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Love thy neighbor like thy mother-in-law? A lesson in getting along| COMMENTARY

Today, in most communities in the United States, parents have little influence over whom their children marry (highly religious communities and some immigrant populations are exceptions). Parents who have helped raise a child to marital age may find themselves involuntarily “married” to a highly welcome or, in a worst-case scenario, highly unwelcome new person, forever changing the family structure. For the welfare of the generations, the better the new and extended family gets along, the happier and healthier all will be. Grandparents can help with child care just as sons, sons-in-law, daughters and daughters-in-law can assist the older generation as they age.

As a nation, maybe we should all consider each other as in-laws, as family, although not by choice. For our betterment, we need to figure out how to get along, and the upcoming holidays provide a possible respite for reflection on the meaning of togetherness.

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Generational differences are to be expected. According to a 2018 Pew Research Center study, millennials and Gen Xers are more liberal than boomers and the silent generation on voting preferences and, according to a 2020 Pew study, Republicans age 18-39 are more likely than older Republicans to believe that humans play a large part in climate change. As the Electoral College map shows, regional differences loom large, too, in how we might view the world.

Generational differences are to be expected within the family also. As we found in our just completed research with more than 1,500 in-laws, daughters-in-law and mothers-in-law are often quite careful in dealing with each other. A majority of both groups agrees that they admire and trust each other, but a significant minority do not agree. Many daughters-in-law do not feel as close to their mother-in-law as the mothers-in-law feel to them.

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Fathers-in-law also rate relationships with their sons-in-law more positively than do the sons-in-law. Many in-laws walk on eggshells with each other, with the mothers-in-law, in particular, worried their time with grandchildren will be reduced if they offend their daughter-in-law. Political discussions between in-laws are often consciously avoided. As one daughter-in-law told us about her mother-in-law, “I love her because she is so good to my husband and gave him such a good childhood. Sometimes, well, she is really Republican, and I am very liberal. We don’t talk about those things.”

To deal with the broad divisions between us as a nation, let’s look at what can strengthen the bonds of our 330 million strong family. Keeping the peace with in-laws during a pandemic and with restricted holiday interaction may be particularly difficult when health conditions may vary greatly from one extended family member to the next and when interstate travel may require a two-week quarantine. Thanksgiving turkey does not taste as good over Zoom.

The same skills of listening, responding non-defensively and trying to understand each other go a long way toward lowering the rancor from past hurts both in the family and between political factions. Forgiving past slights or significant injustices (we recognize not all can be forgiven) is a first step. We must consider the thousands of interactions we have with in-laws during a lifetime. Focusing on those that went awry is less productive than focusing on those that can build harmony.

Ambivalence and ambiguity characterize many loving and supportive in-law relationships. As we learn to live with mixed feelings toward an in-law, we must also accept that we may not understand why an in-law acts a certain way or why we do not feel understood in turn. There is much we do not know about people in our own family, and when new members are added through marriage or partnership the complexity increases.

Now, imagine how much we do not know about people we never met, who live a thousand miles away, and who voted for someone we do not support. Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s marital advice was that it sometimes helps to be a little bit deaf. That’s also good advice for in-law relationships, and, quite possibly, the national discourse. If we want to thrive as a nation, we should heed this with one another.

University of Maryland School of Social Work Professor Geoffrey Greif (ggreif@ssw.umaryland.edu) and Associate Professor Michael Woolley (mwoolley@ssw.umaryland.edu) are co-authors of “In-law relationships: Mothers, daughters, fathers, and sons.”

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