In the “crazy-in-love” days of dating through the honeymoon period, most people don’t give much thought to the impact that their spouse’s parents can have on the marriage. The truth is though, with all other things being equal, in-laws can make or break a marriage. More specifically, the husband or wife’s relationship with their in-laws and whether or not the in-laws support the marriage are very important factors in marital satisfaction and stability. These truths have been supported in research by sociologists and marital experts. So in-laws have much more to offer than comedic relief in “Everybody Loves Raymond” or being the butt of good jokes, like this one:
A couple drove several miles down a country road, not saying a word. An earlier discussion had led to an argument, and neither wanted to concede their position. As they passed a barnyard of mules and pigs, the wife sarcastically jabbed, “Relatives of yours?” “Yep,” the husband replied, “In-laws.”
In my private practice, many couples who come for marital therapy eventually identify in-laws as a major influence – usually a negative one since they are in counseling. I have seen couples with twenty years of marriage head towards divorce because the wife never felt accepted by her in-laws. The influence of in-laws is felt most intensely during life-stage transitions, such as the engagement and wedding, geographic moves and career changes, and the transition to parenthood. Common problems that I have seen with in-law relationships have to do with acceptance, power/control, and loyalty. I have seen that these problems can come from either the parents-in-law, or the son/daughter-in-law. Sometimes they come from both sides.
As Susan Forward points out in her book “Toxic In-Laws”, we don’t just marry our spouse, we marry into their family as well. Acceptance can become a problem the moment a fiancé meets his future in-laws (remember the movie “Meet the Parents”?). Out of a desire to gain their acceptance, and because he love his fiancé, he’ll try very hard to gain the approval of his future in-laws. For some, these efforts are met with repeated rejection. This doesn’t bode well for the marriage.
Power and control often becomes a problem when healthy boundaries in marriage are not maintained. When an adult daughter allows her parents to have more influence in her home than her husband has, that’s a big problem. Misplaced or unhealthy loyalty can easily create havoc for the marriage as well. For instance, a fast and easy way for a mother to be considered “evil” by a daughter-in-law is to demand that her son remain loyal to her over his wife. Loyalty also becomes a problem when parents always take sides with their married child who is having a conflict with his or her spouse.
Raymond’s mother and father (Marie and Frank Barone) in the sit-com “Everybody Loves Raymond” are great examples of all three of the aforementioned problem areas. Marie constantly expresses to Ray’s wife Debra how she just doesn’t measure up. Both Marie and Frank step in uninvited and try to run Ray’s life, and Marie always takes Ray’s side if Ray and Debra have a conflict. In-laws that are critical, over-involved, controlling, and manipulative are defined by Susan Forward, PhD, as “toxic” to a marriage.
Because the in-law relationship is so important to marital success, I have some words of advice for married couples and for parents-in-law. For married couples, it is very important that you keep your marriage relationship as THE priority relationship here on earth. You must set boundaries around your marriage so that you and your spouse have the most influence on your own marriage. Recognize and allow in-laws to maintain a healthy connection with your family – don’t shut them out when they desire healthy relationships. You must be able to protect and support your spouse from overly critical or demanding in-laws. When it comes down to the bottom line, loyalty to your spouse will help your marriage succeed and loyalty to your parents OVER your spouse will help your marriage fail.
For those of you who are parents of married children, and for the rest of us who have children that will marry in the future, please heed these recommendations. Respect the sanctity of marriage. Once your child is married, you have to step back and allow them the freedom and the responsibility of making their own decisions. It is very important that you support the marriage, accept the spouse, and relinquish control over your child’s life. Offer your support in whatever form you can, and accept the possibility that your offer may be declined. Most of all, work hard to not get in the way of your child’s marital success. Stand beside them and lead them as they work towards stability and satisfaction in married life.