All family relationships come with their own unique challenges, but some tend to be more difficult or troublesome than others. If you had to name the family tie that presents people with more opportunities for misunderstanding than any other, you would probably say “in-laws.” What gives this relationship its emotional supercharge? According to Brandeis University resident scholar Ruth Nemzoff, “in-law relationships are particularly difficult because they have the obligations and expectations of family without the benefits of intimacy, comfort, and support.”
Considering the clashes we sometimes have within the family we grew up with (even though we’ve had our entire lives to establish these bonds), it does seem unrealistic to expect a complete meeting of the minds among people who have had little experience with one another’s family quirks or traditions. And yet, says Nemzoff in Don’t Roll Your Eyes: Making In-Laws Into Family, there are important reasons to work toward making family out of not-so-perfect strangers—more, even, than the fact that your daughter-in-law may be making decisions about your nursing home, or that your parents-in-law will be forming important lifelong bonds with your children. There are almost infinite subtle ways that multiple generations can benefit from these “essentially voluntary” relationships, she says, but making the best of them begins with becoming aware of hidden expectations we may have, which could lay the groundwork for suspicion, jealousy and hurt feelings.
Nemzoff draws from composites of real-life stories as she explores some of these hidden expectations. Consistent themes emerge from these stories, shedding light on the fundamental sources of in-law relationship problems. One significant source is the simple but potentially unsettling fact that we all go through very different life stages, each with signature responsibilities. And change is difficult. Parents may be afraid that their new daughter-in-law will disconnect them from their son. Siblings may have similar fears. The newly married couple may be overwhelmed with the sheer numbers of new family members who suddenly have claims on their time, and each partner may have different ideas about how much time should be devoted to whom. Nemzoff addresses the concerns of each generation in turn.
To parents she says: “All stages of parenthood can be understood as losses and gains, or exchanges. Sure, we lose the deliciousness of snuggling an infant, but we gain a curious toddler. We lose the toddler to school and gain time to focus on other aspects of our lives. As our children grow, we lose a playful young person but hopefully gain an interesting adult. At marriage, we do lose the primary loyalty of our now-adult child, but we gain some freedom and, potentially, another caring and loving family member.” Making the choice to welcome this new member means being willing to accommodate potential differences in culture, household traditions and ways of doing things.
Siblings will have a similar choice to make, but there will be slightly different nuances depending on the circumstance. Siblings may feel a sense of loss or displacement as the newcomer finds a niche in the family dynamics. Or perhaps the sibling and the new in-law were close friends before the new couple relationship was formed, a situation that clearly offers ripe opportunity for hurt feelings as primary loyalties are transferred.
Hurt feelings may also be prompted by slights and misunderstandings surrounding expectations about wedding arrangements: perhaps the bride unintentionally overlooks a family member as she is assigning the wedding party, or a married sibling compares the current festivities to her own wedding and interprets differences as an imbalance in her parents’ affection. Even years into the marriage, siblings may encounter problems prompted by differences in financial freedom or childrearing practices, or cultural and philosophical shifts growing from exposure to their respective new families.
To the new couple, Nemzoff points out that they are each blending their own family’s traditions with a new set and creating some of their very own traditions in the process. “Doing things the way the other family does them can feel disloyal to one’s family of origin,” she says. As couples pick and choose which approaches to use in their new home, they will inevitably have to reject some—and risk hurt feelings as their in-laws realize a certain tradition wasn’t incorporated. “Every new couple’s life is a series of negotiations as they find their own unique paths and blend new and old ways,” says Nemzoff. “Helping family members understand each other’s viewpoints is an important part of paving the way to closer bonds.” And to that end, “sometimes the spouse does a service by acting as cultural translator.”
Divorce, adoption and new reproductive interventions add to the complexity by contributing some confusion over who actually counts as an in-law, adds Nemzoff. For instance, after a divorce or separation, parents on both sides may not want to show disloyalty to their own children but may be equally reluctant to turn off their genuine affection for the former spouse. “Are in-law relationships defined by love or by law?” she asks, answering with the sound advice that it is not wise to be pulled into the often temporary rancor that occurs during the active phase of divorce. Many people choose to maintain old ties that are built on affection—an especially wise decision when there are grandchildren involved.
“We always have a choice: either let conflict destroy us and our relationships or let conflict be a signal to behave differently.”
