This study investigated the dissimilarity in midlife adults’ reports of support they and their spouse provide to their parents-in-law, gender differences in these dissimilarity patterns, and implications of this dissimilarity for marital quality. Middle-aged married participants (n = 164, mean age = 53.96 years) from Wave 2 of the Family Exchanges Study reported on the support they and their spouse provided to at least 1 living parent-in-law. Regression models examined associations of marital satisfaction with support for parents-in-law, evaluations of support for parents-in-law, and spousal dissimilarity in support. Gender differences in own and spousal support for parents-in-law revealed matrilineal focused support among married adults. Spousal dissimilarity in support was negatively associated with marital satisfaction for middle-aged adults. This pattern suggests the importance of a perceived balance in supporting one’s spouse’s parents for marital quality.

Due to the increased life expectancy and longer shared lives of aging parents and adult offspring, most married adult children are likely to provide support for both their aging parents and their parents-in-law. Thus, providing informal support for a parent-in-law has become common among middle-aged adults [1, 2]. Recently, scholars have started to pay more attention to in-law relationships in an effort to explore the implications of intergenerational relationships for the marital relationships of adult children [3, 4]. In a recent survey by AARP it was found that approximately 34.2 million Americans have provided unpaid care to an adult aged 50 years or older in the prior 12-month period [5]. The vast majority of caregivers in the USA take care of their relatives (85%). Among those who provide support for relatives, 7% reported that they provided care for a parent-in-law.

Indeed, more and more middle-aged married adult children are likely to continue to be in contact with or even involved in the provision of support for parents as well as parents-in-law [6]. Recent studies have indicated that most married adult children, given their longer relationships with aging parents and parents-in-law, often balance their contact and support with both sets of parents [7, 8]. Relatedly, popular culture portrays a longstanding battle between spouses resulting from inequity in the provision of support dedicated to each of their parents. However, few empirical studies have examined the support middle-aged adult children (40–60 years old) provide to their parents-in-law [9, 10] or how a perceived spousal dissimilarity in this support for parents-in-law contributes to marital satisfaction.

Gender Differences in Support to Parents-In-Law

Caring for aging parents continues to be viewed as women’s work, rendering daughters’ and daughters-in-law’s greater participation compared to sons or sons-in-law [6, 11]. The gender role expectation framework [12] also suggests that women provide more care than men do. Consistent with these theories and gender norms in family caregiving, several studies have found gender differences in the support married adult children provide to their own aging parents, with married daughters more likely to provide more support to their own parents [13, 14].

Compared to providing support for their own aging parents, however, we know relatively little about gender differences in the provision of support/assistance to in-laws [10, 15]. Studies on assistance to parents-in-law tend to focus on patterns of support for parents-in-law and factors influencing the patterns of support (e.g., employment) rather than perceived equity between married adult children in support for parents-in-law [6, 10, 15, 16]. Further, there are few studies on the implications of support for parents-in-law for marital relationships.

Compared to support for aging parents, studies on caregiving for in-laws have yielded equivocal findings on gender differences. Consistent with gender role expectation theories [12], some studies have found that adult daughters provided more support to their aging parents-in-law than the support adult sons provide to their own parents [1, 11, 13], whereas Neal et al. [14] found no significant gender differences. Other studies, however, found narrow gender gaps in family hours including support for parents and parents-in-law [14, 15]. The observed inconsistency between studies might be due to differences in the caregiving activities measured or the characteristics of the samples in these studies [16]. It is notable, however, that most of the studies reported above measured caregiving activities for parents-in-law who need a significant amount of care and effort due to health or disability. Therefore, there are few studies examining provision of routine support for parents-in-law who do not have significant health needs.

In terms of directionality of support for parents-in-law, some studies suggest that assistance provided by married children tends to flow along matrilineal lines to the parents of wives rather than to the husbands’ parents [6, 15, 17]. Given that daughters tend to coordinate care within the family, it is possible that married adult daughters arrange their husbands’ support for their own (the daughters’) parents. In particular, these studies revealed that married sons are frequently involved in providing care for parents-in-law due to their wives’ influence [6, 7, 15].

