SALT LAKE CITY — When the time came for Gabrielle Pack's baby shower, the guys split off from the gals and headed out to lunch. It never occurred to Riley Pack that taking his father-in-law, Del Meeks, along might seem weird to some of his friends. After all, he likes the guy.
"I look to him like any other friend," said Pack, 26, who married Gabrielle five years ago. "We don't put a lot of expectations on each other and we enjoy each other's company." He likes his mother-in-law, Roxanne, too.
That's good news for the Packs' marriage, according to a long-term study of marriages by a Michigan researcher. After following nearly 400 families for a quarter-century, Terri Orbuch has concluded that when a man gets along with his in-laws, the likelihood the marriage will last increases 20 percent.
The news is a little different, though, when it comes to a woman's relationships with her in-laws. Because women tend to take things more personally, including even well-intentioned advice, having in-laws closely involved can actually reduce the likelihood a marriage will thrive, said Orbuch, a relationship expert who has written two books.
The first, "5 Simple Steps to Take Your Marriage from Good to Great," focuses on what she's learned from her long-term study about how couples stay together. The second, "Finding Love Again: 6 Simple Steps to a New and Happy Relationship," captures the experiences of the subjects who came apart. She is also a research professor at the University of Michigan and a professor at nearby Oakland University. For an audience that catches her advice on the radio, she's simply "Love Doctor."
The relationship between in-laws has been sit-com fodder for years, from "Bewitched" to "Everybody Loves Raymond." Orbuch's long-term study of marriage, funded by the National Institutes of Health, has likewise been going on for decades. She began by studying 373 couples who got married in 1986 and has followed them ever since, checking in at one year, then two, three, four, seven, 14 and 16 years. She hopes to check in as well at 27 years, which will be soon. She has tracked them through both their marital milestones and their dissolutions.
Along the way, she said, she's developed ideas on how women can get along with the husband's parents without negative effects. There's no need to pick a fight or sacrifice today's closeness for the sake of the marriage.
Orbuch says that when a man bonds with his in-laws, his wife gets the message that "your family is important to me because you're important to me. I want to feel closer to them because I want to be closer to you." Wives love that and marriages get a longevity bump.
But when the wife feels close to her in-laws, Orbuch sees two possible reasons things go the other way. First, in-law ties are more stressful to women, because it "interferes with and takes time away from bonding with the husband and her own family. Women like to analyze, work on and improve relationships. They think of in-law ties the same way," Orbuch said. That time takes away from other things that strengthen bonds with the husband.
The other issue is emotional boundaries, something with which women struggle, she said. "A woman takes whatever an in-law says as very personal. It can be interpreted as meddling or interfering."
She mentions a make-believe conversation in a kitchen to illustrate the point. The mother-in-law makes an offhand remark about how much apple juice a child drinks. "Do you know how much sugar is in that?"
What her daughter-in-law may hear is "you're a terrible mother," Orbuch said. It won't be shrugged off as "that's just her and she's worried about nutrition." It will be internalized and analyzed. And then, said Orbuch, "we bring the stress into our relationships with our husbands."
As for the solution, Orbuch recommends that women set emotional boundaries with their in-laws and recognize that the relationship is not the same one you'd have with your own parents. Also, don't take everything personally. She also advises learning to say "No."
If, after setting boundaries, tensions remain, talk to your husband, she tells wives. But don't say "you need to fix this." Focus rather on things like "I am feeling uncomfortable and can you help me fix this?" Recognize, as well, that it's his family and it may not be easy for him.
Karen Sherman, a psychologist, author and educator in Long Island, N.Y., pointed out that accepting differences and not making everything personal can go a long way to help families mesh for the long haul. The key is treating each other with respect. You also have to treat yourself that way, though.
"If others overstep boundaries, it's OK to reassert yours, but again, respectfully," Sherman said. (She had nothing to do with this research.)
"We all need to get along with our in-laws and make an effort," Orbuch said. "Nothing in this study says getting along or trying is negative. It's how close you feel and the dynamic and if you can set boundaries."
There are big gender differences when it comes to relationships. Men and women think about and analyze relationships differently.
"Men do relationships and then leave it. They go and do something, then come home and move on to the next thing," Orbuch said. "Women are constantly thinking and talking about and analyzing relationships. 'I wonder why she said that.' Or, 'Did I say the right thing? Maybe I shouldn't have said that.'"
Men do relationships side to side, participating in activities, watching movies, on sports teams, hanging out. Women do them face-to-face. That's one reason, in fact, that men may describe a platonic relationship with a woman as being the closest he's had, because it's a different kind of friendship than he's used to.
For the parents
There's a message for the parents to be found in this study, said Orbuch.
"If you're the parent of a son, tread lightly with your daughter-in-law. She may be more sensitive to your comments. As a golden rule, don't give advice unless you're asked, then offer tips and strategies.9 comments on this story
"If you're the parent of daughters, it's really important to be open to bonding with your son-in-law. Remember how important it is for you to get along and learn to be flexible and accepting. If you're going golfing with your sons, invite your son-in-law. It's good for your daughter."
David Cunningham, a communication expert with Landmark Education, who was not involved with the study, said that expressing affection for people goes a long way to helping relationships. It's natural, he noted, to worry about what others think. If you let them know you think good things, much of the pressure comes off a relationship.
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