In-Laws or Outlaws? Part 2a guide to navigate through in-law issues
Is there a way forward in resolving the tension that arises in relationships with in-laws? The answer is an emphatic yes and is based on clarifying some basic ‘doctrine’ on the issue. We have tried and tested these principles over the last 33 years both in our own lives and have seen otherwise ‘warring’ couples come to rest and peace with these principles as their thinking has become clear.
Honoring father and mother and in laws
Let’s first consider aspects of honoring, which although prevalent in our urban/rural culture is also undergoing profound changes. One hears sad stories of elderly parents been abandoned and even deprived of a roof over their heads. Incidentally honoring parents, includes in-laws. Belief in this principle is an important prerequisite for a happy marriage. One’s belief dictates one’s behavior. Here are some practical ways in which honor can be expressed to both the spouse’s parents. This list is by no means comprehensive or exhaustive, but is meant to be illustrative:
- Show genuine respect: as the word implies, “to look again at” or “to re inspect”. In other words take the trouble to look for and appreciate them for who they are and not for what you would like them to be.
- To regard: clutch at opportunities to acclaim, approve, or think of them in a specified way. This is closely linked to respect . Make it a point to celebrate special events like their birthdays, anniversaries. Give them surprise parties. Or take them out for a meal and even a holiday.
- To listen attentively: while applicable to listening to all carefully, listening makes them feel respected. It will mean making quality time for them, in spite of a busy life. If that isn’t possible because of geographical distances, then the regular use of gadgets like smart phones, skype etc may be used. Listening is an acquired skill. One of the keys is eye contact without interruptions. Patience and appropriate, gentle responses enhance listening.
- To do practical deeds that meet their needs: this is to be done especially if they are handicapped in any way: such as lack of transport, medical care, taking them to the doctor when needed, purchasing things that are needed, helping with their travel arrangements etc.
- Provide financially: some parents and in laws may not need financial help. So this has to be sensitively handled. More than the amount given, the gesture itself brings a sense of security and conveys strong support. In case they do have a ‘financial’ dependency, giving an amount regularly , on time and with the mutual willing agreement of both the partners is a very precious act of honor.
- Cover weaknesses: like all of us, our in laws may also have their weaknesses and faults. It’s an act of love NOT to gossip about this to others and especially to one’s own parents. This is a very challenging call but very uplifting.
- Express specific appreciation and gratitude: frequently pay verbal compliments, and express gratitude for what they have done in the past and do presently. Do it with thoughtful cards, texts, phone calls, emails etc.
- Express affection: We used to frequently say “ I love you to both our parents” and would always hug and kiss them when we met. If one is living with in laws then a morning greeting and a goodnight goes a long way in creating harmony, and peace
What does dishonoring involve?
- Not being interested in them : it is reflected in infrequent contact, not enquiring of how they are faring in life and generally represents a breakdown in relationship. The issue lies in our hearts. For we behave out of the abundance or lack of it in our hearts.
- Being ashamed of them: ignoring them in social gatherings and not acknowledging them in front of others.
- Not paying attention to what they say: while one need not agree with all they say, yet one can at least listen to what they are saying by paying attention.
- Disregarding what they say: there is much wisdom ,sometimes, in what older people say which one can benefit from. We can be losers if we disregard the wisdom that they bring solely based on ego based responses.
- Back answering rudely: this can be a killer. It robs them of their dignity and respect. A no-no, under any circumstances. It’s better to keep silent.
- Giving the cold treatment: which leads us to not keeping silent as a revenge move. Giving any of them the cold treatment can lead to a frosty relationship.
- Not addressing them in an inclusive way: this can be a tricky issue. It mustn’t be forced, but ideally addressing them in the same way you address your own parents would be honoring. But using formal ways of addressing them may show lack of ownership and inclusion.
- Not showing respect in front of others: even if the relationships isn’t good at least maintain civility in front of others, especially in the company of other family members.
- Being abusive and physically violent: This would represent a complete breakdown in the relationship. If things have reached such a pass, it might have reached a point of no return. Never let it reach here.
We are therefore called to honor our parents and that includes our in laws.
A New Family Unit.
BUT husband and wife are now a new unit when they get married. This means:
- A new governmental order. The old order , to various degrees , of the parents oversight over ones life must recognize that the married couple is now no longer their responsibility per se. Parents and in laws must change the way they express their concern and care. It helps to discuss this explicitly with both parents.The parents have had their chance, now let the new family unit have the freedom to work things out their way.
- The authority has changed: This may become particularly tricky when it comes to the way the grandchildren are to be brought up, when guiding them on , food habits , hygiene, study habits, time and nature of extracurricular activities, etc. Children need to know who is in charge. Otherwise children may get confused and take advantage of the lack of clear governmental authority, in a joint family. Who makes the final decision about them? Grandparents may be involved in some of the care, but areas of discipline and teaching need to be clarified or else conflicts may arise.
- Honoring with respect does not imply that you cannot disagree: develop a culture of having discussions where there can be disagreements. Agree to disagree.
- Neither does it mean that you have to now obey them. Not obeying when done in a dignified manner is not dishonoring. In laws must get used to this and not misunderstand this vital need for a couple to come into their own.
Some Practical implications.
Live separately?: This option is being resorted to increasingly in some urban areas but also has the limitation of heavy finances that go with it . There’s more benefits to this option than meets the eye. Couples who once lived in a joint family and have switched to living separately have found greater harmony in the relationship with in laws, now that niggling, daily irritants in the relationships have been eliminated. It also makes authority and responsibility lines for the children clear.
When parents are old and infirm it is important that they live with the children or care it taken to put them in an old aged home where they are regularly visited.
Talk openly: talking lovingly and respectfully about the change, if necessary. Sadly this change in culture is not being talked about openly giving rise to suspicion and allegations of wrong motives.Often parents themselves understand this because they’ve gone through it themselves.
Practicle issues: However, in the case of joint family living, when practical issues arise specially with regard to the government of the kitchen, or the children, decide on a clear cut policy – Who is in-charge?
Husbands need to take a lead in protecting and covering their wives. Khushwant Singh’s statement : “An Indian does not become a man until the death of his father,” must be overcome. Husbands, asking their wives to resolve conflicts with their mothers-in-law by themselves, isn’t helpful . Husbands should be a part of the conflict resolving process and take a principled stand for your wife who isnow the queen of your life.
Do not fear getting into conflicts.Conflicts are part of life and can be stepping stones to better relationships, provided they are handled rightly. It is helpful that conflicts are resolved as quickly as possible without compromising ones basic convictions.
Always be loving: Seek to be loving at all times and keep no grudges .
David and Lynn Fernandes, have been married for 33 years and have 2 children — daughter Ruth, who is married to Phillip, and son Stephen.
David has studied Business Management from IIM, Ahmedabad and had been a Marketing and General Manager for over 20 years.