Studies have examined the amount of support provided to parents-in-law and parents from each spouse, but a dearth of research has considered gender differences in the perception of support for parents-in-law. The current study aims to address this gap in the literature by examining married adult children’s perceptions of the support they and their spouse provide to parents-in-law as well as how they evaluate their own and their spouse’s provision of support to parents-in-law. Based on prior research findings on matrilineal preferences, we expected that adult sons would report providing more support to parents-in-law (i.e., wife’s parents) than adult daughters do (hypothesis 1; H1). With regard to evaluation, adult sons tend to overestimate their support for family members, whereas adult daughters tend to be more accurate [18]. Thus, we expected that, compared to adult daughters, adult sons would be more likely to perceive that they provide more support than they prefer to give (H2).

Perceptions of Support for Parents-In-Law and Marital Satisfaction

This study also explores the association between support for parents-in-law (i.e., levels and evaluation of support) and marital satisfaction. Middle-aged sons and daughters who are married, specifically those who report high marital satisfaction or quality, may be at an advantage in terms of health and longevity relative to their unmarried counterparts for a number of reasons. One of the major benefits of marriage in midlife is the protection against risks of social isolation, thus enhancing both mental and physical health. Additionally, having a better quality of marriage has been shown to be beneficial for physical health [19]. Overall, the benefits of marriage for well-being in midlife are well established.

We examined the associations between perceptions of support for parents-in-law and marital satisfaction within the framework of social exchange theory [20]. Social exchange theory proposes that partners in a marriage will try to maximize their rewards. Each should consider the relationship most satisfying when the rewards outweigh the costs. According to this theory, there is a negative linear relationship between the amount of family work (costs) and marital satisfaction.

Compared to adult children who have a relationship history with their own parents, children-in-law do not experience a comparable sense of reciprocity towards their parents-in-law. Thus, their support for parents-in-law may create the perception that their support is a voluntary choice rather than an obligation based on a shared history of support. Given that most married adult children and their spouses often have conflicting responsibilities, such as careers or children, providing higher levels of support for parents-in-law – regardless of whether it is voluntary or solicited by their spouses – may contribute to greater demands, psychological distress, and marital tension. Therefore, we expected that providing more support to in-laws might contribute to psychological distress, leading to marital tension and conflict. Based on the social exchange theory [20], we expected that those who provide higher levels of support to their parents-in-law would be more likely to report lower marital satisfaction (H3a). Although few studies have directly examined middle-aged adults’ evaluation of support for parents-in-law, we also expected a similar pattern of findings; that is, when adult children considered that their support for in-laws was more than they expected or desired, they would report lower marital satisfaction (H3b).

Spousal Dissimilarity in Support for Parents-In-Law and Marital Satisfaction

The equity theory states that when both partners contribute equitably to the common good (i.e., the family), relationship satisfaction is higher [21]. The literature also suggests that perceptions of equity in family work are more strongly associated with marital satisfaction [22]. Indeed, research suggests that perceived equity in household labor is positively correlated with both husbands’ and wives’ reported marital happiness [23, 24].

Relatedly, a recent study on middle-aged couples reported that dissimilarity between spouses in filial obligation was associated with lower marital satisfaction [3]. Given that filial obligation towards aging parents may shape the resource allocations within families, perceived spousal dissimilarity in support for parents-in-law may have similar implications for their marital quality. Prior studies have only considered the implication of the support for parents-in-law; essentially, it remains unclear to what extent spousal dissimilarity in perceptions of support for parents-in-law contributes to marital satisfaction.

