Bad mother in law jokes are usually good for a few laughs, and used to be the fodder for many 80’s stand-up comedians. But for us South Asians, the in-laws are no joke. For most married couples they are a huge part of married life, and many expected to live with them.
As such, and unlike for our Western counterparts, our in-laws are a feature in our daily lives; they are not simply relatives to be tolerated on birthdays and at religious festivals.
It’s not unusual for the father in-law to be head of the family, and when he passes on an uncle or older brother takes over this role. Decisions have to be run past them and made with their consent. Their opinions count and often decision- making often means considering their needs and desires.
So how do young Asian couples carve out some space for themselves whilst still maintaining happy, healthy relationships with the wider family? And how does this work if you are living with your in-laws?
One theory put forward argues that understanding the Asian cultural mind set: collectivism v’s individualism goes a long way to making the relationships work.
Individualism versus Collectivism
In the West, it’s perfectly acceptable to have the standpoint that your life is your own. You have the right to live as you see fit and make your own judgements and decisions- this is individualism. Collectivism on the other hand is the idea that your life belongs to the group or society you are a part of. You have little if few rights of your own and often you must sacrifice your own values and goals for the good of the group. Sound familiar?! If you substitute the word ‘group’ with the word ‘family’ you’ve pretty much described what it is to be a part of a South Asian family!
You’re expected to value what the family wants over what you & your spouse want. A romantic weekend getaway for two is more likely to be taking your elderly in-laws away with you because otherwise they don’t get a holiday. Or a night out with girlfriends could mean taking your younger sister-in-law along with you because you are expected to include her. Considering buying a new car? Forget the idea of a two-seater convertible, you’re more likely to buy a people carrier so that you can drive your in-laws to and from all the family functions you attend!
It might sound laughable and even deplorable to the Western mind- set, but the truth is this is a totally normal and acceptable reality for many South Asian couples. Putting the family first, including the in-laws of every generation in most situations, is all part of married life.
So how does all this help with understanding and dealing with your in-laws? Understanding that their priority will always be the family can help you manage the demands of the relationship. Above all set clear boundaries. This is bound to put a few noses out of joint. It will not come easily or without resistance but is absolutely vital for marital harmony. You simply cannot afford to put your in-laws or for that matter your own parents’ needs above those of your and your partner all the time, as this does not a happy marriage make! Instead compromise- a little give and take will go a long way. Respect will always be the cornerstone of your relationship, so do be mindful of that in all your dealings. Communicate your needs and clearly and respectfully. They won’t always ‘hear’ you, but be clear on where you stand and respectfully stand your ground. And that leads me to my next point: pick your battles! Don’t sweat some of the smaller stuff and that will allow you a bit more room when it comes to the bigger decisions.
Of course the good thing about collectivism- family as the priority means that when you and your partner need your wider family, they will usually be there for you. And this is a wonderful aspect of South Asian life.