Christy Matta M.A. is a trainer, consultant and writer. She is the author of “The Stress Response: How Dialectical Behavior Therapy Can Free
When you get married, you do so with all sorts of expectations. Those expectations might involve an array of small and large issues, such as who is going to empty the dishwasher, where will you vacation, how you will manage your finances or communicate differences and whether you will have children.
Often, when we’re dating and planning for marriage, we pay little attention to impact our future in-laws may have on our marriage.
But in a recent study reported on in The Wall Street Journal, our relationship with our in-laws is linked to whether a marriage will last. And the link may not be what you’d expect.
In a study, following couples over time for 26 years, Terri Orbuch, a psychologist at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research, collected data on ties between in-laws and a husband and wife. She found that feeling close to our in-laws made a difference in whether a couple remained married, but in different ways for men and women.
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Men who initially reported that they were close to their wife’s parents had a lower risk of divorce over the next 16 years than men who didn’t report closeness with their in-laws. These couples were 20 percent less likely to divorce than the group overall.
In contrast, when a woman initially reported being close to her husbands parents, the impact on her marriage appeared to be the opposite. Closeness between women and their in-laws increased the risk of divorce. In the study, these couples had a 20 percent higher likelihood of divorce.
So why the difference? Orbach suggests that when a man is close to his in-laws, his wife sees it as an extension of his desire to be close to her. It’s as if he is saying “I want to be closer to them because it makes me feel closer to you.”
But, Orbach suggests a wife experiences her relationships differently than a husband. According to Orbach, being a wife and mother is central to a woman’s identity. Because of this “they interpret what their in-laws say and do as interference into their identity as a spouse and parent,” says Orbach.
Men, on the other hand, don’t tend to take what their in-laws do so personally.
Although this study found that closeness between women and their in-laws to be connected to higher divorce rates, Orbach doesn’t suggest that women go to extremes in distancing themselves from their husband’s parents. She does suggest that wives maintain an awareness of boundaries between themselves and their in-laws by being cautious when sharing personal issues, details about their marriage and parenting decisions. She suggests women communicate their desire to be close and loving with their in-laws, but to know when to set limits.
The couples followed in this study married in 1986. It was a time when many women worked outside the home, but the current study doesn’t discuss whether work or other factors had an impact on a woman’s perceptions of her identity and her relationship to her in-laws or whether those perceptions influenced divorce rates.
What we perceive as close also varies from person to person and with cultural differences. Cultures vary greatly in their expectations of family relationships and family ties.
This study doesn’t allow us to fully understand the complexities that impact marriage and extended family relationships. However it does shed light on differences between men and women and how their experience of their connection with their in-laws may be different.
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