In our study, we examined both dissimilarity in levels of support as well as dissimilarity in evaluation of support. Dissimilarity in levels of support is the difference between the frequency of support married adult children report providing to their parents-in-law and the frequency of support their spouse provides to their parents. In comparison, dissimilarity in evaluation of support refers to the difference between what married adult children believe about the support they provide to their parents-in-law compared to what they believe their spouse provides to the parents-in-law (i.e., his or her own parents) (online suppl. Fig. 1; see www.-karger.com/doi/10.1159/000505589 for all online suppl. material). If a married son or daughter perceives that his or her spouse is much more involved in supporting his or her own parents (i.e., dissimilarity in levels of support), it may create marital conflict as this help may drain the resources couples often share. Interestingly, studies have rarely examined the perception of spousal dissimilarity in intergenerational support for parents-in-law from the perspective of adult children. Thus, based on the equity theory and the social exchange theory [20, 21], we expected that when married adult children perceived more disparity in the provision of support for parents-in-law they would be more likely to feel resentful of their spouse. Therefore, greater spousal dissimilarity in levels of support to parents-in-law will be associated with adult children reporting lower marital satisfaction (H3c) and greater spousal dissimilarity in evaluation of support to parents-in-law will be associated with lower marital satisfaction of adult children (H3d).

Gender Differences in Associations Between Spousal Dissimilarity and Marital Satisfaction

Studies on gender differences in dissimilarity and marital satisfaction generate equivocal findings. Compared with adult sons, adult daughters tend to maintain the kin-keeper role, providing more support for extended family members [4, 25], indicating that adult daughters are more vulnerable to dissimilarity in housework. Other studies have also found that adult daughters are more likely to accept gender disparity in housework including support for parents-in-law [13, 26]. Thus, given these inconsistent findings, we explored gender differences in spousal dissimilarity in support for parents-in-law and marital satisfaction without testing specific hypotheses. Similarly, we explored whether there are gender differences in the association between spousal dissimilarity in evaluation of support for parents-in-law and marital satisfaction.

The Current Study

To examine patterns of support for parents-in-law and their implications for adult children’s marriage, this study used data from a survey of 164 married middle-aged adult children who have at least 1 living parent-in-law as well as 1 living parent. Participants provided information about support (a) they provide to parents-in-law (i.e., their spouse’s parents) and (b) their spouse provides to his/her own parents (i.e., participant’s parents-in-law), including levels of support as well as evaluation of support (online suppl. Fig. 1; for all suppl. material, see www.karger.com/doi/0.1159/000505589). In the current study, support to in-laws refers to providing some type of instrumental support.

Compared to filial obligation to their own parents, filial obligation or expectations for supporting parents-in-law are less clear and more ambiguous [8]. Given that the nature of in-law relationships is not clearly prescribed in current US families, providing support for parents-in-law may render middle-aged adult children less positive marital outcomes, such as lower marital satisfaction. Based on the literature examining intergenerational exchanges between middle-aged adult children and their stepparents or divorced parents, we hypothesize that middle-aged adult children are less likely to be motivated to provide support for parents-in-law. Furthermore, the levels of support for parents-in-law are more likely to contribute to marital dispute or dissatisfaction with the relationship.

Specifically, the current study has 3 objectives. First, we examine gender differences in the support middle-aged adults provide to their parents-in-law. Second, for the support evaluation for parents-in-law, we consider whether the amount of support they are giving to parents-in-law is consistent with their preferences for providing support to parents-in-law. We also examine gender differences in how middle-aged adults evaluate the support they provide to parents-in-law. Third, we examine the implications of support for parents-in-law (i.e., levels and evaluation of support) for marital satisfaction. We also explore how dissimilarities in the levels and evaluations of support between spouses (i.e., own support for parents-in-law vs. spouse’s support for parents-in-law) are associated with adult children’s marital satisfaction, including the extent to which these associations vary by gender. Thus, spousal dissimilarity reflects adult children’s “perceived” equity in family support (i.e., between 2 sets of parents-in-law in marital relations) based on the adult children’s perceptions of their own contribution to parents-in-law and their spouse’s contribution to parents-in-law.

Sample

Participants were 164 middle-aged adults (mean age years = 54.32 for adult sons and 53.68 years for adult daughters) who are married and were drawn from the second wave of the Family Exchanges Study [27]. In 2008, the investigators of the study recruited a target sample of 633 middle-aged adults (aged 40–60 years) who had at least 1 living adult child aged 18 years or older and at least 1 living parent. The participants were recruited from the Philadelphia Primary Metropolitan Statistical Area (PMSA), encompassing 5 counties in southeastern Pennsylvania and 4 counties in New Jersey including urban, suburban, and rural areas. Potential participants were contacted by telephone using a sampling method stratified by age (40–50 years and 51–60 years), employing a list purchased from Genesys Corporation and random digit dialing within regional area codes. Target participants completed a telephone interview lasting approximately 1 h that addressed the support they exchanged and their relationships with their adult offspring and aging parents. Of the 845 eligible targets, 633 (75%) agreed to be interviewed. Data collection for Wave I of the Family Exchange Study was approved by the Purdue University Institutional Review Board.

