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In-Law Relationships

Relationships with in-laws are a special category within kinship systems that has not been widely studied. Generally, kin relationships are defined by either blood (consanguine) ties or marriage (affinal) ties. Blood relationships are bound together by genetic lines, but relationships based on marriage are bound together by law and a code of conduct that accompanies them. In-law relationships are unique in that they are defined through a third party by both a marriage and a blood relationship. Some anthropologists have argued that in-law relationships are important to societies, both past and present, because they represent an alliance between two groups of blood relations (Wolfram 1987). In these cultures, in-law relationships are clearly defined and circumscribed by explicit institutional arrangements and prescribed and proscribed behaviors (Goetting 1990). In Western ideology, however, the husband-wife marital bond is the central family tie and supersedes claims of the extended family. Despite agreement about the rules of membership, the codes of conduct associated with in-law relationships remain nebulous. The actual interactions and sentiments assigned to these relationships are subject to individuals' definitions (Goetting 1990). The few patterns that do exist and have been observed are restricted to relationships between parents-in-law and children-in-law. Other in-law relationships, such as that between sisters- or brothers-in-law, appear to be solely based on friendship or idiosyncratic relations (Finch 1989).

Very little research has been conducted on affective relationships between parents and children-in-law, but there is ample evidence in the popular culture of negative attitudes toward mothers-inlaw. These negative attitudes have also been documented in psychological studies wherein children report a perception of greater interpersonal distance and more negative attitudes toward mothersin-law than mothers (Denmark and Ahmed 1989). The problematic nature of the relationship is also underscored in studies of early years of marriage that focus on adjustment of in-laws and the influence of in-laws on the marital relationship.

The bulk of research on in-law relationships has focused on assistance and support patterns. These patterns reflect the distinctive feature of in-law relations, which is that they are generally conducted through and, in a sense, for the sake of a third party (Finch 1989). Children-in-law primarily receive support from parents-in-law as indirect beneficiaries of parental aid to married children. Hence, the primary patterns of contact and support between children-in-law and their parents-in-law reflect customary patterns of parent-child relationships.

Studies demonstrate that over the life cycle, aid between parents and children tends to be unidirectional, from parents to children, and that parental aid is most concentrated in the early years of children's marriages and decreases over time (Goetting 1990). Although financial aid most often begins and is concentrated in early years of marriage, aid in the form of services reaches a peak during preschool years of grandchildren. Both gender and class differences have been observed in provision of parental aid (Adams 1964). The wife's parents tend to be a source of greater aid in In Western cultures, in-law relationships are subject to voluntary definitions and individual interpretations. Stud ies of the early years of marriage have shown the problem atic nature of these relationships. ELKE HESSER/CORBIS terms of service, while sons' parents tend to provide financial aid. More frequent financial help is given to middle-class than to working-class children and children-in-law. Working-class parents, when they live close by, give what they can in terms of services.

The presence of grandchildren also appears to influence in-law relationships. The birth of the first child has been reported to transform the mother-in-law–daughter-in-law relationship into one involving significant support patterns. Lucy Fischer (1983) notes that daughters with preschool children needed and received more help from both mothers and mothers-in-law. Mothers-in-law were more likely to give things, whereas mothers were more likely to do things. Daughters-in-law tended to seek help and advice more frequently from their mothers than from their mothers-in-law and were more likely to express ambivalence about help from their mothers-in-law.

Just as there is little evidence of direct support from parents-in-law to their children-in-law, so research is consistent in demonstrating that children-in-law make a minimal direct contribution to the care of their elderly parents-in-law. The flow of support for in-laws from the child generation to the parent generation is indirect and reflects patterns of gender differences associated with parental care. Parents are more likely to turn to daughters and, thereby, sons-in-law for help than to sons and daughters-in-law. However, help to the elderly, which does not usually entail financial support, is more restricted to services and help with household tasks and personal care (Powers and Kivett 1992; Schorr 1980). This type of support is primarily performed by daughters, not sons or sons-in-law.

Although daughters are the preferred caregivers for elderly parents, geographic proximity also influences parental care. When daughters are not available or geographically close, parents turn to sons and daughters-in-law for help when there is illness (Powers and Kivett 1992). In these situations, daughters-in-law often provide more direct service than their husbands, reflecting women's role as kin keepers (Finch 1989). In the hierarchy of sources of support for the elderly, daughters-inlaw take precedence over sons (Schorr 1980). Moreover, children-in-law are often more functional in the kin network than are consanguine kin who are more distantly related, such as grandchildren or siblings (Kivett 1985). There is some evidence, however, that caring for mothers-in-law is perceived as more stressful and requiring more tasks than caring for a mother (Steinmetz 1988).

Support for parents-in-law can also take place in the form of coresidence. Again, the stronger kinship tie of women appears to dictate a greater number of mothers living with daughters and sonsin-law than with sons and daughters-in-law. Social class also has been observed to be associated with different patterns of support. There is a greater flow of financial aid from middle-class children to parents and parents-in-law than is true of working-class families, but a greater flow of service and coresidence exists among the working class.

The requirement of a third party as a defining factor for an in-law relationship makes these relationships uniquely vulnerable to dissolution when the marriage of the third party is dissolved by divorce or death. Along with gender differences, the presence or absence of children from the dissolved marriage appears to influence the continuance of in-law-relationships. Once a marriage has produced offspring, in-laws become affinal relatives who are defined not only by the order of law but also by their recognition of a biological link to the child. Hence, when the legal basis of the relationship is dissolved, there remains a relationship based on a common biological link ( Johnson 1989). It is this tie, combined with the tendency in Western culture for mothers rather than fathers to retain custody of the children after a divorce, that appears to influence in-law relationships after divorce. Overall, divorce decreases in-law contact and support to various degrees. The extent of these decreases differs by gender and the presence or absence of grandchildren. There is greater interaction and support given between divorced women and their former in-laws than is true for men (Goetting 1990; Johnson 1989). It has been suggested that this greater contact may be motivated by the desire of grandparents to maintain access to grandchildren. Maternal grandparents have less contact with ex-sons-in-law than do paternal grandparents with ex-daughters-in-law, and the extent of contact between the paternal grandparents and ex-daughters-in-law tends to diminish over time as grandchildren grow and their needs diminish ( Johnson 1989).

In-law relationships are perhaps the kin relationships most subject to voluntary definitions and individual interpretations. Most often, "in-laws serve as a reservoir of supplemental resources to be tapped as social norms dictate and practicalities allow" (Goetting 1990, p. 86). It must be underscored, however, that research focused on in-law relationships has been limited, and the patterns reported here apply mainly to mainstream U.S. culture. Although researchers have observed and reported variation by social class, they have virtually ignored other demographic factors, such as ethnicity and regional residence.


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Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaRelatives & Extended Family