Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

The Influence of In-Laws on Change in Marital Success

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

The Influence of In-Laws on Change in Marital Success

Article excerpt

This study prospectively examines the association between discord with in-laws and the long-term relationship success of husbands and wives who had been married for an average of almost 2 decades. We hypothesized that the quality of spouses' relationships with their parents-in-law would predict spouses' marital success. In addition, this study underscores the causal role of in-laws by examining the influence of marital success on relationships with in-laws. For wives, discord with mothers- and fathers-in-law predicted own perceptions of marital success at a later time period. Results were slightly different for husbands' discord with fathers-in-law. The reverse (marital success predicting less discord with in-laws) was only true for husbands. The study also explored the influence of spouses' discord with in-laws on partners' perceptions of marital success. These are among the first prospective, longitudinal,findings demonstrating that, even in long-term marriages, conflicts in extended family relations will erode marital stability, satisfaction, and commitment over time.

Key Words: in-laws, marital success, networks, social support.

Earlier research and theory suggests that couples function within a social context, susceptible to the influences and pressures of members of their social networks (Boissevain, 1974; Lewis, 1973; Milardo & Lewis, 1985; Ridley & Avery, 1979). Because of their likely importance for each spouse, these social influences may affect the quality and course of marital relationships. The primary goal of our study is to examine the connection between social network influence, particularly the influence of in-laws, and marital success among people involved in long-term marriages. Most previous research examines this connection using (a) cross-sectional data, (b) samples in which many of the spouses are in their early years of marriage, (c) spouses undergoing marital counseling or therapy, or (d) only mothers-in-law. In contrast, our study (a) is longitudinal in nature, covering a 4-year time span; (b) focuses on longterm married couples (the average length is nearly 20 years); (c) gathers data from a nonclinical sample; and (d) examines how both mothers- and fathers-in-law influence husbands and wives.

Although social networks generally can affect the quality of marital ties (see Bryant & Conger, 1999), there is reason to believe that in-laws in particular are significant members of spouses' social networks because they are able to influence spouses in at least two notable ways. First, spouses are obligated to form familial bonds with these nonblood kin (Apter, 1986; Goetting, 1990; Jackson & Berg-Cross, 1988; Silverstein, 1990). As some researchers have noted, "rarely is this forced relationship a natural match of kindred spirits" (Berg-Cross, 1997, p. 177). Second, in-laws can create hostility and stress between spouses who have emotional and psychological loyalties to their own kin (Apter; Berg-Cross; BoszormenyiNagy & Krasner, 1986; Boszormenyi-Nagy & Spark, 1973; Globerman, 1996; Horsley, 1997; Serovich & Price, 1994). Thus, it is not surprising to find that a great deal of the family and couple therapy literature cites in-laws as a significant source of stress in couples' relationships (Chasin, Grunebaum, & Herzig, 1990; Goldberg, 1987; Horsley; James, 1989; Livsey, 1981).

These differential emotional ties (to family of origin vs. in-laws) were addressed by Jorgenson (1994), whose study participants considered their nuclear family of origin sacred-so sacred that they found it difficult to refer to their parents-inlaw as mothers or fathers. In other words, "the exclusiveness of the relationship to their own mothers and fathers was an overriding principle which inhibited the use of kin terms toward parents-in-law" (Jorgenson, p. 201). It seems that some spouses never feel truly comfortable with their in-laws (Globerman, 1996).

For that reason, in-law relationships often are described as ambiguous, and this ambiguity stems from married couples essentially belonging to three different families: the new family of procreation-that is, the family that the couple began together-in addition to both partners' families of origin. …

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