The mother-in law to daughter-in laws link is undoubtedly the most complicated, but all in-law relationships can be strained as the couple moves through their lives together. Religious holidays and religious celebrations are the most common intra-familial tension points. “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 is a West Virginia University professor of communication studies. She is currently writing a book about the subject. “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.
Perry says there are many common points of conflict. These include disagreements about how much time you spend together, holidays included, raising children, money spent, borrowing money, and other topics. A Fatherly survey in 2016 found that 29% of couples argue with their inlaws about parenting style. 15% brought up politics. 14% raised money, and 4% claimed their in-laws scolded them about their career success.
More space, less tension
Perry believes that positive in-law relationships can be built by how many people rely on extended family members as they go through their lives. 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. In a survey of American women, 51% of daughters in law were satisfied or very satisfied about their relationship with their mother. Three quarters of mothers-inlaw are happy or very satisfied about their relationship with their daughter.
So what does this leave us with? 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. The stereotypes are true, but there are some inherent issues that can make these relationships 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. You have one unbreakable bond in common. Daly points out that people who are married often feel solidarity because they care about the well-being of their spouse.