Even if you love your spouse very much, dealing with an in-law can be a different story. Maybe things aren’t that hard – maybe you’ve created strong foundations or you’ve established effective boundaries. However, coping with the countless emotions that come with the dynamics of brother-in-law is something that deserves more awareness, attention and recognition, says Dr. Geoffrey Greif, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Social Work.
Greif is a co-author In-law relationships: Mothers, daughters, fathers and sons, for which he and co-author, dr. Michael Wooley, Ph.D. sc. MSW, DCSW, interviewed more than 1,500 wedding guests to share how these relationships, although sometimes complicated, can also be helpful and comforting. Although popular culture and social narratives would believe us that in-law relationships take a lot of work and can be messy (who watched Undo?), what Greif found is more hopeful: he sees that most of the relationships with the in-law are generally good and that most of the families he spoke to are comfortable and satisfied with their relationships, despite some of the problems they have expressed. Even if the connection is remote, Greif explains, know that things can change, that fights will happen from time to time, and that most in-laws strive to make the connection work from every perspective of theirs. Be calm, knowing that your mother-in-law is probably not trying to sabotage you.
Questions and answers with dr. Geoffrey Greif
What factors can create successful in-laws?
One of the things everyone needs to think about is how open are families to new members? From a historical point of view, do families always entertain a lot of people in their home? Whether people grew up in families where new people kept coming was fun and exciting, or did people grow up in a house where it might have been more isolated, where they tried to keep to themselves. What is the boundary around the nuclear family? How involved is the extended family? Specifically, what is the family history with marriage and bringing in new people?
All of these factors can affect how an in-law is accepted into a new family, and also how that in-laws feel when entering a new family. There are two processes here: Is my family open to accepting a new brother-in-law and is that brother-in-law open to being part of a new family? These factors may frame this discussion.
The first part of your book explores the relationship between mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law. What did you find interesting in this dynamic?
Specifically around women, we find that mothers-in-law rate the relationship better from their perspective than daughters do. It is a rather positive-looking relationship based on the answers we received from the mother-in-law’s perspective. From the daughter-in-law’s perspective, it’s a little more trial. They are not as stunned by the relationship as the mothers-in-law.
Now it may be that the mothers-in-law are dealing with desires and want it to be so. Or maybe it’s that the daughters-in-law are trying to maintain a boundary around the relationship with their spouse. Is the third generation – grandchildren – involved and is the daughter-in-law excited about her mother-in-law’s participation or is she a little hesitant? We know from our interviews that if parental philosophies are not in line with the perspective of the mother-in-law or daughter-in-law, it can make it difficult for them to build a satisfying relationship.
How do father-in-law’s expectations of these relationships differ from father-in-law’s expectations?
That’s a big question. Many people do not think much about their expectations in these relationships. It is more likely that the father-in-law will consider it. For example, in heterosexual couples, mothers-in-law want to have a close and great relationship with their daughter-in-law. They want it for two reasons: It gives them better access to their son – it cements the relationship with their son. And that gives them more access to all potential grandchildren. Therefore, it is vital for the mother-in-law to be on good terms with her daughter-in-law and to maintain a good relationship with her.
We talked to many mothers-in-law. Some of them said they did not have a good relationship with their own mother-in-law and wanted to make sure they had a good relationship with their daughter-in-law, that they did not want to treat the daughter-in-law the way they felt their mother-in-law treated them. So there will be some people who will come into contact from a negative historical point of view. And there are those who said, “I had a great relationship with my own mother-in-law and I want to make sure that I am such a wonderful person for my daughter-in-law.” So broadly, these are the expectations of parents who have more years under their belt, more wisdom.
There aren’t too many expectations for the bridesmaids, because at this point most of what they loved is someone and decided to get married. Those wiser families will consider what they will marry, but there are also people who get married without actually knowing the saints in advance. They may live on the west coast, and in-laws live in the middle of the country or on the east coast. These are relationships that have generally struggled a little more than when there was good knowledge of each other, but there is a series here as well. Obviously, some couples have very long conversations when they go out and before they get engaged. They talk about their parents, what life was like growing up and what they can expect from their parents, and how they imagine them as grandparents if they decide to have children, and so on.
