Dealing with Difficult In-Laws (Asian American Perspective) –with Video!
Relationships with in-laws are one of the most tricky relationships to navigate. I see this so often in my practice. And in particular, I see wives and mothers-in-law having the most issues. I often see husbands feeling caught in the middle, because he’s caught between two people that he loves. He’s caught between his mother who birthed him and raised him, and then this and his wife who he is building a life with. This becomes extra complicated when the husband has an especially close relationship with his mother, or his mother raised him on her own. Oftentimes in this situation, the husband feels like he needs to take care of his mother, because he understands the sacrifice and hardships his mother went through.
What adds another layer of complication (especially in the San Jose and San Francisco Bay Area) is when the husband and wife move in with the in-laws. Add on top of that the cultural expectations when dealing with certain cultures. For example, in Asian cultures, there’s more of a hierarchy and filial piety where the younger generation is expected to respect the elders (not that other cultures don’t respect elders!). However, in Asian cultures, that value is even more intensified. You can see how this would bring up conflict in a lot of marriages. And if this is you, you are not alone. I will be giving advice to both husbands and wives to navigate this tricky situation.
Husbands: Support Your Wife
So my first piece of advice– for the husbands: support your wife. The husbands oftentimes will say to his wife after she comes to him with a situation, “oh, just don’t worry about what she said,” or “you’re too sensitive, that’s not really what she meant.” That can feel very invalidating for the wife.
Husbands Have A Bond That Their Wives Don’t Have
Husbands may be able to let comments slide or just ignore their mothers, but it is a lot harder for wives or daughters-in-law. First of all, husbands have the assurance of love from their mothers. So when there’s that love, when there’s that bond, when there’s that history, it’s so much easier to let things go. Secondly, because the husband grew up with his mom all his life, he’s learned how to cope or how to accept, and how to deal with that person in his life. Daughters-in-law are new to the family, they don’t have that lifelong history with the mother-in-law, that same bond of trust, as a blood relative. They don’t have the lens where they can unconditionally love their mother-in-law and see through her faults and the ways that the mother-in-law has offended her. The relationship is just not conducive to that.
Wives Don’t Have the Coping Mechanisms
Secondly, because she may have grown up with a different way of growing up with her parents, she hasn’t built ways to accept or to cope with her mother-in-law. A son has had years to get used to his mother, and build ways to shield against or accept that his mom is the way she is and decided to love her anyway.
Wives May Not Feel Like They Have a Voice
Third, wives have a more difficult time because living in someone else’s home they have less of a say about how the household is run and may consequently feel like they don’t have a voice. In her own home, or even where she is living with her own parents, she could voice her concerns, they would get in an argument, they would hash it out, and then move on. When your wife is in another person’s home, yes, she could convey her feelings to her in-laws. But if they get into an argument, this can mean implications long term, since they don’t have that same history and trust.
So in order to not jeopardize the relationship, she does not speak up. As a result, she may feel like she has to be silenced when she’s offended by something or hurt by something. And if the wife is living with the mother-in-law, she could feel like she’s silenced in her own home. So one could imagine how a wife could feel very isolated, alone and powerless.
What Does Support Mean?
Here’s where husbands have a very important role to support her and to validate her feelings. Now what does that mean? Supporting and validating doesn’t necessarily mean choosing sides. It doesn’t mean going to the mother in law, telling her off, saying “Hey mom, you’re horrible.” Instead, the husband can show the wife that she is not alone. He can say, “Hey, I can understand how you would feel that way. I grew up with that all my life and I’ve learned to deal with it, but that’s my mom. But I’m sure if I was in your shoes, that would be really hurtful. And yes, I totally understand.”
Show that sense of support. Comments like “You’re being too sensitive. That’s not what she meant.” are not helpful. Pressuring her to change can make her feel alone. Lean into her feelings. You’re not leaning into the fact that your mom is a horrible person. Rather, you’re just leaning into, “Hey, my mom’s not perfect, and I could see how you would feel that way.” Let your wife feel like there’s somebody that understands.
See Past Anger Into the Hurt
Another pitfall I see is husbands getting defensive when the wives bring things up. This is normal because oftentimes the wife is saying negative things about the husband’s mom/parents. My advice to husbands is to see past the anger into the hurt. Anger is oftentimes a cover for hurt. In reality, wives usually want to be liked and accepted by their mothers in law. So if husbands can see past the anger and not get offended by what the wife is saying, and lean into the pain and say, “I could see how you would feel that way,” it would help her feel supported and less reactive.
Advice For Wives
Advice for the wives: know that it is very normal to be angry or hurt about what your mother-in-law is doing or has done, but know that that’s also your husband’s mother. Remember, that the person you are complaining about is the woman that has birthed your husband and made him who he is. For better or for worse.
And so when you’re saying things like, I can’t believe how selfish your mom is, or I don’t know why she’s like that, like I hate her, or whatever you’re–maybe it’s not that extreme, but remember that the things that you’re saying about her are actually about your husband’s mom. So be careful about the way you phrase things.
How To Communicate How You Feel
You can say things like, I’m really hurt when she said this.” Give her the benefit of the doubt–say, “ I know she probably didn’t mean anything by this, but this really hurts. Or, instead of communicating anger, communicate feeling “stuck,” which is more neutral. For example, “this is the third time that she said this and I don’t really know what to do, I’m feeling a little bit stuck.”
