Abstract: The Ties That Bind: An Exploration of Son-in-Law and Father-in-Law Relationships in Black Families (Society for Social Work and Research 24th Annual Conference - Reducing Racial and Economic Inequality)

The Ties That Bind: An Exploration of Son-in-Law and Father-in-Law Relationships in Black Families

Sunday, January 19, 2020
Marquis BR Salon 12, ML 2 (Marriott Marquis Washington DC)
* noted as presenting author
Ericka Lewis, PhD, LMSW, Assistant Professor, University of Maryland at Baltimore, Baltimore, MD
Michelle Sermon, MSW, Doctoral Student, University of Maryland at Baltimore, Baltimore, MD
Michael Woolley, DCSW, PhD, Associate Professor, University of Maryland at Baltimore, Baltimore, MD
Background & Purpose:Despite the emerging research on in-law relationships and its impact on building healthy families, the majority of studies focus on women. Therefore, the evidence on how sons-in-law and fathers-in-law foster these new relationships is scant. Even less is known about newly formed male in-law relationships within the context of Black families. Drawing from the Family Systems Theory, relationships are viewed within a subsystem and family subsystems may differ by race and ethnicity. Considering the dynamic nature of Black family experiences, it is important to understand the role racial and ethnic socialization plays in how in-laws form relationships. This qualitative study explores the situational factors and interpersonal exchanges that contribute to the fostering of positive relationships for Black sons-in-law and their fathers-in-law. 

Methods:This exploratory study uses data from a larger mixed methods study examining sons-in-law, fathers-in-law, daughters-in-law, and mothers-in-law’s relationships with their same-sex in-law. Semi-structured qualitative interviews were conducted with sons-in-law to assess perceptions of their relationship with their fathers-in-law. Master of Social Work students, trained in qualitative data collection methods, conducted the interviews. Interviews were audio recorded, transcribed, and coded for themes.

Our study’s sample consisted of Black/African-American sons-in-laws who participated in the qualitative interviews (N=11). Sons-in-law were between the ages of 25 and 60 and  married, on average, for  8.6 years (SD=5.3 ). Fifty-five percent of sons-in-law (n = 5) reported having at least one biological or step-child.

Findings: Three themes emerged, as sons-in-law identified interactions and situational factors that impacted their relationship with their fathers-in-law. First, sons-in-law believed having similar interests or participating in activities helped to shape their relationship with fathers-in-law. Next, sons-in-law consistently reported how explicit and intentional communication with fathers-in-law, following a significant life event, strengthened the in-law relationship. For example, sons-in-law considered marriages and children’s births as events where fathers-in-law communicated their expectations of sons-in-laws in their new role as a husband or father. As a result, in-laws were able to discuss culturally masculine values and establish a mutual respect for one another as providers and protectors for their family. Finally, sons-in-law described instances of social fathering, where fathers-in-law served as role models, as contributors to building the in-law relationship. Sons-in-law seemed to appreciate receiving advice from fathers-in-law on issues related to employment and child rearing. Sons-in-law found these opportunities to be helpful in building a relationship with their father-in-law, particularly for sons-in-laws who did not have a close relationship with their biological fathers.

Conclusions & Implications: These findings suggest that quality interactions, explicit communication, and opportunities for social fathering can aid in the relationship-building process for male in-laws in Black families. These exchanges allow for discussion and consensus-building around values specific to men of color supporting and protecting the family unit. Additionally, understanding the role of Black fathers-in-law in strengthening sons-in-law’s parenting skills may also lead to evidence-based interventions that include multi-generational approaches to healthy child development.  Therefore, more research on the influence of sons-in-law and fathers-in-law on family functioning is of great need.