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Handling in-laws: The wife's perspective

By Richa Pant
Last updated on: September 21, 2006 17:22 IST
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Dealing with in-laws can prove tricky for both, men and women. However, sharing a good relationship with your in-laws is vital. For one, if you live with them, you will be spending a lot of time with them. Secondly, they will be instrumental in instilling values in your children. Last, but not least, excessively involved or detached in-laws can put pressure on a marriage.

A good rapport with the in-laws, then, is always a boon. "It can be especially tough in the first year of marriage. But, with a mix of tact, straightforwardness and 'healthy selfishness', it is definitely possible to deal with them successfully," says Anjali Singh, a 27-year old manager with a finance company in Delhi, who has been married for three years.

First, let's look at issues that crop up and affect the wife.

The mother-in-law

According to psychologists, tension between a wife and mother-in-law results when both of you start 'competing' (albeit subconsciously) for the affection of the same man. This causes the most problems in marriages. The wife is not seen as the 'first' woman in the man's life. There may sometimes even be a somewhat emotionally claustrophobic relationship between a mother and her son.

"This is not to say that all men are 'mama's boys', but a majority of Indian men do have this type of conditioning," says Anjali. Handling an overbearing, controlling and manipulative mom-in-law can be difficult. So, what do you do if your mom-in-law is possessive or bossy? One way of dealing with this is to let your dear husband know she upsets you and let him deal with it.

Your husband's role

'Why him', you may ask? "My mom-in-law, who lives with us, is a major source of disharmony. It's not just what she does or says but, more importantly, how your husband reacts to it. Does he back you up, put his family first, etc," says Radha Sharma*, 29, assistant manager at an insurance company in Delhi.

A rule of thumb when dealing with in-laws: the husband should deal with his family, the wife with hers. This is so because families can easily forgive their own family members, not an 'outsider' (as you may still be perceived). So, instead of dealing with your spouse's family directly, talk it over with your husband and do your best to win his support and understanding.

If you are strong-willed and fiercely independent

It's possible you may not be your in-laws' 'dream bahu'. They may find you too ambitious and less 'homely' than they hoped. "I am an independent woman who, after marriage, had to keep my mouth shut just to maintain the peace. It wasn't easy being bullied and pushed into a corner," says Radha.

Anjali suggests a solution she utilised. "Try explaining to them how important your career is to you, and that, by pressurising you to only be a homemaker or behave in a certain way, they are hurting you. Share the details of your job with them so they feel involved in your life in every way, which could also help them be more empathetic towards you."

Joint family: How to divide chores

Traditionally, housework isn't considered work -- only something a woman is required to do compulsorily. Thus, few people in the family appreciate what a woman does for the home or understands why she seems tired and irritable. The timetable of a working mom can be choc-a-bloc. "A typical day starts at 5 am and ends late at night. The hard work was intensified by the pressures of demanding in-laws and children, not to mention deadlines that had to be met at work," says Radha.

Working women, especially, are in a state of continuous stress, which shows up in symptoms like fatigue, feeling irritable, headaches, body aches and gastro-intestinal problems. Obviously, the correct treatment is to reduce the burden on the working mother. "Here, the family, particularly the spouse, plays the most important role. Helping your working wife out with domestic chores and sharing the burden of parenting can really help," says Rishi Gupta, 29, who has a 5-year old son and shares as many responsibilities with his wife as he can. "Discuss with your own partner the role/responsibilities you would like your in-laws to take too," he adds.

Setting boundaries

Making a list of 'non-negotiables' can help a young couple deal with an extended family. "My husband and I had an inter-caste marriage, which his parents were against. We found that the best way to keep relations positive was to limit the number of visits we have with them and the time spent during those visits. Even though we felt bad about it initially, our relations have improved since then," says Manisha Thakur, 26.

Anjali adds, "Keeping personal topics out of bounds helps improve in-law relations too. My husband and I have a 'no-telling policy' when it comes to personal information that we feel can be used to control our lives. We simply avoid discussing subjects about which they could form a strong opinion."

Your in-laws could be anxious too

Even though a son's marriage is one of the most joyous moments in any parent's life, they also realise there is another person in his life who is going to be the centre of his attention. Sometimes, this can make parents feel vulnerable and be on the defensive, even without provocation. "Maybe this is why some mothers-in-law don't allow their daughters-in-law inside the kitchen for a long time as they are afraid of 'losing control'," feels Anjali. "Trust will take time to develop, but you must try and bridge the distance yourself."

How to build bridges

  • Forge a strong bond with your husband. Sincerely focus on your relationship with your spouse and do whatever you can to strengthen your bond with him. Communication is the key. Also, try not to criticise your spouse's relationship with his parents, as it may only lead to bitterness
  • Make an effort to know more about your in-laws, their lifestyle, and what they consider to be acceptable behaviour.
  • Forge a personal bond with your in-laws. Try a few activities together and you may find that you have more in common with them than you thought.
  • Be polite. "This doesn't mean you have to change your personality to please your in-laws, simply respect rules and traditions that are important to the older generation," says Manisha. 
  • If an in-law doesn't react positively to your well-intended gestures or comments, don't take it personally. "Just let it go when it happens. Then discuss solutions with your partner later," says Anjali.
  • Consider alternatives. Try to compromise and be flexible, rather than not budging.
  • Don't be swayed by stereotypes. Make an effort to observe and understand your in-laws, then deal with the situation.
  • You might feel like an intruder in the house initially, but give it a few months and endear yourself to the family before making decisions or changes in the house. "If you act as if you're the boss right from the first day, your mother-in-law will definitely resent it," says Manisha.
  • Take your in-laws out shopping and eat out with them once in a while. Laughter is a great binding agent, so rent DVDs of a few comedies and watch them together. Go over old photo albums together in your spare time.

The bottom line? If you have wonderful in-laws, give them a great big hug. If you don't, remember that you're not alone. Remain positive and try making the best out of your situation.

Part II: The husband's perspective

Do you have in-laws? Share your experiences and tips

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Richa Pant