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  • Bonny Lassiter

New Research Summary: Understanding In-law Relationships in Black Families

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 male in-law relationships is scant. Even less is known about how Black families experience male in-law relationships. Therefore, we sat down with Dr. Ericka Lewis from the University of Marlyland to discuss her new research pubished in our flagship journal, Psychology of Men & Masculinities addressing in-law relationships in Black families (full cite below).

Lewis, E. M., Lemmons, B. P., & Woolley, M. E. (2022). The ties that bind: An exploration of son-in-law and father-in-law relationships in Black families. Psychology of Men & Masculinities, 23(1), 99–108.

What were the key questions you were addressing in this article? This qualitative study examined the situational factors and interpersonal exchanges that contribute to the fostering of positive relationships for Black sons-in-law and their fathers-in-law. Specifically, we explored sons-in-law perceptions of their relationship with their father-in-law. Considering the dynamic nature of Black family experiences, we thought it was important to understand how cultural norms shape the way in which male in-laws form relationships and the impact this has on family functioning. We also wanted to contribute to an area that has received little research attention--the Black male in-law relationship-- and we wanted to further explore this to shed light on what we believe is a very important aspect of Black family life.

What were the main conclusions of your article? We found that sons-in-law believed having similar interests and putting forth an effort to engage in family activities and gatherings helped shape the relationship. Explicit communication and mutual support were also perceived as critical components to building a healthy and positive relationship. These interactions provided opportunities for fathers-in-law to express their expectations of sons-in-laws in their roles as husbands and fathers, as well as offer support to sons-in-law. Participants also described instances of social fathering, where fathers-in-law served as role models, providing advice 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.

What are the key implications of your article for research, policy, or practice? The male in-law relationship is often understudied; however, study findings underscore the need for greater attention toward identifying how this relationship can improve parenting and family outcomes and serve as a protective buffer against various forms of injustice. Additionally, we believe this study can be used to help prepare the next generation of social workers and mental health professionals working with Black families by highlighting how the male in-law relationship and intergenerational family bonds can be leveraged to strengthen Black families.

Where do you see this line of research heading in the future (i.e., what's next)? Study findings can advance the development of theoretical frameworks on pathways to healthy relationships among male in-laws and adds to our understanding on the ways in which Black men make meaning of their roles and responsibilities within multigenerational and extended family systems. Future studies should explore how generational changes may be shaping the roles men in Black families are playing in multigenerational relationships, rituals (e.g., holidays and family get togethers), and parenting.

How did you become interested in this line of inquiry? Drs. Geoff Greif and Michael Woolley (e.g., third author) conducted a mixed-methods study of over 1,500 in-laws. The study included data collected from sons-in-law, fathers-in-law, mothers-in-law, and daughters-in-law about their relations with their same gender in-law. Given my research interests in father involvement and healthy Black families, they invited me to use their data to study Black sons-in-law and their relationships with their fathers-in-law.

Additionally, this work is personal and very important to all of us. Two of the co-authors are women of color, raised by their fathers, and whose research focuses on the impact of positive father involvement within Black families. The third author is a White male, who had both a father and a stepfather, and who feels the roles of men in multigenerational family relationships and functioning broadly has been understudied, and as we see generational changes in the level of engagement by men the need for more research to inform policy and practice seems more salient than eve.

Ericka M. Lewis, PhD, LMSW Associate Professor University of Maryland | School of Social Work

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