said he and his father-in-law spend time together in part because they are both men. They are placed together by gender and have a shared interest in sports that re-enforces traditional notions of masculinity. While keeping boundaries can be seen as a quality of the father-in-law, it could also be a quality of the relationship system between the two men. Perhaps the son-in-law’s behavior is such that the father-in-law does not feel a need to intrude. Two sons-in-law seem to have resolved difficulties between them and their fathers-in-law and have emerged with stronger relationships. These resolutions could have further solidified already strong relationships or helped to construct them de novo.
From these interviews and survey responses, we see that positives tend to coalesce around a few characteristics: sons-in-law have entered families that have strong relationships with their daughters and value family; they often have children; the fathers-in-law are well liked by the sons-in-law, are described as boundaried and being warm and accepting. The men enjoy each other’s company, share interests, and have a friendship. The sons-in-law have a genuine fondness for their fathers-in-law and are not entering the relationship solely because it is important to their wife. We also see that with only 40% strongly agreeing or agreeing that they feel very close to their fathers-in-law, much work could be undertaken on how these relationships should even be conceptualized. This discussion goes beyond what can be covered in this blog.
Clinicians need to achieve a basic understanding of why certain in-law relationships are successful. Without a road map, they can offer little guidance. Here we see that the fit between son-in-law and father-in-law would be, as would be expected, a key component. Drawing boundaries and not interfering would be key. Serovich and Price, writing more than 20 years ago, hypothesized that men denied conflict. The admission of difficult times with in-laws highlighted here by a few sons-in-law leads us to believe that while some men deny conflict, others are willing to discuss it, particularly if it has been resolved. Men may seek each other out in a family context but may also be shunted together by women perhaps just as women may be shunted together by men. Societal and familial expectations may converge to push men together and women together. If the men are comfortable with this, they are likely to have an easier time with their relationship which, ultimately, could help a family adapt to the normal developmental stages families must traverse as family members age. Sons-in-law should be aware they are marrying into the whole family and that expectations for their relationship with the father-in-law should be tempered by the idiosyncratic nature of the father-in-law, the wife’s relationship with her parent(s), and how boundaries are drawn between the generations.
This certainly holds as good advice for people in high places whose public profiles often add difficulties to what is sometimes a strained and highly dynamic relationship. A son-in-law can be on good terms with a father-in-law one day and on tenterhooks the next.