Relating to adult children — 26 May 2013
Can a good relationship with in-laws endanger your marriage?

Newlyweds usually hope that through their union each of them is gaining an additional set of loving, supportive parents. They may be concerned that disharmony could affect their connection but rarely imagine that a good relationship with their in-laws may jeopardize their marriage.

Psychologist and Researcher Terri Orbuch of the University of Michigan 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 husband’s parents saw their risk of divorce rise by 20%.”

Since studies report findings – not causation, the interpretation of these data is left to the analysts. One hypothesis is that since traditionally the husband has been the designated provider, upon marriage he assumes this responsibility for his wife’s survival and wellbeing. In doing so, he absolves her parents from this responsibility. The bride’s parents’ gratitude to the groom facilitates a good relationship between them and strengthens the young couple’s union.

Conversely, when the young woman becomes close to her husband’s parents, her spouse may fear that the three of them are in collusion about sharing his failings and being united by their criticism of him. This assumption is threatening and demeaning enough to make the husband feel isolated and creates a distance between him and his wife. He may also view his wife’s closeness to his parents as a disloyal act of betrayal by his wife. This misperception may weaken the fibers of even a solid marriage.

When couples have difficulties, the man’s concern about his wife’s closeness to his mother is based upon the worry that the two most influential women in his life may be turning against him, attempting to change him or conspiring to run his life. For some men this assumption is a threat to their security and generates shame and ineptitude. That fear may weaken his affection for his wife. Assuming that his wife is betraying him may lead him to want to escape from his union.

When the relationship between the spouse and the in-laws is adversarial, it certainly strains the spouse’s allegiance to both and may cause irreparable tension in the marriage.

In ”Managing Your In-Laws”, Dr. Phil McGraw recommends, “If a wife has a problem with her mother-in-law, it’s the husband who needs to step in and help fix it. Likewise, if a husband doesn’t see eye-to-eye with his in-laws, his wife needs to step in. The person with the primary relationship (the son or daughter, not the in-law) needs to be the messenger.” 
The formula for solving distressed inter-generational difficulties is clearer than a one-sided positive one.


¨     Develop a positive, close relationship with your in-laws. It rewards you and them and secures a more solid marriage.


¨     Make clear to your husband that your close relationship with his parents is centered on your mutual respect, love, and admiration of him.





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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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