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Rittenour Research
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COMMUNICATIVE AND RELATIONAL DIMENSIONS
OF SHARED FAMILY IDENTITY AND RELATIONAL INTENTIONS
IN MOTHER-IN-LAW/DAUGHTER-IN-LAW RELATIONSHIPS

DR. CHRISTY RITTENOUR, WEST VIRGINIA UNIVERSITY

WHAT DID THE RESEARCHERS FIND OUT?

Dr. Christy Rittenour, an Assistant Professor of Family and Interpersonal Communication at West Virginia University, is interested in how families communicate with and about their in-laws.  In a recent study, Drs. Rittenour and Soliz analyzed the mother-in-law/daughter-in-law relationship from the perspective of daughters-in-law.  In one component of this study, the researchers asked daughters-in-law to report on positive and negative aspects of their relationship with the mothers-in-law.  The results are summarized in Table 1 and these finding support many of the opinions and experiences posted on websites such as this one.  One interesting aspect of these findings is that there are characteristics in this relationship that are listed as positive (i.e., linked to greater satisfaction) and negative factors (i.e., linked to less satisfaction).  This demonstrates that daughters-in-law have different "tastes" when it comes to what they want in their mother-in-law relationship.  For instance, some daughters-in-law felt geographic distance was a barrier to a more positive relationship whereas others believed geographic distance was necessary for a positive relationship.  From this study, the researchers identified three important trends from the perspectives of the participants.

BENEFITS OF "FEELING LIKE A FAMILY"
Daughter-in-law perceptions for the current and future state of the mother-in-law/daughter-in-law relationship, including her willingness to maintain her own AND her children's relationship with the mother-in-law, are significantly tied to how much the daughter-in-law identifies as part of the mother-in-law's family.

IN OTHER WORDS, some daughters-in-law truly feel like family, having a strong sense of commitment, unity, loyalty, and closeness between themselves and their mothers-in-law.  Many daughters-in-law do not feel this bond and instead feel that they are only connected because the mother-in-law is the mother of the daughter-in-law's spouse.  Where the daughter-in-law falls between these two extremes is important because the more a daughter-in-law feels like family with her mother-in-law the more she is likely to want to keep the relationship intact.

SIGNIFICANCE OF COMMUNICATION
How much a daughter-in-law identifies as family with her mother-in-law is related to how the mother-in-law communicates with her.  Specifically, mothers-in-law who are supportive and accommodative (e.g., inclusive, respectful of divergent cultural/value orientation) with their daughters-in-law are more likely to be regarded as family.

IN OTHER WORDS, a mother-in-law helps to create a family relationship by making the daughter-in-law feel as if she can come into the family just as she is.  Not only does the mother-in-law listen, chat and share stories with the daughter-in-law just as she would with her own daughters, but she also does so without ignoring or trying to change the things that make the daughter-in-law unique.  She embraces the daughter-in-law for who she already is.

RELATIONSHIPS WITH MOTHERS AND MOTHERS-IN-LAW CAN BE INDEPENDENT
Despite suggestions that a daughter-in-law's relationship with her own mother is related to her relationship with her mother-in-law, there were no significant findings to suggest that mother/daughter bonds influence mother-in-law/daughter-in-law bonds.

IN OTHER WORDS, daughters-in-law can and DO have close relationships with BOTH mothers and mothers-in-law.  It seems that having one does not mean that you can not have the other.

WHAT SHOULD FAMILIES TAKE AWAY FROM THESE FINDINGS?

When considering the results of this particular study, Dr. Rittenour suggests that family members strive for the following:
    First, build family relationships as opposed to "in-law" relationships!  The concept of "family" is so powerful - evoking strong feelings of loyalty, unity, and commitment.  If a daughter feels that her mother-in-law is her family, she will not only be happier, but is more likely to want to uphold that relationship through difficult times.

    Second, remember that your communication makes a difference!  Something as seemingly simple as calling a daughter-in-law an "in-law" versus "daughter" communicates an important message about how much the daughter-in-law belongs!  In-laws can communicate this belonging by listening to each other's problems (and not giving advice unless asked!), inviting each other to join in family activities, and embracing the things about the other person that are different such as his/her religion, cultural background, or world views.

    Dr. Rittenour makes one final caution, "This study, as with all studies, shows trends as opposed to rules for in-law functioning.  Even amongst daughters-in-law we see differences of opinion as to what makes a good versus a bad in-law relationship.  With such ambiguity it can be hard for mothers-in-law or daughters-in-law to know where they stand or how to behave.  Keep this in mind as you communicate with each other and remember that an important, but often difficult step is to be reflective about your own communication."
Dr. Christy Rittenour is grateful for the participants who have helped her with her research, many of whom learned of her research studies through this website.  She will continue to post her findings as they are published, and can be contacted at Christine.Rittenour@mail.wvu.edu

CAN I READ MORE ABOUT THIS STUDY?

The complete study is published in the Western Journal of Communication.  The following is the complete citation if you would like to learn more about the methods, complete findings, and directions for future research.
    Rittenour, C. E., & Soliz, J. (2009).  Communicative and relational dimensions of shared family identity and relational intentions in mother-in-law/daughter-in-law relationships: Developing a conceptual model for mother-in-law/daughter-in-law research.  Western Journal of Communication, 73, 67-90.
TABLE 1. FACTORS ASSOCIATED WITH SATISFACTION IN THE MOTHER-IN-LAW (MIL) AND DAUGHTER-IN-LAW RELATIONSHIP (DIL)
Factors Linked to LESS Satisfaction
Factors Linked to MORE Satisfaction
MIL exclusive behaviors
such as making clear DIL feel unwanted, patronizing, giving unwanted advice
MIL inclusive behaviors
such as sharing family stories or calling her "daughter"
MIL negative personality traits
being perceived as insensitive or selfish
MIL positive personality traits
being perceived as sweet or warm
Frequency of Contact with MIL
seldom OR often having contact
Frequency of Contact with MIL
seldom OR often having contact
Negative spouse/MIL relationship
spouse and his mom do not get along, argue, or are too close
Positive grandparent/grandchild relationship
MIL is kind and nurturing to DIL's children
MIL interference
MIL tells DIL how to be a wife or mother
Daughter-in-law's (DIL) inclusive behavior
DIL makes her MIL feel welcome and part of family
Negative grandparent-grandchild relationship
DIL's spouse has a hurtful, unhealthy relationship with his mother
Positive spouse/mother-in-law relationship
DIL's spouse has a close, healthy relationship with his mother
Negative influence from other in-law relationships
Father-in-law and others mistreat the DIL, DIL's spouse, or grandchildren
MIL support of spouse/DIL relationship
MIL nurtures and respects her son and her DIL's relationship
Divergent values/cultural orientation
Fundamental differences that are not mutually respected or embraced but instead cause a rift
Spouse's loyalty to DIL
Spouse refrains from siding with his mother during DIL/MIL conflict
Spouse's loyalty to MIL
Spouse sides with his mother during DIL/MIL conflict
Spousal support of MIL/DIL relationship
  Positive influence from other in-law relationships
Father-in-law and others treat the DIL, DIL's spouse, or grandchildren well
Note: The items are listed in descending order of frequency (e.g., going from most commonly to least commonly reported for each column).

 


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