I grew up in a big Taiwanese family. My dad has four siblings and my mom has five siblings. I often joked with my friends that the craziness of my family drama trains me to be a good couple’s therapist. Taiwanese is the culture with traditions during holidays. Holidays are the time when all the in-law issues played out. I often saw the fights between my parents because of the in-law dramas.
So, when I first learned about “Americans” have the in-law’s issues over 20 years ago, I was shocked. I went to my friend’s graduation party. During the party, I overheard her and her husband fighting in the kitchen about her mother-in-law. I was so shocked as I stood in front of the kitchen. Why? In my mind, I thought that Americans values the independence and respect the boundaries of the nuclear family. After all, we Chinese live with the elders, especially the oldest son’s family. “Do we have to live with your parents” is an important question for a girl to ask before getting married. I don’t hear or see many of the “Americans” living with the in-laws. So, why do “Americans” have in-law issues?
Gradually, I learned that, even though “Americans” don’t usually live with the older generation, in-laws issues are still commonly seen. After learning the couple’s and family therapy, I finally understand the core issues with the in-laws are about “boundary” and “shared meaning.”
There is a boundary between the in-laws as a parental unit and the couple’s unit. The new couple who starts their family is building a new boundary with their family of origin. Within their new family, they are creating a new meaning and new tradition by bringing in the cultures in their family of origin.
Holiday is often involved many traditions. We remembered the good, the bad, and the family dinner tradition from the family of origin. When a new couple relationship is formed in the beginning, the discussion about how to spend the holiday is an important step. The couples often carried on with this unspoken agreement throughout their relationship history. However, this unspoken agreement needs an update to fulfill the needs of the evolving relationship. If not, it might become the source of conflict between the partners every holiday season.
The issues with the in-laws often intensified during the holiday seasons. If your nuclear family usually celebrate holidays with the extended families, the conflicts that haven’t been resolved usually escalated between the partners during this time.
Let me give you an example of my own family. I remembered listening to my mom complaints to my dad about how much money in the “red envelop” my grandmother gave us vs. the amount my grandmother gave to my cousins. As a child, I was just happy to receive my red envelope during the Chinese New Year and not sure why my mom was upset. As I look back now, my mom was upset because she always felt that my grandmother was favoring one of my aunts, my mother’s sister-in-law. As my dad was often quiet and not saying much, my mom was upset. So, the real issue for my mom was not about the amount of money in the “red envelop” but the feeling of “unimportant” and “less” in my dad’s family.
Often, in the issues with the in-laws, the partner with the relationship with his/her parents often felt stuck in the middle while the partner who marries into the family felt excluded.
No matter it’s Chinese, American, or Hispanics, etc.. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard the partner by marriage saying: “You made me feel like an outsider;” while the partner who is biologically related to the extended family saying: “I am stuck in the middle between my spouse/partner and my parents.”
(To be continued— Surviving Holiday In-Law Stress Part 2)