Is it important to have a good relationship in order for your own marriage to succeed?
If you feel that you have to set strict boundaries because there is a degree of disruption with which you are uncomfortable on either side of the family and you are able as a team to maintain those boundaries, then that is great. But tazba connections can also be incredibly important because you are delivering a message to your own children. If you maintain good relationships with your in-laws, their grandparents, you create a legacy about the importance of caring for parents as they age.
One of the reasons you want your child to marry someone good and loving is because you want your child and their spouse to be with you and maybe take care of you when you get old and sick. Parents also want to help take care of the children or financially help the children if they need it, so there are huge benefits to keeping all hands on deck. Everyone in the family works together to solve problems around the pandemic or problems that come as a normal part of life as we age.
What is the impact of the pandemic on kinship? Have relationships strained or are people getting closer?
In many cases, there are now pods that include grandparents who are needed to care for children. They can help build and cement relationships. But if there are efforts in a relationship and it is difficult to get together safely, you may find that the distance grows, especially if there is a feeling that some other grandparents are more intimately connected. If you’ve been feeling jealous either of going out or not involved, and there’s jealousy associated with a lack of good relationships and you see other grandparents who have more access to your grandchildren, you may find it hard to bear. It can work to crystallize some weaker relationships. It’s also an opportunity if everyone works together in a capsule, or they did well before a pandemic, to further improve their relationship.
Did you find it important that both sets of fathers-in-law have some kind of relationship for the whole dynamic to work?
They don’t have to have a meaningful relationship. A lot of times there is one set of grandparents who are on the other shore, and that’s just the way it is. If one set of in-laws lives in the same city and is close to their children, and the other set of in-laws is not included, then this will be a bigger problem. Then it’s up to the children and bridesmaids to actually figure out how to be as inclusive as possible and balance the needs of their parents and in-laws.
It is up to the spouses to understand how to involve their parents and how to support each other in doing so with their parents and vice versa. And that is part of the border issue. When the mother-in-law’s fight leaks into the couple’s marriage, there are more problems and more eggshells to walk on.
If your relationship with your father-in-law is strained, how can you improve it?
Try to figure out how to get to the same page with parenting philosophy. Many of these issues get worse for mothers-in-law when they have children. For example, as close as I felt to my mothers-in-law when I got married, I could figure out how to ignore them if something happened that I didn’t like. When I had children, it became much harder to get along with my grandparents if I didn’t approve of how or what they taught my children. So he’s trying to figure out how to balance that.
Another thing we felt was important to work on finding things you both enjoy and showing respect for what your mothers-in-law enjoy. I don’t expect him to become a master chess player if he’s never played chess before, but at least get interested.
The third thing to consider is whether friction has anything to do with jealousy. Be aware of whether there is a certain distance between you and your in-laws and try to reduce jealousy.
The fourth thing is to understand with the spouse what role they play in that. Sons and daughters play a key role in the in-laws, so be aware of that.
What did you find particularly interesting or surprised in your research?
Interestingly, some of these roles that we traditionally think are the roles of men and women are still the roles of men and women. For example, women are still more inclined to take care of children and interested in the emotional life of the family than men. Second, the tropes around the mother-in-law are unfair. It is important to reshape mothers-in-law and recognize that what is often seen as mixing love and care is a reflection of the role women play in the family. Third, and related to the first, we found that men are not as engaged in family life as women. We wish men were more involved, more engaged – not to evict their mother-in-law but to play an equal role. These ideas about how we are socialized still exist. There have been fantastic changes in male and female roles, but the good we still have left.
Geoffrey Greif he is a professor of clinical social work at the University of Maryland School of Social Work, where he was associate dean from 1996 to 2007. He received his MSW from the University of Pennsylvania and his doctorate from the Department of Social Work at Columbia University. He has written more than 135 articles in magazines and book chapters, and has written fourteen books on parenting issues, adult friendships, adult siblings, and in-laws.
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