Try not to make it into a character accusation on his mom, because that way, the likeliness of him becoming defensive is going to be higher. And it’s going to be harder for him to support you when he feels like you’re insulting his mom. It can be very tricky to express negative feelings in this situation.
It’s not that you don’t have a right to your feelings. It’s because your husband will less likely be able to give you the support that you need, if you’re saying it in that way. And the more you can say it in a way that is using “I statements” and things that are more talking about your feelings (e.g. “I feel stuck”) versus his mom’s character (e.g. “she’s so selfish”), the more likely you’re going to get his support.
What If I Need A Place To Be Angry?
Now, if you want a place to express anger, do that with people that are outside. Friends, your therapist, other people that won’t have a reaction to what you are feeling. I usually recommend being careful about sharing anger with your own family, because it will sway them and could hurt their relationship in the future. However, it does work for some people. So just be discerning about it.
Husbands Avoiding Drama Between Wives and Mothers (In-Laws Advice)
Another common pitfall I see often is the husband withdrawing. This often happens because he feels like “well, I can’t get through to any of them, so I’m just going to just sit back and lay low.” He often will recommend his wife to talk things out with his mother herself. He usually just does not want to be a part of the drama. And I don’t blame him.
However, while I certainly understand why a husband would do that, I’d say that’s a really difficult position to put a wife in, and it just doesn’t work. Not to say that husband’s are not in a difficult situation as well! However, like I said before, your wife is an outsider, and she doesn’t have the relationship capital with your mother to be able to talk to her about things that are very sensitive. She needs you to be that buffer for her, she needs you to be that translator. Because if she goes directly to your mom, the emotions are going to be very high. Secondly, because there’s not that relationship, there’s much more potential for a big emotional fire, a big blow up, something that’s going to really damage your relationship and take a lot to repair.
Coming Up With A Plan
The first step is to support and validate. And then the second is to come up with a plan. So sit down with your wife and say, “Hey, what would be helpful to you?” And what I’ve seen is that different wives want to do different things based on what they feel the most comfortable.
Some wives just want to talk it out and have a place where they can relieve some of their complaints. They understand that tensions are high when people live together, and it’s stressful. They would just need someone to hear them out. They don’t want to tell the mothers-in-law anything. They would prefer to just keep it between the husband and themselves, and they just want the husbands to support the wives.
The other thing you can do is offer to talk to your mom for your wife. The rationale for this is oftentimes, the wife may not feel comfortable talking to the mother-in-law. She might feel like the mother-in-law would be more receptive to the husband. She may feel that the issue at hand is not such a big deal that everyone needs to talk it out, so having the husband tell his mother would be a simpler, less acrimonious way to do things. So that could be the second option.
The third option is to sit down and talk all three of you. But in that case, you as the husband will need to be very, very keen on supporting your wife. And again, I’m not saying to trash talk your mom or anything like that or be mean to her, be disrespectful to her. However, know that you are in your mother’s territory, you and your mom have lots of history, your mom already has a position of power, because she is the mother, she’s older, you may be living in her home. You need to really support your wife by making sure your mother is understanding what your wife is saying, making sure you’re advocating for her, making sure that your wife feels heard, and not that you’re taking your mother’s side.
Now, it’s not easy, It is very difficult to navigate those kinds of conversations with in-laws. I know because I do that a lot in my practice. And when you’re dealing with different cultures and different generations, there’s so much that can be misunderstood. And so husbands, I do not expect you to get it right. I’m just saying if that’s something that your wife wants, then attempt to do that.
Sometimes you can even talk to your mom beforehand. You can soften her and say, “Hey mom, my wife wants to talk it out. I know that she really respects you and admires you, she’s just feeling a little hurt. And if you could just tell her that you accept her, I think that would be all good.” And then if you went to your wife and just showed her that support and said, “Hey, my mom said you’re like a daughter to her,” that can soften both your wife and mother so when they’re coming together, it’s much easier to come to a resolution. It should not be a time to just lay all of your negative energy out there, because you know where that’s going to go. It’s going to be bad. We want to make sure that there’s good energy flowing, and that people are in a place to listen to one another.
If All Else Fails, Set Boundaries For the Sake of Peace
So the other thing I tell people is that sometimes it’s just not meant to be to live in the same space as your in-laws. Of course, sometimes you don’t have that choice, maybe because of financial constraints, or maybe you have a child that they help to take care of for you. And in that case, you can work on building boundaries. Sometimes that’s all you can do. Making sure you’re not in the home at the same time, making sure you’re just keeping the conversations very short, and making sure you’re not too emotionally invested in anything each of you says. And sometimes you have to do that for the sake of peace if you can’t work things out together. But if you can, sometimes moving out is the best thing.
Having two sets of adults in a family can be very stressful. Add on the other layer (in-laws) of different generations and cultures, and there it is inevitable that there will be some clashing. You can help mitigate the conflict, however, with some support and good communication. The hope is that through time and good communication, everyone will learn to live together peacefully.
About the author: Lia Huynh is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist who specializes in couples therapy and Asian Americans. If you need someone to help you navigate these tricky situations, especially when we’re talking about Asian families, feel free to learn more about me here.