Making Sense of Hurtful Mother-in-law Messages: Applying Attribution Theory to the In-Law Triad

Christine E. Rittenour, Jody Koenig Kellas

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

14 Scopus citations


This study focused on hurtful messages daughters-in-law (DILs, N = 132) reported receiving from mothers-in-law (MILs). Results reveal various hurtful message types: under- and overinvolvement, personal attacks, and hurt communicated to or through a third party. Grounded in attribution theory, we examined DILs’ attributions for MILs’ hurtful messages and their perceived agreement with their husbands’ reasoning for the message. Our findings illuminate distress-maintaining and relationship-enhancing attribution biases for MILs’ behaviors, such that DILs who were less satisfied with their MILs tended to make more internal attributions for MIL hurtful behaviors, and more satisfied DILs tended to make more external attributions. The degree to which a DIL believed she and her husband interpreted his mother’s behavior similarly was also important and positively predicted marital satisfaction. Findings addto the growing portrait of in-law communication, offering directions for hurtful messages and attribution theorizing in the in-law context.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)62-80
Number of pages19
JournalCommunication Quarterly
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1 2015


  • Attributions
  • Distress-Maintaining
  • Hurtful Messages
  • In-Law Relations
  • Relationship-Enhancing

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Communication

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