New book reveals how marriage changes parent-child relationships

June 20, 2011

Deborah M. Merrill, associate
professor of sociology, recently published "When Your Children
Marry: How Marriage Changes Relationships with Adult
Children."

There is an old adage that goes "A daughter is a daughter all of her life, but a son is a son 'til he takes him a wife." Deborah M. Merrill, associate professor of sociology at Clark University, explores whether or not this saying accurately describes marriage and intergenerational relationships today in her new book, "When Your Children Marry: How Marriage Changes Relationships with Adult Children" (Rowman & Littlefield, $29.95).

"When Your Children Marry" examines how marriage changes relationships between adult children and their parents and how this differs for sons versus daughters. The text examines both the quality of parent–adult child relationships following marriage and the process by which those relationships change.

The book is based on interviews with 25 mothers who had at least one married son and one married daughter as well as 25 adult children (eight men and 17 women) who had at some point been married for at least two years. Because the book is based on interviews rather than quantitative data, it uses colorful real-life scenarios and first-person quotes to support a finding rather than relying simply upon statistics.

Merrill's book is unique in that it accounts for the perspectives of both mothers and adult children — rather than putting the focus on just one of these groups — to provide a more complete picture of today's intergenerational relationships.

"Marriage appears to have a greater impact on mother-son relationships than on mother-daughter relationships. That is, marriage is greedier toward men than women with respect to intergenerational relationships," Merrill writes. "Despite the increased importance of work in women's lives, men's masculinity is even more deeply tied to their role as provider as well as their work identity. In contrast, relational ties remain more important to women. Men's relationships with parents will continue to take a back seat to the extent that their roles remain focused on provision for the nuclear family and work."

Merrill's research reveals that wives (mothers) are primarily responsible for serving as the connecting link between parents, the couple, and the grandchildren, and for this reason, they stay connected to their parents. Couples are also more likely to spend a greater amount of time with the wife's family than the husband's family after marriage. Men tend to get "pulled into" their wives' families in the process.

Merrill also notes a greater inconsistency in the roles of son and husband/father than in the roles of daughter and wife/mother, and argues that daughters tend to stay close to their parents following marriage (even when there are problems in the relationship) due to obligation.

"Mothers and daughters also share motherhood, which bonds them further," writes Merrill.

Merrill reassures mothers of boys not to dismay, however. In a final chapter, the author offers mothers tips on how to maintain positive relationships with their adult children and their spouses.

"The marriage of a child is a significant event in the family life course, and people tend to pay too little attention to it. Families tend to focus on the wedding and not the marriage," Merrill writes. "Parents are not prepared for the extent to which their relationships with their children may be affected by their children's marriages and the need to incorporate both sons-in-law and daughters-in-law into the family. Not only does this result in greater ambivalence in the parent-child relationship, but it also results in conflict in the in-law relationship. Families need to be made aware of the changes that may ensue in order to minimize that ambivalence and conflict."

"When Your Children Marry" is available through online booksellers Amazon.com and Bn.com. The book is meant to appeal to scholars of family sociology and family therapy and is easily accessible to parents and adult children who are interested in understanding their relationships.

Merrill received her Ph.D. from Brown University and completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the Center for Gerontology and Health Care Services in Providence, Rhode Island. Her areas of specialty are gerontology, medicine, family, and demography. Merrill has taught in Clark's Department of Sociology since 1992. She is author of "Mothers-in-law and Daughters-in-law: Understanding the Relationship and What Makes them Friends or Foe" (Praeger Publishers 2007) and "Caring for Elderly Parents: Juggling Work, Family, and Caregiving in Middle and Working Class Families" (Auburn House 1997).