A second wave of data was collected in 2013, and 490 participants from Wave 1 (77%) completed a telephone or web-based surveys lasting approximately 1 h. Wave 2 was approved by the University of Texas at Austin Institutional Review Board. Out of 490 participants, this study analyzed 164 married (n =161) or cohabiting participants (n =3) who had at least 1 living parent and 1 living parent-in-law (Table 1). The measure of support for parents-in-law was added to the second wave; therefore, we used the second wave only. Adult daughters comprised 48.2% of the final sample (n = 79). Seventy-one percent of the sample (n = 117) was white. The age of the participants ranged from 45 to 64 years, with a mean of 53.96 years (SD =4.45). The participants’ educational levels ranged from having some high school experience (28%) to having a graduate degree (72%), with an average education of 14.39 years (SD = 1.99). The average marriage duration of the participants was 14.40 years (SD = 2.02). They also reported having approximately 2.62 (SD = 1.26) adult children over the age of 18 years. Participants reported that their own parents also needed help in activities of daily living (ADL), such as help with personal care, or daily care such as housework and shopping (50.6%), but the mean of ADL assistance was relatively low (mean = 0.57, SD = 0.45 for sons and mean = 0.53, SD = 0.49 for daughters).

Table 1.

Descriptive statistics of the analytic sample

Descriptive statistics of the analytic sample
Descriptive statistics of the analytic sample

Measures

Own Support for Parents-In-Law and Spousal Support for His or Her Parents

Participants were asked to indicate how often they help their mother- or father-in-law with the tasks for which she or he needs help on an 8-point scale (1 = less than once a year or not at all to 8 = daily). Higher scores indicated a higher frequency in providing support for parents-in-law. As our focus was more on parents-in-law, not the gender of the parents-in-law, we used the mean score by collapsing 2 items (i.e., mother-in-law and father-in-law) when both parents-in-law were alive. The average scores were 2.15 (SD = 1.55) and 1.55 (SD = 1.19) for adult sons and daughters, respectively (Table 2). This indicates that adult sons provided support approximately once a year to a few times per year, whereas adult daughters provided support less than once a year. Similarly, participants were asked to indicate how often their spouse helps his or her parents (i.e., their own parents) on an 8-point scale (1 = less than once a year or not at all to 8 = daily). The mean scores were 3.08 (SD = 1.50; a few times per year) and 2.32 (SD = 1.18; once a year to a few times per year) for adult sons and adult daughters, respectively.

Table 2.

Own and spousal support for parents-in-law

Own and spousal support for parents-in-law
Own and spousal support for parents-in-law

Evaluation of Support for Parents-In-Law and Spousal Support for His or Her Parents

Participants were also asked to indicate how they would evaluate the amount of help they gave their mother/father-in-law on a 5-point scale (1 = less than you would like, 2 = a little less than you would like, 3 = about the right amount, 4 = a little more than you would like, and 5 = more than you would like). Higher scores indicated that participants were providing more support than they would like. As with support for parent-in-law scores, we used the mean score to indicate the average evaluation of support for parents-in-law regardless of the gender of the parents-in-law when both scores for the mother- and father-in-law were available. The mean score was 1.94 (SD = 0.78) and 1.48 (SD = 0.86) for adult sons and adult daughters, respectively. This indicates that adult sons evaluated their support for parents-in-law as less than they would like to a little less than they would like, whereas adult daughters reported it as less than they would like. Similarly, we asked participants to evaluate their spouse’s support for their own parents. The mean score was 2.07 (SD = 0.83) and 1.61 (SD = 0.85) for adult sons and adult daughters, respectively. Compared to their own evaluation, scores were lower, but not significantly different, from those of spouses (Table 2).

