Communication Currents

Communicating with In-laws: Reframing and Accepting Change

February 1, 2008
Interpersonal Communication

Just the mention of the word mother-in-law by a comedian brings laughter and groans from an audience. Movies and TV sitcoms poke fun at mothers-in-law—and everybody has heard an in-law horror story. In many families, communication between in-laws and other family members are sources of tension, especially with newlywed couples.

Jokes and horror stories often focus on the mother-in-law as problematic, overlooking the fact that the entire family, including siblings-in-law and fathers-in-law, have to get used to the newcomer. Carolyn Prentice's study explores how family members as a group use communication to assimilate the newcomer in-law and how the newcomer changes the communication within the family. Parents of newlywed children, the newlyweds themselves, and some of their unmarried brothers and sisters were eager to talk about their in-laws.

Families have routines of communicating that give them a sense of security. Most interviewees reported that the newcomer in-laws disrupt the family routines in some way because they bring changes in the way families communicate. Rarely do families directly talk about these routines; instead, family members assume that the newcomer will learn the family routines best if the family just continues in the manner they have always communicated. And in fact that strategy works well much of the time. Parents-in-law reported that they acted like they always did and the new in-law became "one of the kids." Similarly many newlyweds reported that the most wonderful part of joining the new family was that they were treated "just like family."

Despite positive relationships, all participants eventually encountered some communication routine with their in-laws that they didn't like or they didn't understand. In order to avoid direct conflict over these differences, they practiced indirect communication with in-laws, especially when these difficulties were between children-in-law and parents-in-law. For example, participants described how they negotiated how much time to spend with their two families during the holidays. In this practice, parents-in-law communicated directly with their children, who then interpreted the family routines to their spouses and reported back to their parents. This indirect route of communication kept open conflicts from occurring between parents and the new spouse, which reduced in-law confrontations. At the same time, this type of communication put a lot strain on the individual in the middle. A consequence of this indirect communication was that if in-laws rarely spoke directly with one another, they did not get to know each other or feel comfortable together. Thus, by having this indirect communication to avoid conflict, families actually made the new in-laws feel like outsiders—a feeling that could persist for years.

Across the interviews, here are some of the communication routines that participants identified as troublesome:

1. Expected amount of interaction: Some newlyweds expected to spend their holiday and vacation time with friends or just as a couple, while their spouses' families wanted the couple to attend family get-togethers. For example, one woman who had been fairly independent of her parents was surprised at how much time her husband thought was appropriate to spend with his family. She was even more surprised when her own mother expressed jealousy over the time the couple spent with the husband's family. One mother told how it bothered her that her daughter lived next door to the son-in-law's parents, and thus spent more time with his parents. All participants commented on the delicacies of negotiating how much time to spend with each family.

2. Use of humor: Some families joke more than others, and their jokes may be perceived as mean or inappropriate. Conversely, the family may be very serious and never joke—or perhaps only in a dry or intellectual manner. For example, one husband at first was offended by the sarcasm in his wife's family, but he began to understand when his wife explained that it was a sign that her family accepted him. The wife, in turn, felt uncomfortable with the husband's family because they never joked and instead used very caring, supportive language, which seemed insincere to her. Sometimes the newcomers tried to change communication with their in-laws and lighten up family interactions by introducing more humor—and usually this was welcomed.

3. Conversational style: Smaller families tend to engage in single group conversation without interruptions. For larger families, the conversation may be free-wheeling and fragmented among a number of conversational partners. Two women who came from small families spoke of how overwhelmed and shy they felt in their husbands' families that usually numbered 20 or more during their frequent gatherings. In contrast, their husbands felt uncomfortable with their wives' small family get-togethers, where a private conversation that didn't include the whole group was considered rude. Even one-on-one conversations between in-laws can be problematic because some people are uncomfortable with silences in the conversation and thus do too much talking, or one person self-reveals more than the other is comfortable with. For example, one woman reported that she didn't feel close to her daughter-in-law because their conversations focused on trivial topics instead of the deep self-reflective conversation that the mother-in-law wanted.

What makes these issues problematic for in-laws is that the troublesome people are new members of your family who are loved by someone you love, and with whom you expect to have a long-term relationship. The problem with negotiating these routines is that families usually like their routines, don't want to change them, and have difficulty talking about them. Parents-in-law associate change with the new spouse, and therefore the newcomer is cast as problematic because he or she has brought change to the family.

Bringing a new member into the family also changed communication among adult children. Siblings-in-law usually welcomed these changes. The spouses of their siblings had different opinions and often treated the siblings-in-law like adults instead of children. Thus, the newcomer was welcomed as an agent of change who helped the family-of-childhood to evolve into the family-of-adulthood. The siblings turned to their siblings-in-law for new advice, help, and respect, which changed the communication routines in the family.

Many interviewees reported that they had merged their in-law families. In other words, the parents (and sometimes other family members) of a son- or daughter-in-law were invited to family get-togethers as a way to reduce the problem of the couple dividing time between families. All of the participants who reported this practice found it a useful and refreshing addition to their family routines, which also helped them to understand the differences in family dynamics.

To have good relationships with our in-laws we might reframe the issue in terms of communication routines. In-laws aren't necessarily troublesome people—they just communicate in a different way. No matter how demographically similar families might be, they are different; and no matter how much we may want them to stay the same, families change. In order to have a peaceful and productive transition when a family member marries, we should examine our differences in how we communicate and be willing to make some adjustments to make the newcomer feel comfortable in our changed and changing family.