Marriage Is a Family Affair: The Role of In-Laws

Perhaps you didn’t realize it at the time but when you married your spouse you got more than just a mate. You got a new family. You kept your membership in your own family and you joined another, officially.

This is yet another way in which marriage differs from cohabitation. A live-in partner doesn’t necessarily join your family and usually is not considered a family member by your family. Hence, the rights and obligations of a family member do not pertain, at least not officially.

Marriage, on the other hand, has always been a contract between families. The modern marriage is not arranged by the families and is, legally, a contract between the individual spouses only. Permission from parents is not required and the couple doesn’t usually live under the same roof with them.

Yet, marriage is an ancient institution and tradition dies hard. We still refer to our relatives-by-marriage as “in-laws” and we still find that our “in-laws” have certain expectations of us.

Along with their obvious concern for the care and feeding of their offspring (now your responsibility), everyone in your new family has an image of the way you should perform your role as husband or wife and parent. Their expectations of you are derived from their own family experience, not yours. This can contribute to a condition known to family sociologists as “role strain.”

Families differ in the degree to which they expect their in-laws to participate in ritual traditions as well as everyday family dramas. Some will fold you to their breast like one of their own. Others may hold you at a distance and seem to resent your claim on their son or daughter’s loyalty. If you have trouble “fitting” into your spouse’s family it can be a life-long source of stress and conflict.

It’s hard to over-estimate the impact extended family can have on your marriage. After all, your spouse is a permanent member of their clan. Maybe they will accept you as you are. Maybe not.