How did it go the first time your significant other introduced you to his or her parents? If you were nervous, you aren’t alone. Most people find that initial “meet and greet” to be pretty stressful, no matter which side of it we’re on. Fortunately, at least for some, the relationship will bloom into something positive, or at least pleasantly neutral. For others…well, it may always be a bit stressful.
Why is the in-law experience so often a challenge? There can be plenty of reasons, ranging from cultural differences to problematic family “baggage.” But here’s one you may not have considered: it turns out that parents and children generally do not have the same priorities when it comes to what’s “important” in a mate. That is, what you want in a spouse is likely to be pretty different than what your parents want in a spouse for you!
Studies suggest that while parents and children do value some of the same traits in a spouse, such as kindness, intelligence, and schooling, they also often don’t agree about what’s crucial. For instance, one study found that both men and women are strongly interested in finding a spouse who is attractive, who has an exciting personality, and who is “spontaneous” and “selfless.” However, moms and dads didn’t rate these traits very highly as far as what they wanted in a spouse for their kids. Instead, they tended to be more focused on other qualities.
For instance, studies find that parents are often quite concerned with how religious potential partners are, whether they come from a “good family background,” and whether they’re financially secure and able to earn a good living. Along with being interested in appearance, children looking for a spouse tend to focus more on personality traits, like whether someone is kind, positive, fun, optimistic, and so on. Parents are less concerned with this.
Of course, some of these differences may be due to the age of the people being asked. A young adult may think it’s important to be with someone “exciting” and “spontaneous,” while an older person may be more conservative and not prioritize these traits.
However, it’s probably also true that family members simply have different priorities based on who they are. Moms and dads have put a lot into the family and into imparting values. They may want to be sure that their child’s partner shares similar values to those their kids were raised with, and that he or she brings resources to the marriage that will help their child have a stable life. Meanwhile, they don’t have to actually live with the spouse every day, so personality may seem less important!
At the same time, children may value attractiveness because consciously or not, they think it represents “good genes”—someone who will produce healthy, strong children. However, some parents may actually worry that attractive daughter- or son-in-law is a risk…maybe that person will stray, or be tempted away from their child by another partner.
So if it’s always seemed like your parents wanted you to choose a different partner than the one you picked, or if your in-laws never acted like you were really “the one” they were hoping for--you might actually be right about that. But the good news is, that’s very normal. In the meantime, however, how are you all going to get along?
Experts suggest that if things are hard with your in-laws, it may help to make it clear how much you love their child! After all, it’s one person you all presumably care for a great deal. However, don’t forget to set and maintain clear boundaries (respectfully). For instance, if your mother- or father-in-law is overstepping in one area or another, you might try saying something like, “I appreciate your input. We feel pretty good about our choice, but we’ll let you know if we need any help.”
And don’t forget to prioritize your own marital relationship. At times, this may be difficult, especially if one parent or another is difficult, ill, or needy---or, on the flip side, if one of you has always been very close with a parent. But of course, your spouse is (usually) the person you live with every day, and the one you have chosen to spend the rest of your life with. Remaining strongly bonded with your partner, while also making yourself available to in-laws for family events, is key.
Finally, if you have minor or petty gripes about your in-laws, don’t share them with your spouse. Most of the time, people don’t want to hear these comments from someone outside the family, even if they might sometimes make them themselves.
Good luck navigating this relationship!
Looking for ways to connect and communicate better with your partner? Getting ready for marriage and want to be as prepared as possible? The SMART Couples project is offering ELEVATE, a fun, FREE, research-backed relationship enhancement class for couples, and Before You Tie the Knot, a fun, FREE, research-backed premarital preparation class, in 5 Florida counties. Sign up today!
By Carol Church, lead writer, SMART Couples, Department of Family, Youth and Community Sciences, University of Florida
Apostolou, M. (2015). Parent-offspring conflict over mating: Domains of agreement and disagreement. Evolutionary Psychology, 1-12. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/281903270_Parent-Offspring_Conflict_Over_Mating_Domains_of_Agreement_and_Disagreement
Fugere, M. F. (2016). Why your mother-in-law doesn’t like you. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/dating-and-mating/201610/why-you-and-your-mother-in-law-may-not-get-along
GoodTherapy.org. (2012). Should you embrace your in-laws or avoid them? Retrieved from http://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/in-laws-relationships-spouse-divorce-1207127
Perrilloux, C., Fleischman, D.S., & Buss, D. M. (2011). Meet the parents: Parent-offspring convergence and divergence in mate preferences. Personality and Individual Differences, 50(2), 253-258. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2010.09.039
Tartakovsky, M. How healthy couples deal with their in-laws. Retrieved from http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2013/10/08/how-healthy-couples-deal-with-their-in-laws/
Return to Topic: Preparing for Marriage