Copyright 2009 by Neil Chethik – www.NeilChethik.com

Pay attention to how he treats his mother. It's a statement women often hear when they wonder aloud how a boyfriend or husband might behave toward them in the long run. And there's apparent logic in this comparison. A man's mother and his wife are both women; thus, it might seem, a man's attitude toward each should be similar. But, according to the VoiceMale Survey, a man's relationship with his mother does not influence his marriage as much as we may think. It is, more importantly, a man's relationship with his father that shapes him into the husband he will become.

“My dad had a high kindness quotient,” a forty-three-year-old public-relations specialist tells me. “In that way, at least, I try to be every inch my father's son.”

This husband says he often remembers a statement his father made more than thirty years ago, when the son was a grade-schooler. The father said: “Before my foot hits the floor each morning, I ask myself: ‘What can I do for my family today?' “ As a kid, the son didn't really understand. Now married for three years, those words inspire him. His rather died four years before our conversation, but the son says: “A passion for family is some- thing we'll always share.”'

This husband was one of many who saw the enormous influence their fathers had on their married lives. Another man, a thirty-year-old middle-school teacher, credits his dad with teaching him most of what he knows about being a husband. Married six years, with one daughter, this husband says: “I think about how my dad handled various situation- all the time. I think about how he reacted to things, how he spoke, how he managed when he was angry. He is a constant gauge for me as far as my own behaviors are concerned, something I can measure myself against.”

Asking a man to explain how his parents shaped him is surely an incomplete method of discerning the parents' actual influence. Most parental influence is subtle, even preconscious. That's why, in addition to asking direct questions about such influence, I used my statistical survey to test for more subtle links. In the survey, I asked men, first, whether they had positive or negative relationships with their mothers and fathers in childhood. Later, I asked how happy they were in their current marriages.

One significant surprise: Men who had very positive relationships with their mothers in childhood were no more or less likely to be happy in their relationships with their wives. This does not mean that mothers are superfluous in shaping their sons. . . . But the finding does challenge the conventional wisdom that a man's bond with his mother can predict his bond with his wife.

Particularly in light of this finding, our survey offered a second surprise on this topic: Men who had very positive relationships with their fathers in childhood were considerably more likely than others to be happily married to their wives. Specifically, a man who had a very positive bond with his father was, in his marriage, more likely to report fairness in housework, less likely to hit his wife during arguments, less likely to consider separation or divorce, and more likely be happily married overall.

Sons (and daughters) learn about marriage largely by watching their parents in action. And it's clear that men from homes in which a marriage fractures are at higher risk for marital problems themselves.

According to my survey, about one in five current American husbands came from a home in which his parents divorced; nearly one in three are now in marriages to women in which one or both sets of their parents have divorced. Not surprisingly, men in these marriages report more struggle than those in marriages in which neither partner has divorced parents. In their marriages, my survey showed, these men argued more often; perceived less fairness in housework, child care, and family finances; and more often considered separation or divorce.

Clearly, the impact of a man's parents on his marriage can be huge. But we shouldn't overlook the impact of his wife's parents either. The ability of a couple to stay positively connected for the long haul has as much to do with her upbringing as it does with his.

The influence of in-laws becomes most apparent to men after the engagement, husbands told me. At this point, the mother-in-law often takes an active role in the wedding planning. This can cause tension as mother-in-law and husband-to-be tussle over access to, and influence over, the bride.

One husband recalled that he and his wife bought a condominium a few months before their marriage twenty-five years ago. He moved into it while his fiancée continued to live at her parents' home in the period leading up to the wedding. Then, at her bridal shower, she received a host of home-oriented gifts. The husband-to-be wanted to start using the gifts at the condo. But his fiancee's mother felt the gifts should not be used until the couple was officially married. This husband said the specific point of contention—whether to bring the gifts to the condo—was not nearly as important to him as who made the decision about it. “I told [my fiancée] that decisions that affect us are between us. We had an argument about that. Eventually, the gifts came my way.”

