Son-in-Law: Blessing or Intruder?

Depends on if you're American or Indian: a look at how two different cultures approach family-blending.
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Universal / STAR Plus

As an Indian woman, I find myself envious of America's notion of the son-in-law. In movies (Meet the Parents), television (Modern Family) and in life, American sons-in-law are viewed as bumbling outsiders who have to prove themselves worthy of joining the halo circle that is the girl's family. They are put through hoops and considered guilty until proven otherwise. Once married, they are treated as part of the family. My friend, Phyllis is married into a large family based in Columbus, Ohio. Her husband has two sisters and a brother. When the family gets together for Thanksgiving or Christmas, everyone pitches in. The sons-in-law wash dishes, take out the garbage, and cook the odd dish. If anything, it is the women who get to go out with the kids, who get the lighter load.

This is in stark contrast to India, where sons-in-law are treated as honored guests; gifts of God really. Parents of the bride address their son-in-law using the respectful honorific (aap instead of the more egalitarian and casual tu) even if the man in question is 30 years younger than they are. The son-in-law is waited upon, made to feel special, and occupies a perch that is far above the humdrum of household life. Certainly, he does not do chores. Indian women of the previous generation were horrified if the son-in-law entered the kitchen. It was as if a guest walked into a restaurant kitchen unannounced. In the hierarchy of the joint family, the son-in-law was the top dog—even above the family patriarch. The daughter-in-law, in contrast, was at the bottom of the pile, something that the feminist in me resented—and resents to this day.

In India, the in-law wars are clichés that veer on comedy. They are fodder for television serials and cartoons. One of India's most popular soap operas has the verbose title, Because a Mother-in-Law Too Was Once a Daughter-in-Law ("Kyunki saas bhi kabhi bahu thi"). Kyunki, as it is called, is India's longest-running soap opera, with 1,833 episodes that aired daily from 2000 to 2008. This saas-bahu equation forms the basis of many of the country's other soap operas, including Pugundha Veedu ("the house you entered as daughter-in-law"), Kumkum ("the vermilion bindi"), and Kasauti Zindagi Ki ("test of life"). (Saas means mother-in-law and bahu means daughter-in-law in Hindi.) In these shows, the daughters-in-law are portrayed as strong and weak, often morphing from strong to weak in the same episode. They have rich inner lives and confront issues ranging from affairs to abortions. The son's character is wan in comparison. Things happen to him, often because of the machinations of his wife or mother.

Kyunki's chief protagonist, a woman named Tulsi Virani, gets married into an Indian joint family and becomes the ideal daughter-in-law, mother-in-law and—get this—grandmother-in-law, solving an array of convoluted problems for every member of the household. She is the crux around which the household wheel revolves. For example, in one of the early episodes of Kyunki, Savita—the mother-in-law who has been against her son marrying Tulsi—sulks for days to persuade her son against the match. When the two eventually get married, Savita decides to make hell for Tulsi. Matters worsen between the two women. The son, Mihir, responds by announcing that he wants to return to America where he was educated. He is eventually persuaded against it. Later, Tulsi decides to win over the entire family and succeeds. She also kills her son, Ansh, but that is much later. She is also declared dead but somehow survives and adopts a child incognito. What does the son do? Mihir dies. Actually, he doesn't. He shows up at a hospital suffering from amnesia. But the point is that the men in these shows aren't as conflicted as the women about duty and honor. As the mother of two daughters, I often wonder why sons-in-law in Indian society get off so easily? Is it an accident of history that will change with the advent of feminism? Or does it run deeper than that?

Cyprus-based researcher Menelaos Apostolou, who studies mate choice and parent-offspring conflict over mating, says that in-law conflict is usually a result of "asymmetrical preferences" between child and parent. Parents and children, he says, want different things in spouses. In a 2012 study, "Sexual Selection under Parental Choice: Evidence from Sixteen Historical Societies," published in Evolutionary Psychology, Apostolou studied the marriage patterns in 16 pre-industrial societies including Imperial China, Old Testament Jews, Aztecs, Classical Greeks, Pre-Victorian English, Edo Japanese, and Medieval Arabs among others (but not Indians). He concluded that the qualities that parents-in-law wanted in the mates of their children (wealth, similar social status, and hard work) didn't quite match with the qualities that the children wanted in their mates: Beauty was a big one even in pre-industrial societies.

India is hardly pre-industrial, but arranged marriages are still common here. Parents take out matrimonial advertisements stating that they are looking for an "alliance" for their son or daughter. In most educated families such as mine, this practice has morphed into being a 'set up' on a blind date, with both parties having veto power. The in-law relationship, too, has changed with time. Sure, the son-in-law is still higher on the totem pole than the daughter-in-law, but the difference is shrinking—at least in educated families. Still, it is the daughter-in-law who is expected to make the most compromises—one that she extracts in turn when she becomes a mother-in-law.

Why can the relationship between your spouse and your parents be so warped? Psychologist Carl Pickhardt, author of Stop the Screaming, a book on family conflict, states that it is because these are "appendage relationships" in which people who don't love—and often don't like—each other are forced to be civil for the sake of familial harmony.

A 26-year longitudinal study conducted by Dr. Terri Orbuch of the Institute of Social Research at the University of Michigan, showed that marriages in which the husband was close to his in-laws had a 20 percent higher chance of success. Marriages in which the wife was close to her in-laws on the other hand, had a 20 percent higher risk of divorce. Dr. Orbuch, who goes by the unfortunate moniker of the Love Doctor, attributes this to territorial threat. Women who are close to their in-laws invite—and bristle against—interference from the in-laws that is often masked as kindly advice or practical instruction. In my culture, women struggle with boundaries anyway and therefore resent the advice that is freely given to them but not the son-in-law. Maintaining a distance is perceived as rude and disrespectful, which complicates the situation even more.

What of the future? I long for a day when the eye-roll that accompanies the phrase "mother-in-law" goes away. Perhaps the best thing that I can wish for my daughters—raised as they are in India—is that they will marry American boys. Then I can play the part that Robert De Niro played in Meet the Parents. Instead of kow-towing to my son-in-law, I can revel in my kookiness.

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Shoba Narayan is the author of Return to India: A Memoir.

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