Do you identify with these scenarios?
Husband returns home to find Wife and Mother involved in verbal sparring over forgetting the Mother’s anniversary. Mother accuses Wife of doing it deliberately, while the Wife says she honestly forgot and was sorry for it. Both expect Husband to side with them.
Wife is being pressured by her parents to come home for vacations to spend some time with them, while Husband wants her to join him in a trip with friends. Who should she choose?
These scenarios likely occur in every household across the world, and like every household, they cause a lot of problems to both the spouses and their parents involved. Most of us who are married have had to grapple with such situations, where no matter how right one side is, the other side will always feel cheated and betrayed. And like every problem in the world, such family feuds ought to be nipped in the bud, or else they grow into an everlasting power struggle between the spouse and the parents.
Parents no doubt deserve our respect, love and attention. They sacrifice so much for their children, provide them with every happiness they can, just so they can have a better life than the parents did themselves. Imagine then what they go through when the same child, who they had cared for and nurtured for so long, suddenly starts preferring the company of another, and in fact, sides with the spouse every time. It hurts, A LOT! Our duty, thus, towards them, is to make them feel comfortable and loved, make them feel that they are not alone, that we always have their backs.
Your spouse, on the other hand, is the one person who is everything right from your friend, your caretaker, your lover, your mirror and your rock. Consider the wedding vows –
to have and to hold from this day forward,
for better, for worse,
for richer, for poorer,
in sickness and in health,
to love and to cherish,
till death us do part…
That’s a lot of promises to keep for one person, but that’s what marriage is about. Naturally, when you expect so much from your spouse, your spouse would expect you to, at the very least, back them up when the time comes to choose between your parents and them. But it isn’t easy in all cases.
To demonstrate through my own example, my MIL and my Husband can never agree on a place to dine at, whenever we go out to eat. Both of them want to have their way, while I sit and act as the referee, or while I wish we hadn’t come out to eat at all. So the only solution that we could come up with, was to agree to take turns in deciding where to eat. I assure you, it never goes as smoothly as it sounds on paper, but at least this way one can claim, ‘You had your choice the last time’ and mercifully, I’m left out of the fight because I tell them, “Rules are rules!”
Typically in such family feuds , neither side is wrong and feels neglected in some way. In typical Asian households, where the spouses are still living with the parents, it becomes even more difficult to draw a line between family and private matters (yes, there’s a difference between those two), because of the proximity of the parents to the spouses. When you share a living space, there’s much more than just ‘space‘ that you share. And at any rate, at least in India, marriage is never an affair limited only to the husband and wife; it goes, waaaay beyond those two. In some cases the wife is frequently caught between her own parents and the spouse’s, or the husband is caught handling a feud between his parents and his wife. Trust me, I know; I’ve faced both kinds of problems.
However, the harsh reality of life is, one that I had to learn the hard way, that even though your parents have nurtured and brought you up, you, as a spouse, now have a life and family of your own, and you are responsible for your spouse’ happiness too. That is why you need to keep the two separate and not allow for too many overlapping situations. Again, it sounds easy, but it’s very difficult, because there is always pressure from both sides, guilt within us that we are upsetting someone within the family, and guaranteed repercussions!
What do you do then?
Here are some pointers that may help, but I should forewarn you, these may not be helpful in every case. We know our family better than anyone. Naturally, how you should handle them depends on your knowledge of their behaviour, the timing and the nature of the problem generated. But maybe these pointers could get you started on the right track –
- Demarcate Your Territory – By this I do not mean that you move out and get your own place. Even if you are staying with your parents, you should still claim your private space for you and your spouse, and make it clear that this private space should not be breached under any circumstances. I’m not just talking about only after-hours here for you-know-what-I-mean! While intimacy is a huge part of a marriage, which can be threatened if there are no boundaries in terms of space, you do need a private space for other things too, for example, to watch a movie together or maybe even to discuss something. If you live separately, make it clear that your home is your own turf, and while your parents are welcome, they should not try to run it for you and your spouse. The point is, your parents have had their chance at their own domestic life. You deserve your own.
- Divide Time – While it is true that your spouse will claim most of your time, at the same time, you must not forget that your parents now need your care and support too. Tell each party that you shall spend a certain amount of time with them, and keep it flexible. For example, if you stay with your parents, you could have meal-times as family time, while the morning tea is with your wife alone. Or you could spend Saturdays at the club with your Father, but ensure that your Sunday is spent with your Wife doing things that you, as a couple, like to do.
- No Bitching, Manipulation and Backstabbing – This one is probably the most difficult to handle, yet the most common too. I’ve personally seen this in a lot of marriages, and it happens only when the individuals involved are not strong enough to stop it right from the start. Unchecked remarks, name-calling, manipulation through tears, guilt, anger, and ratting out on the other should not be entertained from either side. If you find yourself caught in a situation where either your spouse or your parent is behaving in such a manner, put a stop to it right then! I promise you, it will save your family from a heap of angry words and hurt feelings in the future.
- Grow Up! – Some spouses, even after years of being married, still like to consult their parents over every trivial matter. It definitely happens in Asia, where if the child does not consult the parent before buying even trivial things like a Refrigerator, things can quickly sour up in the family. While advice is okay, dependence on consultation or aid of any kind not only shows that you aren’t mature enough to take your own decisions, it also shows that you don’t even trust your spouse to involve them in important matters. The bottomline is, if you are considered mature enough to be married to someone and take care of responsibilities that arise out of wedlock, then it’s time you started taking your own decisions too.
- Talk It Out – It’s amazing how many things can be solved by merely talking it out, but how few of us actually take it up. Generally we like to sulk, succumb to anger and hold a grudge, but please, try talking it out. Sit with the people involved in the feud, ask them to be civil, and then try to reach a conclusion. Many problems, like the scenario I started with above, originate from misunderstandings, which can be easily cleared by talking. Remember that the talk session is to resolve, not to fight and escalate matters. If that starts to happen when you try talking, try another day when tempers have subsided a bit. You’d be surprised by what time can do to heal such wounds.
- Do Not Be The Punisher – You are not a vigilante in your family. You are not a judge, though sometimes you may be called to preside over a feud. But remember, do not be vindictive to either party after they have committed a wrong. So your Wife called your Mother names? It does not mean you start calling her names to get back at her. So your Father tried to shame your Husband for his lack of expertise in certain matters. It does not mean that you misbehave with your Father. If you start ignoring the wrongdoer, they will not have a reason to improve, because to them it will seem as if they’ve already lost your support. Help them gain that support back.
- Ignore – Finally, if everything else fails, just ignore them and all the best for it, because it’s never easy. If you’ve reached this point then it means you have tried all of the above and still come to no amicable conclusion. So just let the feuding parties handle it for themselves, tell them strictly not to ask you for any help or support, get the hell out of there, because this one’s going to last a long time!
At the end of the day, you should remember that while your parents deserve your attention, love and care, specially now that they are aging, you have a life of your own. Finding a balance has never been easy for the human race. Work-family, love-friends, work-fun imbalances have always caused us headaches.
But the rules of nature posit that while parents must nurture their children, once those children cease being dependent, they should let them go. Take a cue from the animal world where no parent lets their child linger on around them beyond a certain period. It’s harsh, yes, but that’s life. Soon we’ll come to the same point where we must learn to let go. Make your life easier by telling yourself
‘Space matters in every relationship’.