Improving Relationships With Your In-Laws
Why are in-law relationships so challenging?
Posted September 25, 2018
In-law relationships are challenging. When in-law relationships are strong, they can provide critical support, join in family traditions, help raise children, and contribute financially. Because of the many positive benefits of in-law relationships, you might be interested in learning why in-law relationships tend to be so hard, along with a few tips for building and maintaining strong in-law relationships.
Researchers claim that across cultures, in-law relationships face at least three challenges that lead to difficulty communicating and keeping the relationship in a positive state.
1. Almost everyone has in-laws.
Despite their bad reputation, almost all people have in-laws, whether that means parents-in-law they’ve married into or siblings-in-law they’ve gained by their own siblings marrying or through their own marriage. In-law relationships are ubiquitous, and because of this, they may be taken for granted. Some people assume these relationships will not be close and may, as a result, write them off as not worth investing in. They might also assume their partner or sibling will do the work of relational maintenance for them. For example, I might text my brother and have him ask my sister-in-law about plans rather than pick up the phone and make a connection with her directly. These assumptions can be dangerous. Instead, in-laws would do well to think of these relationships as their own responsibility to maintain and invest in.
2. In-law relationships are not between two people.
In-law relationships are triadic. This means they involve three people, not just two. The very nature of the in-law relationship means that there are three people involved, two of which have known each other for a very long time, and one who is newer to the equation. The addition of the new member is an adjustment, but on top of that adjustment, the existing, long-term relationship is changing. Think about a man marrying a woman. His soon-to-be wife is gaining a mother-in-law, and his mom is gaining a daughter-in-law. The daughter-in-law relationship is new, but the mother-son relationship is also especially changing during this time. The son has a new woman in his life, who is taking on some of the roles and responsibilities of his mother. This changing of roles and responsibilities may feel threatening to his mother. In addition, the interactions between his mother and his new wife revolve around him, at least in the beginning. In fact, many people prefer to be present during any interaction between new in-laws to help monitor and facilitate conversation. Over time, this may change, and the mother-in-law/daughter-in-law relationship may develop into something that stands alone, but even still, they are linked because of the son. Researchers call the son in this scenario the linchpin. He is a linchpin, because he holds the other two people together. The linchpin is ever-present in an in-law relationship, whether they are physically with the other two or not.
3. In-law relationships are not voluntary.
In-laws do not typically choose each other. Instead, the third party or linchpin usually chooses a partner, bringing the other two together. The rest of the family may offer input on the linchpin's choice, and family likely plays a key role in shaping the linchpin's partner preferences as they grew up, but ultimately the linchpin makes the choice. Any relationship that is non-voluntary comes with a built-in set of challenges. Most biological family relationships are considered non-voluntary — though people tend to think of those "family of origin" relationships in a different way. People typically take biological family members for granted and expect unconditional love. When biological family members hurt us, we are less likely to push them away (read more about this in an earlier post on why family hurt is so painful). This is not always the case in non-voluntary in-law relationships, though some reactions may be similar. For example, if your mother-in-law says something hurtful to you, you might complain to your husband, but you probably won’t sever the relationship you have with your mother-in-law. Instead, we assume we have to “just live with it,” since she is now a constant, not chosen by you, person in your life.
The good news: In-law relationships do not have to be negative.
In-law relationships do not have to be stressful. In fact, changing your perception of the relationship can go a long way. Researchers have found that people who do not expect to be close to their in-laws before they get married tend to not be as close after getting married (Fingerman et al., 2012). Based on this study, the opposite is also true: Daughters-in-law who expect to be close to their mothers-in-law and have a positive relationship will likely have the kind of relationship they expect. Expectations are powerful and can shape how we communicate with one another, which has implications for the quality of our relationships.
Other research has shown the power of changing communication to improve the daughter-in-law/mother-in-law relationship. Drs. Rittenour and Soliz (2009) found that communicating social support can improve the mother-in-law/daughter-in-law relationship. My father-in-law, for example, shows me support by pitching in on my house renovation projects. My grandmother-in-law shows me support from afar (she lives across the country) by checking in on me via text as the semester starts. When she texts me, I know she is thinking of me, and that she cares about my well-being.
Mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law can also share their thoughts and feelings with one another (i.e., disclose information). For example, if a mother-in-law is feeling upset or stressed about the upcoming holiday season, she could share this with her daughter-in-law to build their bond. In fact, self-disclosure is known to strengthen all kinds of relationships. Disclosing anything at any time can be dangerous, as disclosure needs to be appropriate in terms of timing and content in order to strengthen a relationship. Certain information, depending on family norms, should not be shared. The type of "inappropriate" information will differ from family to family, making assimilating into a new family challenging. Something that might be shared in your own family might be considered inappropriate in your “new” in-law family.
In-laws can show respect for one another’s differing values. Chances are, in-laws' values will differ to a larger or smaller extent, depending on the family. Respect for one another's values can be shown by asking about certain issues, actually listening, and responding in calm, respectful ways. If these conversations would be too heated in your in-law relationship, they may be best avoided. However, if respect can be shown, these conversations can be key to improving in-law relationships. Parenting values tend to be an especially hot-button issue for in-laws. When parenting values conversations happen, try to remember why your mother-in-law feels the need to comment on your parenting. It is likely because she cares about your child, which is typically a good thing! Remembering this can strengthen the relationship, rather than erode it.
Finally, mothers-in-law can express and explicitly communicate their acceptance of the daughter-in-law into the family and include her in family events. For example, I remember my own grandfather-in-law making a point to call me “granddaughter” and express that I was “his granddaughter now” after I married his grandson. Including a brother-in-law in a traditional family “boys' trip” is a great way to show him he is part of the family. How have your in-laws shown you that you are part of the family? Leave a comment below and let us know. How has communication improved or eroded your in-law relationships?
Morr Serewicz, M. C. M. (2013). The difficulties of in-law relationships. In D. C. Kirkpatrick, S. Duck, & M. K. Foley (Eds.), Relating difficulty (pp. 117-134). Routledge.
Merrill, D. M. (2007). Mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law: Understanding the relationship and what makes them friends or foe. Greenwood Publishing Group.
Rittenour, C., & Soliz, J. (2009). Communicative and relational dimensions of shared family identity and relational intentions in mother-in-law/daughter-in-law relationships: Developing a conceptual model for mother-in-law/daughter-in-law research. Western Journal of Communication, 73, 67-90. doi:10.1080/10570310802636334
Vangelisti, A. L. & Hampel, A. D. (2010). Hurtful communication: Current research and future directions. In S. W. Smith & S. R. Wilson (Eds.), New directions in interpersonal research (pp. 221-241). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.