Spousal Dissimilarity Score

Spousal dissimilarity refers to the difference in the support provided for parents-in-law between spouses – reported by participants (i.e., adult sons or daughters). This spousal dissimilarity shows the participants’ perception of their own contribution as well as that of their spouse’s contribution, reflecting their own perception of equity in support for parents-in-law within the marital relation.

Based on the frequency of support and evaluation of support for parents-in-law, we derived 2 dissimilarity scores. First, to examine spousal dissimilarity in support for parents-in-law, we created an absolute dissimilarity score by subtracting the frequency of support participants reported that their spouse provided for his/her own parents from the support frequency participants reported providing to their parents-in-law (Fig. 1). This compares the frequency of participants’ support for parents-in-law and that of their spouse for his or her own parents. The use of absolute difference scores rather than the difference score enables examination of the magnitude of differences while avoiding problems related to collinearity in the models [3]. Thus, higher dissimilarity scores reflect greater spousal dissimilarity in the support provided for parents-in-law. The mean spousal dissimilarity in support for parents-in-law was 0.96 (SD = 1.02) for adult sons and 0.94 (SD = 0.96) for adult daughters.

Fig. 1.

Dissimilarity in support and evaluation of support.

Fig. 1.

Dissimilarity in support and evaluation of support.

Close modal

Second, the spousal dissimilarity in evaluation of support for parents-in-law was similarly computed (Fig. 1). Higher dissimilarity scores indicate greater spousal dissimilarity in evaluation of support for parents-in-law, indicating that the participant believes that they have done much more or less compared to his or her spouse in supporting parents-in-law. The mean spousal dissimilarity in evaluation of support for parents-in-law was 0.28 (SD = 0.35) for adult sons and 0.35 (SD = 0.51) for adult daughters. Among 164 participants, 103 participants (63%) expressed that their support for parents-in-law was similar and the remaining participants (n =61; 37%) reported that their spouse provided more or less help to their parents-in-law (spouse’s own parents).

Marital Satisfaction

Marital satisfaction was assessed with 4 items adapted from prior research (e.g., American’s Changing Lives Survey) [28]. Participants rated the quality of the relationship with their spouse/partner, satisfaction with the marriage, satisfaction with relationships, and satisfaction with their husband/wife as a spouse on a 5-point scale (1 = poor/not at all to 5 = excellent/extremely). The mean score was 3.94 (SD = 0.86) for adult sons and 3.63 (SD = 1.11) for adult daughters (Table 1). The α was 0.94 and 0.96 for adult sons and adult daughters, respectively.

Covariates

We considered participant’s individual characteristics in the analyses, including age, gender (1 = male, 0 = female), race (1 = white, 0 = nonwhite race), years of education, employment status (1 = full/part time, 0 = not employed or retired), own life problems (e.g., health problems or injury, financial problems [yes/no]; sum of 8 problems), self-rated health (1 = poor to 5 = excellent), and depressive symptoms. Depressive symptoms were measured with 5 items adapted from the Brief Symptom Inventory [29]. Participants rated how often they had experienced these feelings in the past 7 days (i.e., lonely, blue, worthless, hopeless about the future, and no interest in things) from 1 (not at all) to 5 (extremely), and a mean score was calculated (α = .89).

For family characteristics, we also considered the number of living parent(s), the number of living parents-in-law, the number of adult children, coresidence with aging parents, overall levels of support for participant’s own parents, and ADL needs of their own parents (i.e., sum of 4 ADL items [yes/no]; if both parents were living, the mean scores across the 2 parents were used). Support for own parents was measured using the Intergenerational Support Scale [27], which includes different types of support (i.e., companionship, listening to the other person talk about daily events, emotional support, practical support, giving advice, and financial assistance). Participants rated how frequently they provided these 6 types of support to their parents on an 8-point scale (1 = less than once a year or not at all to 8 = daily). Mean scores of 6 items were calculated (α = 0.55 and 0.72 for adult sons and adult daughters, respectively). If both parents were living, the mean scores across the 2 parents were calculated. Table 1 presents the means and SD for these variables included in the analyses.

