“You must be wondering, what kind of family am I getting married to?”
– Geoffrey Greif, co-author of “Relations between parents-in-law: mothers, daughters, fathers and sons”.
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Spouses aren’t the only result of the two million marriages concluded each year in the United States – step-parents are made, too. But unlike spouses who (hopefully) decide together how their marriage works, in-laws usually have no say in what their new roles will involve. They are pushed together, invited to navigate the most intimate moments of life – birth, divorce, aging, illness and death – without ever having discussed the length of time too long to sit on the foldout couch.
Mothers-in-law in particular have an uphill battle. Not only do they catch the heat of negative cultural stereotypes, but they are constantly vilified and the butt of countless jokes, which stepfathers are not.
But we don’t need to despair, says Geoffrey Greif, professor in the Faculty of Social Work at the University of Maryland and co-author of the new book “In-Law Relationships: Mothers, Daughters, Fathers and Sons”.
After conducting 1,500 interviews with in-laws, Dr. Greif found that not all in-laws relationships are passive and aggressive. Many of the in-laws he studied were incredibly affectionate, while others were distant, strained, or barely there. But the majority, Dr Greif said, were “achievable and satisfactory”.
While “achievable and satisfying” isn’t really overwhelming, Dr Greif thinks it’s a good place to start building something stronger.
It’s a bit like that, he explains: it was only when the “Mona Lisa” was stolen from the Louvre in 1911 that it gained – due to its new context – more awareness and public appreciation than she had ever had before. “A spotlight has been put on it,” said Dr Greif. “Like that, we want people to become more aware of their relationships in the .
With the holidays upon us, in a year like no other, now is a good time to take a closer look at these often overlooked but very important relationships.
My conversation with Dr Greif has been edited for length and clarity.
How have relationships between in-laws evolved over time?
A hundred years ago, parents would have a better idea of who their children were getting married to because they mostly met people in their community. Also, compared to pre-industrial societies where you chose people for their strong backs or for their fertility, we now have a greater belief that their emotions are important: we are more likely to choose a spouse we like and someone. one that is not as influenced. by in-laws. So there is now a steeper learning curve between in-laws and in-laws, but there is also less dependency on in-laws than there used to be. which means the relationship is not as intense.
You often mention the relationship between in-laws as ambiguous in your new book. Explain.
We live in a society where the roles of in-laws are less clearly defined. The advantage is that people are more able to define themselves than ever before, but stepping out of prescribed roles can also be awkward. When one does not know how to act in relation to each other, it can lead to greater anxiety.
What can we do to avoid this discomfort? Should everyone sit down before the wedding and discuss their expectations?
The answer will vary greatly from family to family. Some families are comfortable with a more open form of communication than others. You must be wondering, what kind of family do I get married to?
In heterosexual couples, the husband also plays a key role in signaling to his wife the best ways to communicate with his family. He can also talk to his mother about how to approach his wife. It is the third part of the triangle and must be thought about.
In popular culture, accounts are not kind to the stepmother, portraying her as interfering and intrusive. Is it harmful even if it is done in a light way?
A lot of the mother-in-law we have spoken to are very afraid of this trope and of ending up like this. We believe reframing is needed – instead of ‘interfering’ we should try to see them as ‘concerned’ and ‘loving’.
But women also occupy a much more important place than men in the families we interviewed. If you are more central, you are more likely to pass off to interfere.
Why is that?
Greater centrality means greater contact and more interactions, sometimes around more interpersonal issues.
So just by being more engaged there is a higher chance of causing friction. Does the relationship between a son-in-law and a stepfather tend to have a different dynamic?
Men have been socialized not to be so expressive physically or emotionally with each other. I paint men with a large brush; there are incredible individual differences. But men tend to deal with more concrete things, like talking about work, sports, or doing tasks together. This means that they can avoid some of the pitfalls that occur in the more gray areas around emotions.
Historically, women have interacted in these more difficult areas, these more gray areas, like: How do I keep the house? Am I raising children well? There is therefore more ambiguity for them to navigate than for men.
So while there is more potential for conflict for women, there also appears to be more potential for proximity.
When we asked stepchildren if they were closer to their stepfather or stepmother, the vast majority were closer to their stepmother. Also, if you have a series of questions and the answers are on a 5 point scale – strongly agree, agree, neutral, disagree, strongly disagree – men tend to choose all three. midpoints, but many women have come to extremes. They have stronger feelings about these relationships.
In your research, you also confirm what many have suspected – that many stepmothers believe they have to walk on eggshells around their stepdaughters. Why?
There are things at stake that are very important to the mother-in-law. She wants to stay in touch with her child. She also wishes to have access to the grandchildren and, again, in the majority of families, this access goes through the daughter-in-law. At the same time, she often doesn’t know what role she is supposed to play. For example, she may know that her stepdaughter is close to her own mother, so she may be wondering where and how she fits.
The is much at stake to get along.
Yes, the stakes are high and there are a number of things that can be done. On the one hand, all in-laws need to look more at what they have in common and minimize disagreements. One of the messages of the book is in fact that most of these relationships are job.
Yes, in-law relationships seem to be more positive than popular perception suggests, even though there is an underlying tension.
In a mature relationship, you accept ambiguity and ambivalence. Very few relationships are perfect. You say, this is who my son married or he is the parent of my spouse, and I need to focus on what works. To quote Ruth Bader Ginsburg about her marital relationship, “You have to be a little deaf.”
Tips from in-laws in your book for maintaining a positive relationship include variations on “bite your tongue” and “keep your mouth shut”. Is this good advice?
Communication with a family member, especially a brother-in-law, should not be free unless both parties come from families where this type of communication is encouraged and valued. Advice can be perceived as criticism if it is not carefully crafted and if it is not requested.
What surprised you the most about your research?
I was surprised that these issues concerning men and women are still there. I knew they were there, but still, it continues. If I had written the book 20 years ago, I think the results would have been similar. It’s not what I was looking for, but often you don’t find what you wanted the company to be, but you find what the company is. I would like men to mobilize and feel more comfortable being more at the center of the family.
The holidays are a festive time, but also difficult for families to negotiate where and how to celebrate. This year, there’s an added layer of stress as family members decide what to do – or not to do – during a pandemic. Often, both sides (or more) disagree on what is right. How should they navigate it?
Families need to let go of the idea that everything must be fair because you can’t treat everyone the same this year. It is a matter of love and comfort. Frame your decision with love and communicate that, We decided to do it this way because of our love for you, not our lack of love for you.
What impact could the coronavirus pandemic have on the relations between the in-laws? Could there be a way out-makes-the-heart-grow-more loving?
Tense and distant relationships are unlikely to improve significantly, but distant and unstrained relationships – in other words, not particularly close or problematic – can change as family members gain a new appreciation, maybe existential, for each other and the importance of staying more connected in the future.
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