Your struggle with your in-laws is real
Your friends from more individualistic cultures may not understand your struggles in a collectivist marriage.
His family has a big influence on your husband. The idea of having better boundaries seems out of reach. You have tried to create boundaries. But, nonetheless, his family still wants to play an active and sometimes interfering role in your lives.
You might even have a very close relationship with your own mother and siblings. You speak to your mother every day. If someone in your family needs help, you are willing to drop everything. Yet, your husband’s intense relationship with his parents bothers you.
Your friends do not understand your cultural background. The definition of the self in a collectivist culture is based on relationships. ‘I am me because of my relationship with you.’ In individualistic cultures the sense of self is strengthened by being separate from others. ‘I am me because I am not you.’
His family would give themselves permission to influence and even sometimes dictate how you live. His mother might make firm suggestions about how and when family events take place and what ceremonies should be performed. You find yourself entertaining his sister when it is convenient for her to visit you. she sees fit to His father might tell you how you should decorate your house. Your mother-in-law instructs you on what you and your children should wear, eat, drink or think. She even gets involved in your finances. If you protest, they might talk behind your back to your husband. He is not happy and he starts treating you differently.
Not all collectivist marriages are the same
Despite very similar cultural and religious backgrounds, you and your husband are not on the same page about his family. You have realized that not all collectivist families are alike. Even within the same community, spouses come from two different family cultures. There are differences in what family, religion and traditions mean.
You might even have great respect for his family. However, you struggle with the magnitude of his family’s influence on your lives. Your own family gives you more freedom and autonomy.
Many women from your own community might actually have a very positive experience of their in-laws. They might feel supported, loved and appreciated. But what if you have somehow never ‘clicked’ with your husband’s mother or father? What if no matter how much you’ve tried, you haven’t been able to get their ‘blessing’ in your marriage? What if they interfere with your relationship and your choices?
Your values conflict with his family’s behavior
Women have been traditionally expected to join their husband’s family. And, they have often found themselves on the lowest level in the pecking order. The family expects the young bride to be subservient to her mother-in-law and other elders in the family. A collectivist marriage is, indeed, a marriage of the collective.
Respect, honor, and humility are virtues and expectations placed upon women. In some ways taking the position of mother-in-law as the matron and father-in-law as the patriarch of the family is an intergenerational badge that’s passed on.
Perhaps your mother-in-law has endured similar experiences and a difficult relationship with her mother-in-law. But as a modern educated woman you struggle to accept this.
You may be financially independent from your husband. You value autonomy and empowerment. It’s not that you want to cut all ties with your own culture. You just want much more than the constraints of his family’s imposed value system.
You don’t want a forced relationship purely due to hierarchy and respect. Instead, you want a close personal and authentic relationship by choice.
How to manage conflict with his family
The reason solving this relationship dilemma is so tricky is because it puts your husband in the middle of tug-a-war. Your husband will be pulled in the conflict whether he likes it or not.
Different men respond to this in their own way. Some pretend to be on each side as a way to avoid personal conflict while others take a firmer stance on one side.
Usually when that support is toward the wife, it alleviates the frustrations and resentment of the wife. It might leave his family disappointed but they learn to accept. They don’t want to lose their relationship with him.
The husband who tries to keep everyone happy and the husband who takes a strong stance toward the family, tend to heighten anger, frustration and even despair in the wife.
Ideally, the solution to the problems that his family brings into your lives needs to be one that doesn’t cause harm to either you, your husband or your marriage. Your husband won’t be able to compromise with you if he feels threatened. The solution shouldn’t cause harm to your respective families, either, and ideally the solution would not create religious conflict.
1. Define your boundaries realistically
Before you can ask your husband to change, you need to know what you can and can’t live with. You will need to live with some things you might not like as long as you can tolerate those pain points. Saying that you can’t live a life with his family or expecting them not to play any part in your lives doesn’t leave your husband any space for his values. Neither does it leave any space for his attachment to his family.
As much as you might not like the idea of putting up with his mother at all, you have to think about what you could let go of. Remember this doesn’t mean that you are completely ok with those points you’re willing to let go of. It just means you are choosing not to waste your energy.
You stay true to your own values, likes and dislikes. At the same time you are strong and flexible enough to know when something is not worth fussing over. For example, you don’t like that his parents give your children candy even though you have told them many times. You could respectfully thank them and acknowledge how exciting it is for your children to get some fun treats. Then you distract your children, make a deal with them about when they can have the candy and deal with your children. It is both annoying and unnecessary but not the end of the world. It is something you can move on from.
In other words, if you want to be respected, you also have to treat people with respect.
Rolling your eyes, huffing and puffing, and telling your husband off for indulging this behavior, doesn’t change anything and just alienates you.
Perhaps you need to get some support to think through your boundaries and learn ways to handle family disputes in a calm way. make sure that you take care of yourself and understand and regulate your emotions first.
There is no one boundary that fits all when it comes to women and their relationship with their in-laws. You must figure this out for yourself and define what you can and cannot live with.
2. Work as a team
Men have traditionally been given more freedom and autonomy in collectivist cultures. Although they may support their wives autonomous pursuits in private, they may not wish to support her in front of their family.
Your husband may struggle to contradict his family if they disapprove of your endeavours. However, if both of you start talking about your decisions, pursuits and goals, his family may feel less inclined to criticize you. Rather than say ‘Sara wants our children to take art lessons’, ask your husband to say ‘We have decided that we want our children to take art lessons.’
Do not expect miracles, though. Even if they still see you as the source of all evil, at least you have a partner in crime.
You can learn more about communication skills with your partner here. These skills can be applied to all relationships, even your collectivist marriage.
3. Reconsider your perspective: Change happens but seldom overnight
Most likely his family will always be a part of his life. Your husband’s identity and self-esteem are rooted in his relationships with family, close friends and community/religious leaders. You, your children and your marriage are also a crucial part of his identity. Work towards strengthening your relationship with him. Also, look for collaborative ways to handle his family’s influence, one influence at a time.
Change doesn’t just have to come in your family, although it is possible amid very slow. Try to remember that you are one of many many women across the world who are going through this. Your marriage is not the only collectivist marriage on this Earth. You’re not alone. Think about your experience with your mother-in-law and what it means for you and for your children in the long term. Making meaning of your experience can bring a great deal of relief to some of the most challenging experiences.
Think about your experience and your mother’s experience. Perhaps learn even about your grandmother’s experience. Be a historian. How do you want to break some of the patterns that you notice have been problematic in your family? How would you like to do things differently for your own sons and daughters? Speak about your understanding with your friends from a place of wisdom and curiosity rather than anger and resentment. Share your thoughts with other mothers who will become mother-in-laws one day.
4. Breathe and handle your emotions
Being reactive to his family doesn’t help. Punishing him for his relationship with his family doesn’t help you. Smiling while deep down carrying hurt and resentment doesn’t help you.
Get to know your emotions. learn to breathe instead of reacting. Give yourself time and space to handle your emotions and thoughts constructively. When you take good care of yourself you’re better equipped to handle the daily stress that comes with family issues.
5. Work with a therapist
If you choose to get professional help to deal with his mother differently and to handle yourself and your family, choose a therapist who is competent when it comes to collectivist marriages, family and cultural issues. You could have an initial session to make sure you feel comfortable with their style and perspective. Thankfully, here you have a choice and if it’s not a good fit find a therapist who is.
If you have been looking for a therapists who understands your marriage Dr Ava and Matleena see clients at The MapleTree Center in Dubai.