Analytic Strategy

First, we conducted t tests to examine differences between married daughters and married sons in terms of their support for their parents-in-law. Next, we conducted a series of linear regression models to examine associations between support of parents-in-law (levels and evaluations), spousal dissimilarity in support of parents-in-law, and marital satisfaction, with marital satisfaction as the dependent variable. Predictors included support for parents-in-law and spousal dissimilarity in support for parents-in-law, and evaluation of support for parents-in-law and spousal dissimilarity in evaluation of support for parents-in-law – which were examined in separate models.

We estimated correlations between outcome variables and covariates and eliminated those variables that were not significantly correlated with outcome variables [30]. Based on the correlations with outcome variables, all models controlled for several individual characteristics (i.e., age, gender, education, race, employment, own life problems, depressive symptoms, and self-rated health) and family characteristics (i.e., coresidence with aging parents, overall level of support for own parents, and own parents’ ADL).

For the research question on gender differences in association with marital satisfaction, we computed possible interactions to examine whether the associations between spousal dissimilarity in support and evaluation of support and marital satisfaction differed by gender.

Means and SD for participants’ scores on major study variables are presented in Table 2. The results are presented in 3 sections. First, we present t test results that examine gender differences in the level of support and evaluation of support for parents-in-law. Next, we provide the linear regression models examining whether the amount of support, spousal dissimilarity in support, and/or spousal dissimilarity in evaluation of support are associated with marital satisfaction.

Gender Differences in Support for Parents-In-Law

Results from independent samples t tests indicated that adult sons reported providing more support for their parents-in-law (i.e., wives’ parents) than adult daughters provided to their parents-in-law (Table 2) (t[162] = –3.03, p < 0.01, in support of the first hypothesis [H1]). In terms of evaluation of support for parents-in-law, findings indicated that, compared to adult daughters, adult sons also evaluated their support for parents-in-law to be more than they liked (t[162] = –3.62, p < 0.001, in support of the second hypothesis [H2]).

Support for Parents-in-Law, Spousal Dissimilarity in Support, and Marital Satisfaction

We next examined whether the amount of support for parents-in-law was associated with marital satisfaction. As shown in Table 3, level of support for parents-in-law was not associated with marital satisfaction (H3a; see model 2 in Table 3). In contrast, spousal dissimilarity in the level of support for parents-in-law was significantly associated with marital satisfaction (H3c; see model 3 in Table 3), but the interaction between gender and spousal dissimilarity was not significant (not shown in Table 3 but available upon request). That is, for both adult sons and adult daughters, when they perceived more dissimilarity in support for parents-in-law they reported lower marital satisfaction.

Table 3.

Regression models predicting marital satisfaction from support for parents-in-law

Regression models predicting marital satisfaction from support for parents-in-law
Regression models predicting marital satisfaction from support for parents-in-law

We also considered the evaluation of support for parents-in-law and marital satisfaction. As shown in model 2 of Table 4, the evaluation of support for parents-in-law was not associated with marital satisfaction (H3b). However, spousal dissimilarity in evaluation of support for parents-in-law was negatively associated with marital satisfaction (H3d; see model 3 in Table 4). Further, the gender interaction with dissimilarity was not significant (not shown in Table 4 but available upon request). This indicates that, for both adult sons and adult daughters, when they perceived more spousal dissimilarity in evaluation of support for parents-in-law they reported lower marital satisfaction.

Table 4.

Regression models predicting marital satisfaction from evaluation of support for parents-in-law

Regression models predicting marital satisfaction from evaluation of support for parents-in-law
Regression models predicting marital satisfaction from evaluation of support for parents-in-law

Together, we found support for gender differences in support for parents-in-law. Compared to adult daughters, adult sons reported higher support for parents-in-law and reported providing more support to their parents-in-law than desired. Additionally, we found ex-pected results for the association between spousal dis-similarity in support/evaluation of support for parents-in-law and marital satisfaction. However, neither the frequency of support for parents-in-law nor the evaluation of support for parents-in-law was associated with marital satisfaction. Interestingly, we did not find any significant gender interactions, indicating that the association between spousal dissimilarity in parents-in-law support and marital satisfaction is similar across adult sons and adult daughters.

