Understanding Your In-Laws
Even if you love your spouse dearly, dealing with your in-laws can be another story. Maybe things aren’t that difficult—perhaps you’ve formed strong foundations or have established effective boundaries. Still, navigating the myriad emotions that come with in-law dynamics is something that deserves more awareness, attention, and recognition, says Geoffrey Greif, PhD, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Social Work.
Greif is a coauthor of In-Law Relationships: Mothers, Daughters, Fathers, and Sons, for which he and coauthor Michael Wooley, PhD, MSW, DCSW, interviewed more than 1,500 in-laws to share how these relationships, while sometimes complicated, can also be rewarding and comforting. While popular culture and societal narratives would have us believing that in-law relationships take a lot of work to maintain and can be messy (who’s watched The Undoing?), what Greif found is more hopeful: He sees that a majority of in-law relationships do tend to be good and that most families he interviewed were comfortable and satisfied with their relationships despite some of the problems they expressed. Even if a relationship is distant, explains Greif, know that things can change, that struggles will happen from time to time, and that most in-laws are striving to make the relationship work from each of their perspectives. So rest easy knowing that your mother-in-law is probably not trying to sabotage you.
A Q&A with Geoffrey Greif, PhD
One of the things that everybody has to think about is to what extent are the families open to new members? From a historical point of view, do the families always entertain a lot of people in their house? Did people grow up in families where having new people come in all the time was fun and exciting, or did people grow up in a house where maybe it was more insular, where they tried to keep to themselves. What’s the boundary around the nuclear family? How much is the extended family involved? And specifically, what’s the family’s history with marriage and bringing new people in?
All those factors might drive how an in-law is accepted into a new family and also how that in-law might feel going into a new family. There are two processes here: Is my family open to admitting a new child-in-law, and is that child-in-law open to being a part of a new family? Those factors can frame this discussion.
Specifically around women, we find that the mothers-in-law rate the relationship from their perspective as being better than the daughters do. It’s a fairly positive-looking relationship based on the answers we got from the mother-in-law’s perspective. It’s a little bit more tentative from the perspective of the daughters-in-law. They are not quite as smitten with the relationship as are the mothers-in-law.
Now, it may be that the mothers-in-law are doing wishful thinking and want it to be that way. Or maybe it’s that the daughters-in-law are trying to maintain a boundary around the relationship with their spouse. Is there a third generation—grandchildren—involved, and is the daughter-in-law excited about the mother-in-law’s involvement, or is she a little hesitant? We do know from our interviews that if parenting philosophies are not in alignment from either the mother-in-law’s perspective or the daughter-in-law’s perspective, that can make it more difficult for them to build a satisfying relationship.
That’s the big question. A lot of people do not give their expectations in these relationships a lot of thought. A parent-in-law is more likely to give it thought. 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 greater access to their son—it cements the relationship with their son. And it gives them greater access to any potential grandchildren. So it’s vitally important to the mother-in-law to be on good terms with the daughter-in-law and to maintain a good relationship with her.
We heard from a number of mothers-in-law. Some of them said that they did not have a good relationship with their own mother-in-law and wanted to make sure they had a good one with their daughter-in-law, that they did not want to treat their daughter-in-law the way that they felt they had been treated by their mother-in-law. So there will be some people who are going to come into a relationship from a negative historical point of view. And then there are those who said, “I had a great relationship with my own mother-in-law, and I want to make sure I am that kind of wonderful person to my daughter-in-law, too.” So broadly, that’s the expectation from parents who have more years under their belt, more wisdom.
For children-in-law, there isn’t a lot of expectation because at this point, most of it is that they loved a person and decided to get married. The wiser ones will have given thought to the family that they’re marrying into, but there are also people who get married without really knowing the parents-in-law in advance. Maybe they live on the West Coast and the in-laws live in the middle of the country or on the East Coast. Those are the relationships that tended to struggle a little bit more rather than when there was good knowledge about each other, but there’s also a range there. Obviously, some couples have very lengthy conversations when they’re dating and before getting engaged. They talk about their parents, what life was like growing up, and what they can expect from their parents and how they envision them being as grandparents if they decide to have children, and so on.
