Healthy Bonds for Black Fathers-in-law, Sons-in-law

February 9, 2022


What does a healthy relationship look like for a Black son-in-law and his father-in-law?

A study aims to answer that question and was published in “Psychology of Men & Masculinities” by University of Maryland School of Social Work’s (UMSSW) Assistant Professor Ericka M. Lewis, PhD, MSW, with Professor Michael E. Woolley, PhD, MSW, and Baylor University Assistant Professor Brianna P. Lemmons, PhD, MSW.

Studies on in-laws are far and few between, less so for male in-law relationships, and even less so for Black male in-laws, Woolley said. This study is a way to lift Black voices and examine those roles, Lewis said, and Lemmons noted how these relationships play an important role in facilitating the healthy functioning of Black families.

“What does it mean to be a good father-in-law or son-in-law? How do you establish and nurture that relationship? We wanted to explore that relationship in particular,” Lewis said. “Because of the Black family dynamic, we thought it was interesting and important for us to highlight and shed light on that particular relationship.”

The qualitative study interviewed Black, married men ranging from ages 29 to 52, with participants being married as few as four years to up to 17 years. It is a subset of a larger study of 1,200 mothers-in-law, daughters-in-law, fathers-in-law, and sons-in-law completed by Woolley and UMSSW Professor Geoffrey Greif, PhD, MSW.

This study could be used in the development of theoretical frameworks on pathways of male in-laws and relationships, especially in Black families because such a framework does not exist, Lemmons said. Lewis and Woolley added that this study could help social workers, mental health providers and other family practitioners to understand intergenerational relationships and family bonds along with potential pitfalls.

"A lot of the sons-in-laws had expectations from their fathers-in-laws about having some emotional closeness within that relationship. This was especially true for those who did not have a father in their own lives. They really wanted to connect with their fathers-in-laws emotionally." —Dr. Brianna Lemmons

Healthy relationships for Black male in-laws were seen as collaborative rather than transactional, Lewis said.

“Fathers-in-law could be social fathers and offer advice on raising children or how to have a successful marriage, whereas sons-in-law can help bridge the gap between their spouse and their father-in-law if the relationship wasn't as healthy,” Lewis said.

Boundary setting was very important to the sons-in-law, trying to find the right way to tell their fathers-in-law to “stay in your lane” by respecting the sons-in-law being the head of household and making his own decisions.

“These boundaries are a very delicate balance,” Woolley said. “I want your presence, I want your support, I want your availability. But there's a limit to that it. I see it as the, if you will, the transfer of being the primary man in a woman's life from the father to the son-in-law. And that's a negotiation that has to be done over time and through the development of the relationship.”

Shared emotional and masculine norm values were a major theme in the findings, Lemmons said.

“A lot of the sons-in-laws had expectations from their fathers-in-laws about having some emotional closeness within that relationship,” Lemmons said. “This was especially true for those who did not have a father in their own lives. They really wanted to connect with their fathers-in-laws emotionally.”

Here is one example a study participant shared over being able to bond:

“We went to a comedy show and the comedian was extremely funny … I looked at my father-in-law and he had tears—I mean crying, laughing so hard. That was the first time I’ve seen him laugh, so that was a different side of him that I had never seen before.”

Generational gaps and differences could hinder that, she added. Younger generations expected emotional closeness where fathers-in-law from older generations viewed their role strictly as a provider and not a nurturer, or did not know how to nurture, Lemmons said.

Traditional gender roles were more prevalent in this study, where fathers-in-law sought out the endorsement of the son-in-law by the mother-in-law.

“You can see that in this study in that the way these sons-in-law were seen as accepted into the family and part of the family was by doing things with the father-in-law,” Woolley said. “But the mother-in-law, noting what kind of relationships he had, what kind of father he was, what kind of spouse he was, what kind of partner in life he was, and those so that is still filtering through the women in the family who traditionally were seen as the people who organized multi-generational families.”

Major life events like making sure the father-in-law is at the wedding and walking his daughter down the aisle or being there during the birth of a child are moments that can blossom relationships between Black fathers-in-law and sons-in-law.

"We found that validation is a foundational aspect of the relationship building process between male in-laws," Lemmons said. "Overall, when son in laws felt validated by their father in laws, they were more likely to embrace the process of building a relationship with them."

One son-in-law described the evolution of his father-in-law relationship following his son’s birth:

“There wasn’t one. When I first came around, he didn’t speak to me at all … he would flat out ignore me. I would say ‘Hey, Mr. Mike,’ and he would just look me up and down. (Laughing) … I expected it. I had to prove myself, so I understood. I think it was around the time my [wife] got pregnant with [my son] and then he really started to talk to me and was really helpful.”

Here are three major ways for Black fathers-in-law and sons-in-law to have healthy relationships, according to the authors:

  1. Sons-in-law want their father-in-law to be intentional with interactions

    1. Show up to important events (weddings, births)

    2. Spend time together and bond. “It is what you make of it.”

  2. Have shared values and expectations

    1. Have an emotional or physical closeness

    2. Know your role within family

  3. Respect

    1. Desire validation from father-in-law of doing a good job

    2. Setting boundaries with father-in-law to “stay in your lane”




*The original story first appeared on the University of Maryland School of Social Work website.