From Nemzoff’s experienced perspective, the bottom line when it comes to negotiating in-law relationships is that we all make choices. We can choose to see ourselves as members of the same team, or we can choose to allow offenses to create long-term ill will. “Rolling our eyes is a gut-level, instinctive way in which we show disapproval,” Nemzoff observes. “However, if your aim is to relate well to others, you must not roll your eyes. Families that get along do so in part because they decide to get along. They decide that anyone who loves their children at least has good taste and judgment. The in-law children conclude that the people who brought up the person they love is worthy of some respect.”
Nemzoff doesn’t imply that it will always be easy; she acknowledges that we all make mistakes and there are going to be hurt feelings and problems to work through in our in-law relationships, just as there are problems to work through in every other important lifelong relationship. But, she emphasizes, good relationships begin with small acts of kindness. “We can change,” she insists, “if we imagine ourselves differently. The first step in that imagining is to see ourselves truthfully.”
The Truth Is, Truth Is Hard
Unfortunately, says Wake Forest University professor Linda Nielsen, the truth isn’t always easy to get at. The expectations we have for one another are often based on stereotypes, inaccurate information, and even cognitive biases—those subtle little tricks of the brain that affect our interpretation of events. This is certainly true, she says, when it comes to the emotional barriers that have been erected in another often challenging family relationship: the one between fathers and daughters.
Although many people may assume that the mother-daughter relationship counts as the top concern among nuclear family ties, Nielsen believes that the father-daughter relationship offers specific benefits that have largely gone unnoticed and unaddressed by comparison. Her new textbook, Father-Daughter Relationships: Contemporary Research and Issues, isn’t an advice book; rather, it’s the step that comes before advice, a scholarly examination of contemporary research that shatters the core assumptions and myths that limit these potentially rewarding relationships.
“In our society father-daughter relationships have been treated much like the light inside the refrigerator: ‘there,’ yet rarely on our minds except when we open the door in search of food or when the bulb burns out.”
Nielsen cites studies measuring the negative portrayals of fatherhood in popular media such as children’s books, movies and television. To that foundation she adds others that demonstrate how the brain is influenced by the expectations and beliefs that arise from these portrayals and follows up with concrete findings showing how skewed these beliefs are. Contrary to popular stereotype, says the research, women do not have some kind of special maternal instinct that makes them more suited for nurturing than men and more naturally expert at parenting and empathizing. Rather, studies find that men (like women) undergo hormonal changes before their children’s birth, and that these increase their sensitivity to infants; but these hormones aren’t the cause of nurturing behavior in either parent. Interestingly, points out Nielsen, the more experience people—male or female—have had with infants before their own baby’s birth, the greater the hormonal changes and the stronger their nurturing responses. “In short,” says Nielsen, “experience is what matters most in our nurturing responses to infants.”
Without pitting mothers and fathers against one another, she explains that the myth of maternal instinct is particularly damaging because it can disrupt the exchange of bonding hormones between fathers and children from the very beginning if it leads fathers to be more hesitant to engage, or more certain that “mother knows best.” The resulting fissure may be compounded by the mistaken belief that women are generally more understanding and communicative than men. How likely is a daughter to go to her father for advice or comfort, asks Nielsen, if she has bought into the idea that men don’t like to talk about personal issues, “that they are, quite bluntly, thunderstruck blockheads who need women to do the communicating for them.”
A common temptation in social science writing is to offer simplistic explanations for study findings, but Nielsen is careful with the research. She is quick to note that “fathering and mothering are not the only factors determining a child’s well-being.” There is no getting around the fact that there are children who thrive even when they are missing a relationship with one parent, regardless of whether the missing parent is the father or the mother. “Conversely,” she says, “there are children raised by two parents who do not fare well.” While Nielsen notes that “children are generally more advantaged when they are raised by two supportive parents rather than by only one,” she adds that “the advantages of being raised by two parents are smaller than sometimes represented and are often correlated with other factors such as the family’s income.” But, she points out, just because children can do well without one parent doesn’t mean that parent is irrelevant—and fathers have traditionally been assumed to be less relevant than mothers.
In light of this, it is fortunate that the quality (rather than necessarily the quantity) of the fathering is what matters over the long haul, and to date an impressive collection of research has focused on defining “good” fathering. In short, involved fathers do more than spend time and money on their children: they are warm, responsive, authoritative and responsible for monitoring and meeting children’s needs. They provide social capital by helping them form community, school and work connections, teaching them how to interact with others in social settings and resolve problems in the workplace or at school. And they are emotionally available.
On the other hand, says Nielsen, emotionally distant fathers can leave children with a longing that researchers call “father hunger.” “Poorly fathered girls are generally plagued with a host of problems throughout their lives,” she finds. “Moreover, the father-daughter relationship has an impact on fathers, both in terms of his well-being and development.”
