IMMIGRANT FAMILIES 6: Solving the Classic In-law Conflict
John and Sue have been married for seven years. They have one child and two jobs. They seem to get along well in every area of their lives except one, John’s parents.
John’s parents came from overseas to visit them when Sue was about to give birth to their first baby. It was a boy. After the baby was born, they stayed to help out for a month.
During the month, while Sue was trying to gain back her strength and lose weight, John’s mother took over the running of the home. They gave the young couple a huge TV so Sue might have a more enjoyable time. They also refurnished their grandson’s room while Sue was too weak to say yea or nay.
In the course of the month, there were many occasions when Sue had different opinions from her mother-in-law. These opinions covered a wide
range of areas: John’s career, church, meals, habit, money, shopping…. Just in the area of the baby, they differed as to: when the baby should be fed, how the baby should be held, what to do when the baby cried and where to put the baby crib….
Sue gave in to her mother-in-law most of the time because she was still physically too weak to assert herself and she did appreciate the help and obvious good intentions of her in-laws. Besides, John kept on reminding her that his parents would only be staying for a short time. “After they leave, you can do it your way,” John reassured her.
After John’s parents left, everything did go back to normal. Sue moved the bay crib back to the baby’s room and retrained the baby in his eating and sleeping routines.
After the birth of the baby, John’s parents came over to see them once a year. Each time, they stayed for about a month. With each successive visit, the tension seemed to grow between Sue and her in-laws. Occasionally, they mentioned selling their business and moving over and staying with them. More, they talked about buying a bigger house. Every time the issue of emigration and buying a bigger house came up, Sue felt nervous. Sue confided in John about her reservations and fear. John listened and said he understood how Sue felt.
Two months after their third visit, John’s parents called him from overseas and asked him to make application for their emigration. John did not want to say “yes,” but he could not say “no.” He never says “no” to his father because he knows his father does not take “no” for an answer.
When Sue asked John pointedly if he had thought of her feelings, he said, “My parents only want me to make application for their emigration. They did not mention living with us.” “But don’t you remember they mentioned buying a bigger house and so on?” While John was silent, Sue went on, “Do you think they will live by themselves?” John did not know what to say. All he could manage was, “Let’s apply for them first and then see what happens.”
Within a year, their application was approved. During that time, Sue asked John to raise the issue of living arrangements with his parents. John’s reply was it was difficult to talk about such an issue over the phone. “Let’s talk with them after they come over,” John concluded. Sue was mad but she did not feel she could write to her in-laws and raised such an issue. She became more and more angry and frustrated as John became more and more withdrawn.
After John’s parents came over, Sue waited for John to raise the issue of living arrangements. John could not find the ideal time to pop the question. In the meantime, the parents began to acquaint themselves with the housing market. At one time, they even asked John what kind of house he liked. John gave a vague answer.
The relationship between John and Sue grew more and more apart. Every discussion between Sue and John over the housing issue ended up in an argument. On more than one occasion, Sue asked John angrily, “What are you waiting for?” When there was no answer, Sue began to wonder if John was for the idea of a bigger house where everybody lives together. To Sue, a bigger house was too big a headache for her to endure.
One night, the in-laws had a surprise to show their son and daughter-in-law. When the surprise involved a ride to an unknown destination, Sue became suspicious. When the car stopped in front of a two-story colonial-type house, the in-laws pointed at it in excitement while John and Sue managed to smile and stutter. The dream house looked like a nightmare to Sue.
This time, Sue was firm. She would not have any part of it. If John wanted to move in with his parents, he could do it himself. When John’s parents found out what Sue had in mind, they told John, “If Sue wants to leave, let her go.”
What should John do? Should he leave his wife and move in with his parents or should he stay with his wife and ask his parents to leave?
The dilemma faced by John and the rest of the members of this fictitious family illustrates the classic conflict between a wife and her in-laws. This kind of conflict is common among immigrant families even though the severity of it may vary from household to household.
The reason for the conflict is rooted in the differences between two cultures.
In the traditional Chinese thinking, the relationship between parents and their married son is more important than the relationship between their son and his wife. Diagrammatically, this view can be represented by Diagram (1) where the solid line means these relationships are more important and intimate than those represented by dotted lines. (For a more detailed discussion of the significance of solid and dotted lines, please refer to Immigrant Family 3: Favoritism.)
Diagram (1), in which Sue is portrayed as a second-class citizen in the family system, accurately represents the perspective of John’s parents. They believe, either consciously or unconsciously, their relationship with John is more important and basic than John’s relationship with Sue. Hence, they felt if Sue would rather leave than stay with them, then let her leave.
In my personal encounter with hundreds of parents who attend my workshops on the family, I have not yet met one who would like to see their daughters in Sue’s position as presented in Diagram (1), but I have met not a few mother-in-law who would like to see Diagram (1) a reality in their lives. It is amusing, if not ironic and tragic, to see such a display of double standards.
