The Outsized Power Of The Son-In Law

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If the past weekend ensnared you in a complex web of family dynamics, drama and relationship stress, you're not alone.

But, according to a fascinating story in The Wall Street Journal by Elizabeth Bernstein, the specifics of those family dynamics are meaningful. Indeed, the relative strength of certain family bonds may be a factor in determining whether your own marriage remains intact, she writes, and the role of the son-in-law (of all people) appears to be particularly important:

One finding of a 26-year longitudinal study of married couples is that marriages in which the husband reports feeling close to his in-laws are more likely to last for the long haul. "These ties connect the husband to the wife," says Terri Orbuch, a psychologist and research professor at the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research. "They say, 'Your family relationships are important to me because you are important to me. I want to feel closer to them because it makes me feel closer to you.'"

New research examines the powerful relationship between married couples and their in-laws. (Photo: Epiclectic/flickr)
New research examines the powerful relationship between married couples and their in-laws. (Photo: Epiclectic/flickr)

And another study concludes:

In couples where the husband initially reported being close to his wife's parents, the risk of divorce over the next 16 years was 20% lower than for the group overall. Yet when the wife reported being close to her in-laws, that seemed to have the opposite effect: The risk of divorce with these couples was 20% higher.

Dr. Orbuch has a possible explanation: The wife who feels close with her husband's parents may find it difficult to set boundaries and over time may come to see their close relationship with her as meddling.

"Because relationships are so important to women, their identity as a wife and mother is central to their being," says Dr. Orbuch, author of the 2012 book "Finding Love Again: 6 Simple Steps to a New and Happy Relationship." "They interpret what their in-laws say and do as interference into their identity as a spouse and parent."

And Bernstein's bottom line:

The research suggests two sets of advice for parents. For parents of a son, if you think you are close enough with your daughter-in-law to offer her advice on parenting or other important topics, think again. For parents of a daughter, make an effort to show your son-in-law that you consider him to be part of the family.

This program aired on November 27, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.