On the corkboard next to West Virginia University Assistant Professor Christine Rittenour’s desk is a small, squeezable doll still in its package that reads “every time your mother-in-law tries to tell you how to cook, clean or raise your children, squeeze your anger away.”
Rittenour does not have a bad relationship with her mother-in-law, but she has done extensive research on mother and daughter-in-law relationships. Now, she’s hoping to clear the air on this much talked about subject.
“Everyone talks about in-laws, complains about them and jokes about them, particularly mothers-in-law,” she said.
Rittenour was first intrigued by the complexities of in-law relationships during her studies at University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
But, when she tried to learn more about the relationships, she was surprised to find that so little was known about the specific communication occurring within these relationships. Additionally, many researchers were saying that the mother and daughter-in-law relationship was the worst in-law relationship, but the only evidence to support that theory dated back to 1954.
After learning about theories of intergroup communications from Jordan Soliz, Rittenour’s doctorate advisor at UNL, Rittenour decided to dig deeper.
“Intergroup communications describes people’s attitudes toward and treatment of each other according to whether they are considered to be in their ‘ingroup’ or their ‘outgroup.’ I began to wonder if this same idea applied to in-laws,” she said.
To get to the bottom of this issue, Rittenour questioned 190 daughters-in-law about their communication with and about their mothers-in-law. One of the most revealing findings surrounded mothers-in-law inclusion of their daughters-in-law.
“Things like including the daughters-in-law in stories and family rituals, accepting the religion and culture of the daughters-in-law and creating an overall welcoming environment may seem little, but I found that these acts of acceptance by the mothers-in-law really had a huge impact on the relationship,” Rittenour said.
“When a daughter-in-law feels like she is regarded as part of her mother-in-law’s ingroup – her family – then she begins to see her mother-in-law as family and this is not only connected to how satisfied she is with the relationship, but also how much she plans to maintain the relationship in the future,” she added.
Another factor that daughters-in-law felt was important was how the mother-in-law treated her son and grandchildren. If the daughters-in-law felt that their husbands and children were being mistreated, there was a significant amount of dissatisfaction.
Rittenour’s research demonstrates that many mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law do not fit the negative stereotype. Many of the daughters-in-law reported great relationships with their mothers-in-law. Women are often expected to be the caregivers and the ones who keep relationships going, particularly in families. Rittenour suggests that this may be one reason why the problems in this relationship are overemphasized.
“It is important to remember that it takes two people to make a relationship work. Communicating your desires to one another will help ensure that you have a positive relationship with clear expectations. It’s those little things that make a big difference in the relationship,” Rittenour said.
Rittenour has shared these findings and other helpful advice on positive mother and daughter-in-law relationships at the National Communication Association Conference, and on www.motherinlawstories.com.
She continues to publish research on identity, inclusion and exclusion within in-law relationships and other family relationships. The research highlighted here is published in the Western Journal of Communication.
CONTACT: Natalie Committee, WVU Department of Communication Studies