Post-Hoc Analysis

We conducted post-hoc analysis to ensure the stability of findings related to dissimilarity scores. Because absolute values of dissimilarity scores do not consider the direction of dissimilarity (i.e., whether the adult son provided more support for his parents-in-law compared to his wife vs. whether the adult son provided less support for his parents-in-law compared to his wife), we created 3 different categories for dissimilarity (zero, positive, and negative dissimilarity scores). Thus, we compared the models with absolute dissimilarity scores with models with 3 (raw) dissimilarity categories. The former model reflects dissimilarity in support and evaluation itself rather than dissimilarity in direction (whether one contributes more than his/her spouse does).

We found that the results were essentially the same. That is, we did not find any differences in terms of the findings (participants who contributed more vs. participants whose spouses contributed more). Interestingly, over 30 and 62% of the couples reported zero dissimilarity in support and dissimilarity in evaluation, indicating that most agreed that they and their spouses contributed similarly to parents-in-law. In sum, post-hoc tests with raw dissimilarity scores indicated that the findings are stable and consistent with absolute dissimilarity scores. It also demonstrates that dissimilarity in support matters more for the marital satisfaction than directions of dissimilarity in support.

A burgeoning literature has examined the effects of spouses providing care to their own parents on marital quality [31, 32]. However, many midlife adults are also in a situation where they support their spouse’s parents, their parents-in-law. These adults’ perceptions of whether they or their spouses are giving more to their in-laws than they desire may have implications for how satisfied they are with their marriage. Prior to this study, examinations of the association between perceived inequity for supporting parents-in-law and marital satisfaction remained scarce. Our study is, to our knowledge, one of the first inquiries that examined the association between spousal dissimilarity in perceived support for parents-in-law and marital satisfaction among middle-aged adults. Our findings suggest that, for middle-aged adults, perceived dissimilarity in in-law support and evaluation of that support may play critical roles in marital satisfaction, more so than the actual frequency of support provided to parents-in-law.

In the past several decades, family scholars have examined gendered division of household labor in terms of childcare, household chores, and provision of support for adult children’s own parents [10, 16]. Our findings also revealed important gender differences in the provision of support for parents-in-law. Compared to adult daughters (i.e., support given to the husband’s parents), adult sons reported providing higher levels of support to parents-in-law (i.e., the wife’s parents). This finding is consistent with prior studies reporting that intergenerational support daughters provide flows mostly to their own parents [6, 11]. However, these prior studies have often examined intergenerational support for adult children’s own aging parents and had not examined what married adult sons and adult daughters provided for parents-in-law. Our findings support the matrilineal preferences in USA, where wives’ parents receive more in terms of support exchanges.

Previous studies have found that men tend to overestimate their own contribution, although they also found that men tend to make accurate assessments of their wives’ time [33]. In this study, we also found that adult sons reported that their own contribution to parents-in-law was much higher than adult daughters did. Given the trends in our data, men tend to report more support for their parents-in-law as well as their spousal support for their own parents.

Few studies have examined the associations between spousal support for parents-in-law and marital satisfaction. Interestingly, we did not find this association to be significant in our study. Related to the findings of participants’ own support for their parents-in-law, the level of support may not have significant implications for their marriage. Contrary to the caregiving studies where intensive support and help place a strain on the couple’s relationships [34, 35], this study found that the frequency of support for parents-in-law was not related to marital satisfaction. This result can be explained by relatively lower levels of burden on participants, as most of them provided support to parents-in-law infrequently (i.e., less than a few times a month). This finding is consistent with prior studies that have found normative types of support provided for aging parents were not associated with marital relationships [7]. Other studies have reported that the dissimilarity in perceptions of each spouse’s contribution matters less compared to the dissimilarity in support in household labor [36]. In addition, their support for parents-in-law may have been balanced with the support they received from parents-in-law, as most adult children are still receiving support from aging parents [7]. As we did not have information about the amount of support they received from parents-in-law, future studies should explore this possibility.

Our results are consistent with previous research that has conceptualized the inequity in the division of household labor as undesirable for marriage [37, 38]. We highlight this phenomenon within the specific context of intergenerational family including parents-in-law. Previous studies have emphasized the effects of women’s parent care on their marital satisfaction [10, 31], but our findings also indicate that marital satisfaction is associated with greater spousal dissimilarity in support for parents-in-law.

