Ankita Chalke, 32, a Bengaluru-based teacher, admits that the only problem she has in her life currently, is to deal with her mother-in-law. Though Chalke doesn’t live with her, she says that the interference is constant, even though remotely. “She won’t let me shop for my husband…and she wants us to be dressed in family functions in a certain way,” Chalke says. “She will come over and change everything when it comes to the cooking, the kitchen, etc. She keeps commenting about my appearance and how I need to lose weight. It is exhausting and enraging.”
Another account is that of Jaideep Saha, 33, a Delhi-based marketing professional who has been frustrated about how his father-in-law has been interfering in his life ever since the birth of his daughter. “I keep getting lectured about parenting, fatherhood and I am constantly told about…how I should spend more time with my daughter,” says Saha. My father-in-law wants to (always) come over and spend time with my kid every weekend — how will I spend time with the child? I am sick and tired of being told how I am not good enough.”
These narratives will resonate with many married couples, most of whom have a hard time dealing with their in-laws — to some, this fissure starts causing mental health issues such as stress or anxiety. Stereotypically, in-laws are known to be difficult to deal with, and cause classic marital troubles and discord. As generations and times change, the degree and nature of discord changes. We take a closer look at understanding this equation and its challenges, and get expert tips to deal with this.
Ruchika Jain, Chattisgarh based psychologist and founder of the mental health service Well Prism, says that for women, after being a part of one family for over 20 years, adjusting to a new one’s set of values and beliefs overnight can be a challenge. And this goes for the in-laws, too. “Both parties have very different opinions and outlook towards life, and also very different expectations from each other,” she adds.
The lifestyles of the couple and the in-laws tend to be starkly different, too which can lead to arguments, Jain says. “The couple might be more open-minded and non-traditional, which might be difficult for the in-laws to understand. Small aspects of day-to-day life like social outings or managing the finances of the household may become an issue due to this,” she says, adding that “a couple in a traditional setup would be expected to listen to the elders, fulfil all the family duties and responsibilities, before they can think for themselves.”
Zarana Mithani, a counselling psychologist based in Mumbai concurs with Jain as she says that marriage is a big change and in the period right after the wedding, both parties are adjusting to it. At times, the in-laws may focus on protecting themselves and guarding the family system above welcoming a new person in the family. According to Mithani, in-laws tend to be rigid with their points-of-view and may not be open to reflect on how their behaviour impacts others. “This makes it difficult to establish boundaries, to reason with them and have a healthy relationship.”
The cultural context
Learning to get along with their mother-in-law or father-in-law is important for well-being and mental health — not only one’s own, but also of the spouse and children, says Tanya Nagpal, a social psychologist and integrative counsellor, based in Mumbai.
To do that, understanding the cultural context is important. “There are certain cultural factors that contribute not only to the idea that in-laws are supposed to be difficult, but also to the actual attitudes of some parents towards their child’s spouse,” she says. “Tune into any popular Indian soap-opera and you’ll find the reference(s).”
According to Nagpal, in a culture like ours, parents traditionally exercise an extreme level of control on their children's lives, and unfortunately this tends to continue into adulthood, too. When their child gets married, it is assumed that this control will continue, and can now also be wielded over the new daughter-in-law or son-in-law.
In Nagpal’s opinion, another core cause of conflict between an individual and their in-laws (that may or may not be rooted in culture) comes down to parenting. “Your in-laws’ parenting styles (by which they have raised your spouse) will most likely be different from the way you were parented, and when your in-laws assume the role of ‘parents’ to you, they will continue to parent in their (own) set ways,” she says. This may be normal for your spouse, but is probably alien to you. Any expectations “to adjust to your in-laws' ways of living, thinking and behaving can be frustrating, and lead to a build-up of big emotions that can lead to conflict not only between an individual and their in-laws but also with their spouse,” she elaborates.
Tips to cultivate a healthy relationship
Prioritise your marriage. Once you are married, your spouse and children must remain your top priority – stand with your spouse.
Create and enforce healthy boundaries. Boundary-setting can be a difficult and uncomfortable feat, but it is most effective when done right from the start.
Try to go in with no expectations. The fewer demands and expectations we have from both ourselves and our in-laws, the less chances of disappointment.
Look for common ground. At the end of the day, your in-laws are your spouse’s parents and your children’s grandparents, so building at least a functional, if not thriving, relationship with them is imperative.
Don’t always try to be right. Just try to be flexible while also protecting your needs.
Be objective. To see your in-laws objectively is not to betray or disrespect them. And it can certainly help you. Observation and emotional detachment are tools that can give the couple, or an individual, a place to stand outside of the family system. When people observe neutrally, they can not be hurt or be emotionally affected by other people’s behaviour.
Understand the limitations. Work on developing an understanding the emotional framework, limitations, and levels of empathy — both yours and theirs — and also gauging to what degree they are able to reflect on themselves.
Be honest and realistic. Focus on what is possible in this relationship, not what you wish it could or should be. Refuse to play roles and stay true to yourself.
Mutual participation. Decide how much of their participation in your life is workable for you and your partner. This will make it easier to set boundaries and enforce them.
Don’t look for validation. Always remember that you can’t always please and win them over. Set realistic standards, and you can and will be okay even if they don’t validate you.
Divya Naik is a Mumbai-based psychotherapist