But from the perspective of Sue, her relationship with John is more intimate than the relationship of John and his parents. Diagrammatically, Sue’s position can be represented by Diagram (2). Diagram (2) puts the in-laws in a distant position whereby they may feel left out of the family system.
I venture to say the state of affairs as represented by Diagram (2) is the wishes of every wife in any culture anywhere anytime. It is my belief that during the thousands of years when the predominant culture of China can be represented by Diagram (1) where the wives were subservient, wives, even then, preferred the arrangement of Diagram (2) in their hearts.
Young wives prefer Diagram (2). But when they grow older and become mothers-in-law, some change their minds and think Diagram (1) should be the case. How convenient for them to change their minds, but how inconvenient for the daughters-in-law!
If we were to combine Diagram (1) and (2), we would have Diagram (3). Notice in Diagram (3), the two triangles involving John and Sue (John-Sue-father and John-Sue-mother) are unstable. More, John is put under pressure (where the two solid lines meet). He is being torn between his wife and his parents.
Another reason which causes conflict between Sue and the in-laws hinges on who is the head of the house. John’s father probably felt he was the head of the house that is why he and his wife felt the liberty to refurnish the baby’s room and to make the decision to purchase a house for all to live in. On the other hand, Sue most likely felt John was the head of the house.
The third reason, which is based on the first two mentioned above, involves the caring and upbringing of the grandson. Traditionally, grandparents have the final say when it comes to the treatment and disciplining of their grandchildren. Grandparents often assume the role of primary care-givers for their grandchildren. On the other hand, Sue naturally feels she is responsible for the primary care of her child. Hence there was so much conflict between Sue and her in-laws over the issue of the child.
There is a fourth reason. In the eyes of John’s parents, John is not only their son, but still their child. Traditional Chinese parents do not relinquish their parental grip on their children. They do not entirely let go of their children. They see it as their responsibility to make sure their children, no matter how old, are behaving properly in their sight. They do not only give counsel to their grown children but they also, when necessary, interfere with their lives.
There are basically three approaches John could take to resolve the conflict between Sue and his parents. These approaches are represented by Diagrams (1), (2) and (3) which correspondingly mean: side with parents, side with wife, and maintain a neutral position.
Solution #1: Side with Parents
If John were to take this position, Sue might in due time give in. If Sue were to maintain her stand, John would either have to move out of the house with his parents or he could ask Sue to move out if she were willing. In either case, a divorce would probably result with the couple fighting for the custody of their son in court. There is a possibility Sue might suffer a nervous breakdown in the process or even commit suicide. At the very least, she would have some psychosomatic diseases.
As for John’s parents, either they would cheer John on or they might give in and ask John to go along with Sue in order to save the marriage.
Solution #2: Work with wife to honor parents
In adopting this solution, John would probably have to put up with criticism from his parents and a knowledge he is going against their wishes and demands.
The way to execute this solution is for John to reassure Sue of his love and work out a plan, which is agreeable to Sue, which would also be agreeable to, or least disliked by, his parents. In practical terms, it may involve a house or apartment close by for the parents or, if Sue is really secure in John’s love, a house with an in-law apartment. If John were to adopt this solution, Sue might in due time become so secure in John’s love that she is willing to go along with more and more of what John’s parents want.
I personally believe this solution, if carried out in love and without doing violation with God’s command to honor our parents (Exo. 20:12, Eph. 6:2-3), is the position of the Bible. God wants a couple to love each other and be secure in each other’s love so they are in the position to honor their parents, including in-laws, and to teach and train their children. If a couple were not secure in each other’s love, they would not be able to honors their parents. (Please refer to Immigrant Families 1: Three Basic Conflicts within the Family.)
If you are in a situation similar to John, may I suggest to you to reassure your wife of your love toward her. Take her resentment and disagreeableness as her way of telling you she loves you. Love her in ways which she can understand and appreciate. When she is secure in your love, she will be more willing and able to do what you want for your parents.
Solution #3: Non-committal
This solution is really a non-solution. In this case, John does not commit himself one way or the other. He tries to avoid the issue as long as he can. Also, he will probably try to distant himself from both his wife and his parents. He may take on a second job or a second martini. In his frustration, he may become more withdrawn or more violent. He may also develop psychosomatic symptoms as a way of coping with his growing and unbearable stress.
This solution may sound like a cop-out, and it is, but there are many people who are hiding in this position. Among those who are in this position, some truly do not know what the right approach is while others know what they should do but are unwilling to face the consequences of their decisions.
If you find yourself applying Solution #3, I suggest you find someone whom you can trust and share with him/her. If necessary, get some counseling. The longer you wait the worst the situation will likely become.
Conflicts within a family are impossible to resolve to the satisfaction of everybody overnight. Solutions are tough to come by and they are tougher to implement. Nevertheless, they must be resolved to prevent greater conflicts and to restore the harmony and love God would like to see in every home everywhere.