The tensions that fan tricky in-law relationships

The tensions that fan tricky in-law relationships

Holiday flashpoints

While the mother-in-law to daughter-in-law link is surely the most complex, all in-law relationships come under tension as couples move through life together. The most frequent intra-familial flashpoints are religious celebrations and holidays. “If both sets of in-laws are adamant that you’re all going to theirs for Christmas, you’re going to have a problem,” says Martin Daly, a professor of psychology, neuroscience and behaviour at McMaster University, Canada and co-author of In-Law Relationships in Evolutionary Perspective. “Occasions like Christmas are a major point of conflict, because it’s where people are expected to be together.” 

Thrown together for an extended period of time, without sufficient room for autonomous behaviours, families come up against the phenomenon of ‘hypercopresence,’ which can happen with any interaction involving forced closeness – holiday gatherings included. Melanie Booth-Butterfield, a professor of communication studies at West Virginia University, US, who is writing a book on the topic, says that the negative effects can be long-lasting. “Hypercopresence can result in conflicts with relatives, angry words that cannot be taken back, and cold, rude nonverbal behaviours which leave lasting impressions,” she explains. 

Plus, holidays are when families carry out much-anticipated traditions and rituals, which research shows makes them feel closer and increases people’s enjoyment of these occasions. However, each family’s traditions might be different – and when in-laws diverge from our beloved rituals and traditions (or vice versa), tensions can flare. 

There are other common points of conflict, says Perry, including potentially different opinions on how much time, including holidays, that you spend together, how children are raised, how money is spent, whether money is borrowed and so on. Indeed, a 2016 survey by digital lifestyle brand Fatherly showed that of those couples who do argue with their in-laws, 29% said it was about parenting style, followed by 15% who brought up politics, 14% said money and 4% said their in-laws needled them about career success. 

More space, less tension 

Perry believes that building positive in-law relations can depend on how much people rely on extended families as they move through life. Tensions may occur when couples can’t afford to live independently, grandparents shoulder more childcare responsibilities and adults take on the care of their parents as they age. “If social constraints and financial shortfall mean that people need to care for each other more, and spend more time in each other’s business, the conflict may increase,” says Perry. 

But these days, it’s becoming more common for couples to operate as solitary units, moving further away from a larger familial network, and staying in touch on their own terms. “If couples can be independent and flexible, not beholden to in-laws and extended families, they can pick and choose when they ask for help, [then] the window of opportunity for conflict is smaller,” says Perry. 

And while some people may struggle with in-law relationships, it’s also clear that people can also build positive, rewarding ties. A survey of American women conducted in 2021 found that 51% of daughters-in-law are satisfied or very satisfied with the relationship with their mother-in-law, while three quarters of mothers-in-law are satisfied or very satisfied with the relationship with their daughter-in-law. 

So where does that leave us? These days, it’s certainly possible that some of the foundational areas of conflict with in-laws might be reduced, due to the different ways we live today. But the stereotypes do contain a grain of truth, as there are inherent aspects of these relationships that could serve to make them fraught. Usually, though, they aren’t as extreme as the ones we see on television. 

Moreover, people go through countless changes through in life, and there are just as many opportunities to reframe in-law relationships – even during the holidays. After all, you have one irrefutable attachment in common. As Daly points out, people related by marriage often derive solidarity from the fact they care deeply about the wellbeing of the same person.

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