Pointing to an array of social problems that could be reduced through strengthening father-daughter relationships (including teenage pregnancy, drug and alcohol abuse, and high rates of incarceration), Nielsen challenges her readers to take an honest look at the most unsettling and controversial questions that can be provoked by discussions of father-daughter ties. And she is not content with examining fathers and daughters only in traditional or average family contexts. Fully half of her book discusses research that has examined more complex father-daughter relationships, including those within single-father families, divorced families, families dealing with unique cultural challenges, families where fathers are incarcerated, and families involving sperm donors.
Nielsen acknowledges that the debate over how “necessary” fathers are is far from over, and it is not the aim of her book to settle the question. Rather, she is intent on exploring why some fathers succeed in empowering their daughters through meaningful, emotionally intimate relationships while others do not.
Emotion: First and Foremost
The common denominator in these complex relationships—and in all our relationships for that matter—is that they evoke our emotions, because it is through them that we connect with one another. In the end, the only way to successfully negotiate these emotional connections is to recognize that in our emotional makeup we are as individual as snowflakes. This requires us to develop the ability to acknowledge others’ emotions with a certain degree of nonjudgmental understanding.
Psychologist Richard J. Davidson has spent his career researching the foundations of emotional style, and in a new book written with Sharon Begley, The Emotional Life of Your Brain, he explains that our emotional styles arise not only from our genetics but from our environment—which includes the relationships that shape us. Even more significantly, Davidson and Begley point to new research that shatters old assumptions: we are not stuck with our emotional styles. We can modify them considerably.
“Through mental training you can alter your patterns of brain activity and the very structure of your brain in a way that will change your Emotional Style and improve your life.”
Over the course of more than 30 years of research, Davidson has identified six dimensions that make up our emotional style: resilience style (how easily we recover from setbacks); outlook style (where we are on the scale of optimistic to pessimistic); social-intuition style (how well we read others); self-awareness style (how in tune we are with our thoughts and emotions); sensitivity-to-context style (knowing when certain behaviors are inappropriate); and attention style (where we fall between focused and distracted).
Convinced that research needs to account for individual differences in human behavior, Davidson says he has always been drawn to the “outliers”—those subjects in behavior studies who do not fall in the narrow “average” range.
“Each of us responds differently to emotional triggers,” he points out, “and to talk about ‘most people’ or ‘the average person’ completely misses the mark.” In other words, there is no single, ideal, overall style. To function well as a society we need people with a variety of emotional styles, who contribute complementary interests and strengths as a result.
However, Davidson quickly deflates popular notions of “I’m okay, you’re okay.” Even if our emotional approach doesn’t leave us open to a diagnosis of mental illness, he says, a style may be sufficiently extreme that it prevents us from functioning effectively in society and enjoying full and meaningful relationships. In such cases we might want to consider working toward change. Certainly we will want to do so if our emotional style leaves us vulnerable to depression or worse.
“When your Resilience style is so Slow to Recover [one extreme on the Resilience scale] that the slightest setback tips you into another acute episode of panic or anxiety, it has become pathological,” he points out. “When your Social Intuition style is so Puzzled that you have difficulty understanding basic social interactions and cannot form close relationships, it has become pathological—and may even fall along the autism spectrum.”
The opposite extremes on some of these spectrums may be no less pathological. Those who fall at the extreme Fast to Recover end of the Resilience scale may not be able to feel their own emotions intensely enough to empathize with others. “In order to have healthy relationships,” Davidson asserts, “you need to be able to feel and respond to other people’s emotions, meaning if you are extremely Resilient, others may perceive you as unfeeling and emotionally walled off.”
But wherever we are on these spectrums, he reiterates, most of us are capable of at least nudging ourselves a little closer to the middle ranges, and he even offers concrete strategies that can help us do it. These are culled from the study of the brain mechanisms that are fundamental to emotion. This is a relatively new field. As recently as the 1970s it was common for prominent researchers to view emotion as an inconvenient disruption to logical thinking; but as others have since discovered, the brain’s logical processes depend on emotional processes to a very great degree. We can’t make effective decisions without them, and we certainly can’t grow in our lifelong interpersonal connections without them.
Indeed, Davidson concludes, “emotions help us appreciate others and the world around us; they make life meaningful and fulfilling.” And in case we find ourselves falling short, he reminds us that “who you are today does not need to be who you are tomorrow.”
This positive news holds promise for all our interactions. If thoughtful and honest self-evaluation suggests there is room for improvement in the quality of our relationships, whether with in-laws, intimates or anyone else, we might do much worse than to exercise our ability to change and, in doing so, to transform our life.