Another contribution of this study is that our finding is consistent with research demonstrating that stressors outside of the marriage can “spill over” and affect spouses’ perceptions of their relationships [39]. From the perspective of adult children, their relationships with parents-in-law are often viewed as personal and volitional choices rather than family obligation of support for their own parents [40]. Thus, they may perceive support for parents-in-law as an extra support unlike their obligation to their own aging parents. Thus, support for parents-in-law can add a greater family workload for them, which could lead to marital conflict. Prior studies have tended to focus on relationship quality or filial obligation with parents-in-law and provision of support for mother-in-law [26] instead of examining the dissimilarity in support between spouses. Expanding prior research, our findings indicate that spousal dissimilarity in support for parents-in-law as well as spousal dissimilarity in evaluation of support for parents-in-law are implicated in consequences leading from perception of inequity to marital satisfaction. This finding indicates that in-law relationships can create dissatisfying marital relationships between spouses who have emotional and psychological loyalties to their own kin [41].

Limitations

This study highlights the importance of the broader family context in marital relationships, incorporating the perception of married adults about the support they provide to extended family members. It is important, however, to acknowledge the limitations of the current study. First, we cannot determine directionality of the associations between in-law support and marital satisfaction given the cross-sectional nature of the data, offering only a snapshot of the constantly evolving marital relationship. For example, happily married couples may have perceived a lower spousal dissimilarity in support for parents-in-law.

Second, this study relied on the subjective perceptions of individual informants (i.e., without spouses). When data are obtained from a single-family member using self-report measures, the relationships between variables may be inflated, as their estimation of support can be biased [36]. In particular, participants who are satisfied with their marriage may overreport their spouses’ contribution to household [42]. This limitation suggests the need for research based on information obtained from multiple family members within the same family.

Third, our measures tapped overall perceptions of marital satisfaction as opposed to their perceived satisfaction with support for parents-in-law specifically. Support for parents-in-law may be one factor affecting a general sense of satisfaction with a marriage; however, it is not the only factor, as evidenced by the fact that relationship history, socioeconomic circumstances, and other family contexts emerged as significant predictors of marital satisfaction.

Fourth, our sample included cohabiting couples. Although the literature suggests that cohabiting couples may have different filial obligations to parents-in-law from married couples, the number of cohabiting couples in our data was too small to compare the support for parents-in-law by legal binding of the person’s union status (i.e., married vs. cohabiting). Future studies need to examine the support for parents-in-law across different union types.

Finally, there is no information about how the couples shared other types of informal care for parents. Despite information about their support for parents and adult children, we do not know how the other spouse is involved in different areas of family labor/work. It is possible that spousal dissimilarity in support for parents-in-law is part of larger relationship inequities. It is unclear what types of support each spouse provided to his or her parents-in-law. Depending on the type of work (i.e., advice vs. help with chores) they provide for their parents-in-law, their perception of equity may be different.

Future studies would benefit from focusing on periods of stress or transition points in the aging family to identify if such situations would more strongly elicit marital conflict or tensions. Future research should also measure what types of support each spouse provides to his or her parents-in-law. The gender differences we found in the current study may not represent the various types of support that couples provide for their parents-in-law. A related avenue for future research is to examine the correspondence of support for parents-in-law between spouses from both members of the dyad and the effects of this correspondence on marital satisfaction. In sum, this study supports previous findings that suggest spousal dissimilarity in parental care is an important factor that shapes couples’ marriages. We hope this study will highlight the importance of examining support for parents-in-law.

Jeong Eun Lee: conceptualization, analysis, and writing (original draft and review). Kyungmin Kim and Kelly E. Cichy: writing (review and editing). Karen L. Fingerman: conceptualization, project administration, and writing (draft and review).

The authors have no conflict of interests to declare.

National Institute on Aging, National Institutes of Health. Family Exchanges Study II (R01AG027769).

This research was ethically conducted in accordance with in accordance with the World Medical Association Declaration of Helsinki.

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