While this couple resolved their disagreement, in-laws continue to remain a potent source of discord even after the wedding. According to the VoiceMale Survey, in-laws rank fifth on the list of most common topics of marital disagreement; in 9 percent of marriages, in-laws stand as the number-one topic of arguments.

Several husbands told me that their mothers-in-law tried to sabotage their marriage. “Her mother didn't like me because I was poor,” one husband recalled of his first mother-in-law. “She had upper-class values. I was driving this beat-up 1978 Aspen . She wanted a guy with more money, more class.”

This man argued openly with his mother-in-law. At first, his wife sided with him. But as difficulties arose in the marriage relationship, she began to question her marital choice. Eventually, with moral support from her mother, she left her husband.

Cultural, religious, and ethnic differences are another potential flashpoint with in-laws. About 5 percent of American marriages today involve partners from different races, and perhaps more than half cross religious and/or ethnic lines. In some cases, in-laws rebel against such line-crossing. A forty-one-year-old Korean-American man I interviewed said he believes his first wife, who was European-American, left him in part because her parents would not accept him. This man and his wife were married for fifteen years and had three children together. From the very start of the couple's relationship, the wife's parents would neither visit their daughter and son-in-law nor welcome the son-in-law into their home. For several years, the daughter chose to stay away from her family too. But as the children grew, she felt it was important for them to know their grandparents.

The husband told me: “I could see [my wife] gradually reattach to her family. It was distressing. I'm still angry about it. I try to keep in mind that we all need our parents.” As with the previous couple, this woman turned to her parents when her marriage was struggling, and they gladly welcomed her back without her husband.

Another man, who is Asian Indian, recalls that when he called his mother in the early 1990s to tell her that he and his German-Irish girlfriend had decided to get married, the first words from his mother's mouth were “She's never cooked an Indian meal, and you're marrying her!”

Marriages between black and white partners were especially likely to cause rumblings among the in-laws, according to my interviews. One husband recalls his embarrassment when his mother asked his African-American wife what “colored folks” thought of a particular politician of the time. The husband said his wife was “understanding” about such incidents, and over time, his wife and mother have forged a loving relationship.

Their relationship was helped by the fact that both of their families were upper-middle-class. Indeed, class differences between a husband and wife sometimes created more friction than racial or religious differences. One husband, a university professor, told me that his parents-in-law are suspicious of him because of his job. The father-in-law had worked in a coal mine “and doesn't have much use for people who don't work with their hands.”

The good news is that major tension between husbands and their parents-in-law is relatively rare. Nearly 90 percent of the men in our survey said they had a positive relationship with their mothers-in-law. Fathers-in-law were also highly esteemed.

I was particularly struck by how some in-laws went out of their way to support their children's marriages. Peter Kahana, the fifty-two-year-old hospital records clerk, we met in Chapter Two, told me that he and his wife had almost no money when they married more than two decades earlier. To help the couple get on its feet financially, Peter's in-laws not only invited their daughter and Peter to live in their farmhouse after the wedding, but moved out for a year themselves. Peter told me: “They thought it was important that we live alone so our relationship could grow without being under a parent.”

The honeymoon year helped the marriage and bonded Peter and his father-in-law too. The father-in-law was a farmer and still tended fruit trees on his property. He asked Peter to look after the trees while he was away. Peter made sure he did a good job. And before turning the house back over to his parents-in-law, he planted potatoes, strawberries, corn, squash, and other crops that the older man could harvest. “That meant points for me,” Peter recalled.

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Neil Chethik is a writer and speaker. He is author of FatherLoss: How sons deal with the deaths of their dads (Hyperion) and VoiceMale: What Husbands Really Think of Their Wives (Simon & Schuster). Reach him at neil@neilchethik.com or at www.NeilChethik.com .

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Copyright 2009 Neil Chethik