If you feel that you have to establish strict boundaries because there’s a level of interference that you’re uncomfortable with from either side of the family and you’re able, as a team, to maintain those boundaries, then that’s great. But in-law relationships can also be incredibly important because you’re handing down a message to your own children. If you maintain good relationships with your in-laws, their grandparents, you’re creating a legacy about the importance of taking care of parents as they age.
One of the reasons you want your child to marry someone good and loving is that you want your child and their spouse to be there for you and possibly take care of you when you’re aging and ill. Parents also want to help with childcare or help children financially if they need it, so there are enormous benefits to having all hands on deck. Everybody in the family works together to deal with issues around the pandemic or issues that come as a normal part of life as we age.
In many cases now, there are pods that include grandparents who are needed for childcare. These can help to build and cement the relationship. But if there are strains in the relationship and it’s difficult to get together safely, you may find that the distance grows, especially if there’s a sense that another set of grandparents or in-laws is more intimately involved. If you’ve been feeling jealous or on the outs or not included and there is jealousy related to lack of good relationships and you see other grandparents having more access to your grandchildren, you may have a hard time with that. It can work to crystallize some of the weaker relationships. It’s also an opportunity, if everybody’s working together in a pod, for example, or they were doing well before the pandemic, to improve their relationship further.
It’s not necessary for them to have a meaningful relationship. A lot of times there’s one set of grandparents or in-laws who are on a different coast, and that’s just how it is. If one set of in-laws is living in the same city and in proximity to their children and another set of in-laws is not being included, then that’s going to be more of a problem. Then it’s really up to the children and children-in-law to figure out how to be as inclusive as they can be and balance the needs of their parents and in-laws.
It’s up to spouses to figure out how to get their parents involved and how to support each other in doing that with their parents and vice versa. That’s part of the boundary issue, too. When the parents-in-law’s struggles bleed into the couple’s marriage, there are more problems and more eggshells to walk on.
Try to figure out how to get on the same page with your parenting philosophy. A lot of these issues become worse for children-in-law when they have kids. For example, however close I felt to my parents-in-law when I got married, I could figure out how to ignore them if something was happening that I did not like. When I had kids, though, it became much harder to navigate the grandparents if I didn’t approve of how or what they were teaching my children. So it’s trying to figure out how to balance that.
Another thing we found to be important is to work on finding things that you both enjoy doing and show respect for what your parents-in-law enjoy doing. I’m not expecting one to become a master chess player if they’ve never played chess before, but at least take an interest.
The third thing to think about is whether the friction has anything to do with jealousy. Be aware if there is some distance between you and your in-laws and try to reduce the jealousy.
The fourth point is to figure out with your spouse what role they are playing in this. Sons and daughters play a key role in the in-law dynamic, so be cognizant of that.
What was interesting was that some of these roles that we traditionally think are men’s and women’s roles still tend to be men’s and women’s roles. For example, women still tend to be more engaged in childcare and interested in the emotional life of the family than men. Second, the tropes around mothers-in-law are unfair. It’s important to reframe mothers-in-law and recognize that what is often seen as interference is instead love and concern and a reflection of the role that women play in the family. Third, and connected to the first, we found that men were not as engaged in the life of the family as women are. We wish that men were more involved, more engaged—not to push out the mother-in-law but to play more of an equal role. These ideas about how we’re socialized are still there. There have been fantastic changes in men’s and women’s roles all for the good, but we still have some distance to go.
Geoffrey Greif 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 PhD from the Columbia University School of Social Work. He’s written more than 135 journal articles and book chapters and has authored fourteen books on parenting issues, adult friendships, adult siblings, and in-law relationships.
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