“You have to ask yourself, What kind of family am I marrying into?”
— Geoffrey Greif, a co-author of “In-Law Relationships: Mothers, Daughters, Fathers, and Sons.”
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Spouses aren’t the only result of the two million marriages entered into each year in the United States — in-laws are made, too. But unlike the spouses who (hopefully) decide together how their marriage will work, in-laws usually have no say in determining what their new roles will entail. They are thrust together, asked to navigate life’s most intimate moments — birth, divorce, aging, illness and death — without ever having discussed how long is too long to stay on the foldout couch.
Mothers-in-law in particular have an uphill battle. Not only do they catch heat from negative cultural stereotypes, they are constantly vilified and are the butt of countless jokes in ways that fathers-in-law are not.
But we needn’t despair, says Geoffrey Greif, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Social Work and a co-author of the new book “In-Law Relationships: Mothers, Daughters, Fathers, and Sons.”
After conducting 1,500 interviews with in-laws, Dr. Greif has found that in-law relationships aren’t all passive aggressive. Many of the in-law relationships he studied were incredibly loving, while others were distant, strained or barely there. But the majority, Dr. Greif said, were “workable and satisfactory.”
While “workable and satisfactory” isn’t exactly earth-shattering, Dr. Greif believes it’s a good place to start to build something stronger.
It’s a bit like this, he explains: It wasn’t until the “Mona Lisa” was stolen from the Louvre in 1911 that it gained — because of its new context — more public awareness and appreciation than it had ever enjoyed before. “A spotlight was put on it,” Dr. Greif said. “Like that, we want people to become more aware of their in-law relationships.”
With the holidays upon us, in a year unlike any other, it seems a timely moment to hold up a magnifying glass to these oft-neglected but highly significant relationships.
My conversation with Dr. Greif has been edited for length and clarity.
How have in-law relationships changed over time?
One hundred years ago parents would have a better sense of who their kids were marrying because they were mostly meeting people within their community. Also, compared with preindustrial societies when you picked people for their strong backs or for their fertility, we now have a greater belief that one’s emotions are important: We are more likely to choose a spouse who we love and someone who is not influenced as much by in-laws. So there is now a steeper learning curve between parents-in-law and children-in-law, but there’s also less of a dependency on in-laws than there was, so that means it’s not as intense of a relationship.
You often refer to the in-law relationship as ambiguous in your new book. Explain.
We are living in a society where in-law roles are less clearly defined. The upside is that people are more able to self-define than ever before, but moving out of prescribed roles can bring discomfort, too. When it’s unclear how to act in relation to one another, it can lead to greater anxiety.
What can we do to avoid that discomfort? Should everyone sit down before the wedding and discuss their expectations?
The answer is going to vary greatly from one family to the next. Some families are comfortable with a more open form of communication than others. You have to ask yourself, What kind of family am I marrying into?
In heterosexual couples, the husband also plays a key role in signaling to his wife the best ways to communicate with his family. He may also speak to his mother about how to approach his wife. He’s the third part of the triangle and needs to be thought about.
In popular culture, narratives are not kind to the mother-in-law, painting her as interfering and meddlesome. Is that damaging even if it’s meant in a lighthearted way?
A lot of the mothers-in-law we spoke to are very afraid of that trope and of coming across in that way. We think a reframe is needed — instead of “interfering,” we should try to see them as “concerned” and “loving.”
But also women are much more central than men in the families we interviewed. If you are more central, you are more likely to come across as being interfering.
Why is that?
Greater centrality means greater contact and more interactions, sometimes around more interpersonal issues.
So just by virtue of being more engaged, there’s more likelihood of causing friction. Does the relationship between a son-in-law and a father-in-law tend to have a different dynamic?
Men have been socialized not to be as physically or emotionally expressive with each other. I’m painting men with a broad brush; there are incredible individual differences. But men tend to deal with things that are more concrete, like talking about work, sports or completing tasks together. This means they may avoid some of the pitfalls that happen in areas that are more gray around emotions.
Historically, women interact in those harder areas, those grayer areas, like, How well do I keep the house? How well am I raising the kids? So there’s more ambiguity for them to navigate than for men.
So although there’s more potential for conflict for women, it sounds like there might also be more potential for closeness.
When we asked the children-in-law if they are closer to their father-in-law or mother-in-law, the large majority were closer to their mother-in-law. Also, if you have a series of questions, and answers are on a 5-point scale — strongly agree, agree, neutral, disagree, strongly disagree — men tend to choose the middle three points, but many women showed up on the extremes. They have stronger feelings about these relationships.
In your research, you also confirm what many have suspected — that many mothers-in-law believe they have to walk on eggshells around their daughters-in-law. Why?
There are things at stake that are very important to the mother-in-law. She wants to maintain contact with her child. She also wants to have access to the grandchildren and, again, in the majority of families, that access runs through the daughter-in-law. At the same time, she is often not sure which role she is supposed to play. For example, she may know that her daughter-in-law is close with her own mother, so she might be wondering where and how she fits in.
There is a lot at stake for getting along.
Yes, a lot at stake and there are a number of things that can be done. For one, all in-laws need to look more at what they have in common and downplay where there is disagreement. One of the messages of the book is actually that most of these relationships really are working.
Yes, in-law relationships seem to be more positive than popular perception suggests, even if there is underlying tension.
In a mature relationship, you accept the ambiguity and ambivalence. Very few relationships are perfect. You say, this is who my son married or this is my spouse’s parent, and I need to focus on what works. To quote Ruth Bader Ginsburg on her marital relationship, “You have to be a little bit deaf.”
Advice from in-laws in your book for maintaining a positive relationship includes variations on “bite your tongue” and “keep your mouth shut.” Is that sound advice?
Communication to a family member, especially an in-law, should not be a free-for-all unless both parties come from families where that type of communication is encouraged and valued. Advice can be perceived as criticism if it is not carefully crafted and if it is not asked for.
What about your research surprised you most?
I was surprised that these issues around men and women are still there. I knew they were there, but still, it just continues. If I had written the book 20 years ago, I think the findings would have been similar. It’s not what I looked for, but you often don’t find what you wished society was, but you find what society is. I would like men to step up and feel more comfortable being more central in the family.
The holidays are a festive time, but also fraught for families negotiating where and how to celebrate. This year there is the added layer of stress as family members decide what to do — or not do — during a pandemic. Often the two (or more) sides don’t actually agree on what is right. How should they navigate this?
Families have to let go of the notion that everything has to be fair, because you can’t treat everybody the same this year. It’s about love and reassurance. Frame your decision through love and communicate that, We have decided to do it this way because of our love for you, not our lack of love for you.
What impact might the coronavirus pandemic have on in-law relationships? Could there be a distance-makes-the-heart-grow-fonder outcome?
Strained and distant relationships are unlikely to improve greatly, but relationships that are distant and not strained — in other words, not particularly close or problematic — may evolve as family members gain a new appreciation, perhaps an existential one, for each other and the importance of staying more connected in the future.