Academics and Research / Magazine Feature

DU research shows in-law relationships impact marital happiness

With the holidays approaching, some people might be trying to figure out how to avoid their in-laws. Six years of research at the University of Denver suggests that is a bad idea.

Mary Claire Morr Serewicz, associate professor in Human Communication Studies, has studied the relationship between newlyweds and their in-laws extensively.

“I think people can downplay in-law relationships,” Morr Serewicz says. “But the quality of their satisfaction with their in-laws is directly connected to their marital satisfaction.”

Morr Serewicz says the most important thing couples can do is realize the seriousness of these relationships. In her most recent research, published in the Journal of Family Communication (2008, issue 4), she proposes a triangular theory to point out the priority in-laws have in making marriage satisfying. The theory basically states that a couple isn’t alone in a marriage — the in-laws are part of the relationship, too.

It’s with that knowledge that she passes on this advice. First, the most positive impact a parent-in-law can have on their child’s marriage is to express their acceptance of the new child-in-law.

“When people hear that their in-laws are glad they’re in the family or that they love them, it has a positive impact on the marriage,” she says. “But they should only express this if it is truly genuine.”

Conversely, the most negative thing parents-in-law can do is slander or gossip about other family members.

“When family members criticize or gossip about another family member, it might make the new child-in-law feel included in the family, but it also makes the person wonder what is said when they aren’t in the room,” she says. “It almost always has a negative impact on the relationship.”

Finally, Morr Serewicz says the decision to end a relationship with an in-law should only be done in the most serious situations. While there are times it is appropriate, it should be considered carefully because it will strain the marriage.

“These relationships are very important,” she says. “The less frequently someone sees their in-laws, the more important each interaction is. Making an effort by inviting the in-laws over and enjoying holiday celebrations with them can strengthen the family and the marriage.”

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