In-laws can help -- or hurt -- your marriage

In-law ties can be very stressful for women, according to the author of a new long-term study.

Story highlights

  • Your relationship with your in-laws can affect your own relationship
  • A new study shows it may affect your odds of staying together over the long haul
  • Being a daughter-in-law can be trickier than a son-in-law
  • Get to know your in-laws, but don't be afraid to set boundaries
The holidays are a time to celebrate our relationships, but they can also be fraught with anxiety and dread -- especially when it comes to spending time with extended family.
Whether you adore your partner's parents or barely tolerate your in-laws, your rapport with them can have lasting effects on your own romantic relationship. In fact, according to new research, it could even predict your odds of staying together over the long haul.
For the study, which will be published in a future issue of the journal Family Relations, Terri Orbuch, a psychologist and research professor at the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research and author of "Finding Love Again," followed 373 couples who were newlyweds in 1986. She asked the men and women to rate how close they felt to their in-laws, on a scale of one to four, and then tracked their relationships over time.
After 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%.
It makes sense. A lot of men (myself included) look forward to the idea of gaining a new family when they get married. It's a chance to have a "mom" and "dad" without many of the entanglements that they have with their own parents: They can enjoy a ballgame or a home-cooked meal without feeling judged or hassled.
Ian Kerner
Plus, guys are less likely to worry that their in-laws are interfering in their relationship. Men tend to identify as a provider first and a father and husband second, so they don't find their in-laws' input particularly threatening, Orbuch says.
"Close in-law ties between a husband and his wife's parents are reinforcing to women and connect him to her," she 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."
Being a daughter-in-law can be much trickier. On one hand, a woman may be more likely to form a bond with a man's parents when she wants to change something about him or get him to agree with her about an aspect of child-rearing -- essentially, trying to get his parents on her "side." This closeness can result in a unified front against the husband and, as you might imagine, is apt to infuriate him.