In-laws can boost or break your marriage

This may come as no surprise to some people: new research has shown a link between how you get a long with your in-laws and chances for divorce. University of Michigan researcher Terri Orbuch began the study in 1986 when she recruited 373 newlywed couples. She had each spouse rate his and her “closeness” with the in-laws and then followed the couples for the next 26 years.

Orbuch found that when a man reported having a close relationship with his wife’s parents, the couple’s risk of divorce decreased by 20%. Yet women who said they had a close relationship with their husbands’ parents saw their risk of divorce rise by 20%.

These finding may seem counter intuitive – family closeness , when harmonious, should increase marital stability! Yet Orbuch says the results make sense because of the different ways in which men and women process intimate relationships.

Men are less inclined to worry that in-laws are interfering in their marriage since being a husband, father, or homemaker is not often their primary identity. In fact, “close in-law ties between a husband and his wife’s parents are reinforcing to women and connect him to her,” Orbuch said. “When a husband gets close to his wife’s parents, this says to her: ‘Your family is important to me because I care about you. I want to feel closer to them because it makes me feel closer to you.’ And of course, that makes us as women feel really good.”

Since women tend to identify more strongly with their marriage and home life, they tend to be more sensitive to perceptions of “meddling” from their parents-in-law. The closer the in-laws are, the more chances that “meddling” interactions occurring. Women may also turn to in-laws in efforts to change their spouses and get his parents “on her side.” This type of closeness is not a recipe for marital happiness!

In general, Orbuch found in-law ties to be very stressful for women.

“If women are close to their in-laws, especially early in marriage, this interferes with or prevents them from in-lawsforming a unified and strong bond with their husband,” she said. “Also, since women are constantly analyzing and trying to improve their relationships, they often take what their in-laws say as personal and can’t set the clear boundaries.

These results are food for thought for any newlywed couple, and at the same time are problematic. Firstly, the reports of the research do not include how Orbuch defines a “close” relationship. Is this closeness by choice? Is it a sense of solidarity? Is it a genuine friendship? Can a “close” relationship be an unpleasant one? And how exactly, does discord between spouses and their in-laws lead to divorce? (there are normally widespread sources of distress that break up a marriage). The questions I have may be addressed in the paper itself, which will be published in journal Family Relations this year. I am eager to hear how Orbunch breaks down the other subtleties of couple and in-law relations.

Here is some advice on in-laws and marital happiness:

Get to know them – Husbands, if your wife has a good relationship with her parents, take the time to get to know them. She will feel doubly appreciated if you show you care about the people she cares about.

Maintain boundaries – Wives, refrain from talking about marriage problems or your husband’s attributes with his parents (or anyone besides a therapist, for that matter). Conversely, don’t bad mouth your in-laws to your husband, even if he does. If you feel smothered by your in-laws, set rules to give yourself distance. See our post on dealing with difficult relatives.

Put your relationship first – You married your spouse, not his parents! Stand up for your spouse if your parents attack her and take her complaints seriously. Defend your marriage against all outside threats – even your parents.

For the in-laws – Resist the attempt to give your daughter-in-law marriage, home, or parenting advice. There is very little chance that she will take it well, no matter how good your intentions are. And, in the end, it is not your marriage. Do make an effort to befriend your son-in-law!