LOUD WHISPERS: 10 ways for women to improve In-Law relationships
A few days ago, at Abovewhispers.com, we featured an article from Iheoma Obibi on ‘Learning not to be angry’. It was about managing in-law drama, stemming from her recent experience of attending the funeral of her father-in-law. As Iheoma stated in her article, it came from a rant on Facebook that she posted when she got back from the funeral. Her anger, frustration and pain was obvious. I have known Iheoma for over twenty-five years. She is one of the most brutally honest women I know. With her, what you see is what you get. There are many women who bottle up their anger and frustration, so I salute my friend Iheoma for having the courage to pour out her heart.
Iheoma’s cry raised a number of questions, the key one being how do we manage this complex issue as wives without compromising our own self-worth? Just as we think we have got it all figured out, our daughters are now getting married and need guidance. The dramatis personae in each relationship/marriage are different so the dynamics are never the same. When you marry into a family, you become a part of their lives, for better for worse and they become a part of yours. If you think this is a uniquely African issue, you are mistaken- it is universal. Many women find managing relationships with their in-laws quite difficult. Here are some strategies which might help:
1. Start off by changing mind sets
The typical mindset of a family who has just received a bride into their midst is that this is ‘our wife’. A ‘wife’ is an outsider, with minimal say and rights. From day one, do not present yourself as ‘your wife’. Tell them ‘I am your daughter or sister. I want to be treated as such and I will respond as such’. Do not start with a ‘me and them’ attitude. One day when I was teasing one of my four sisters in law that I would stop acting as a sister and start behaving like a wife she screamed and said ‘No way!’ We will never allow that!’. Why? Because those were the terms I presented to them twenty six years ago and that is how we have related over the years.
2. Talk to your husband about acceptable behavior
Sometimes you will question your own sanity. How do you handle a relative who shows up all the way from your home town, with no notice, and wants to stay in your house indefinitely? Or the one who turns your home into a ‘short time’ motel? This is where your husband comes in. Let it be known that you are open to receiving family members, but within certain parameters such as adequate notice, information on anticipated length of stay, respect for privacy and so on. These ground rules should be laid down by your husband. Then they should be enforced with diplomacy and tact.
3. Be hospitable and generous
Do not acquire a reputation for being lazy and/or stingy. There was a time the wife of my father’s nephew complained to my mother that her mother-in-law hated her. She told my mother that whenever she asked her if she wanted to eat anything, the old lady would say no. My mother then told her that she should never ask her mother-in- law if she wanted to eat. She should set the table with at least two things to choose from and invite her to eat. My mother explained that asking if she wanted to eat could be interpreted as looking for a way to get out of cooking. Sounds complicated? Just do it. My aunts would also joke about the wife of their brother who never offered them food when they visited, but they knew she was cooking something because she was in and out of the kitchen and they could smell the food!
4. Earn respect and trust
If you want to be treated as a full member of the family, you need to earn it. Be someone they can count on. Be a good daughter, sister, friend and confidante. You need to understand cultural etiquette. Even if you are no longer expected to cook and clean because you have been married for a long time, there are things you can do such as provide financial and moral support. Show up on time for family functions and make your own contributions. Mentor the young ones. Take care of the older family members. One day, before she passed away, my mother-in-law turned to me and prayed that my son’s wife would care for me the way I cared for her. Of course we had our moments over the years, but I earned her love and respect.
5. Forgive and ask for forgiveness
There are times when you will be provoked. Your good will, generosity and patience will be taken for granted. Your in-laws will do spiteful things. No matter what you do, some will complain about you. Just forgive and let go. If you are confronted with a grievance, either real or perceived, listen. After stating your side of the story, ask for forgiveness. The sun will still rise the next morning.
6. When you need to, stand up for yourself
No matter how supportive your husband is, he is going to grow weary of listening to your latest gripe about his erring family members. Your husband can not fight all your battles for you. There are things you can fix on your own. If you are having difficulties with a family member, try and spend time with them. Talk, seek common ground and make peace. Also state what is not acceptable to you. One of my friends confronted a sister- in-law who was in the habit of bringing men into her home- other women’s husbands. Her husband did not want to confront his older sister because he was too embarrassed to raise the topic. My friend politely told her sister in law ‘your brother is unhappy but he does not want to tell you. I am telling you because we are both women and I am sure you will not encourage the same thing in your own home’. It stopped. You do not have to be a doormat.
7. Avoid family politics
I know it is easier said than done, but you need to try and steer clear of family drama that does not concern you directly. If you happen to be married into a family with their own long running soap opera, do not accept an invitation to be a guest star. Do not join family gang-ups against others. Guess what will happen when they solve their problems? Yes, you are the one who will be blamed. Listen a whole lot and say very little. As my husband would say ‘avoid saying anything that can be quoted and used against you’. A friend who married into a ‘crises a day’ family came back home one evening and found her husband and his three feuding brothers watching a game of football with empty bottles of wine and chicken wing bones as evidence of how much they had enjoyed each other’s company.
7. Do not allow your own relatives to disrespect your in-laws
Sometimes, your own family members will have problems with your in-laws. Regardless of how you feel privately, ensure they do not disrespect your in-laws. I told my family members years ago that I would not tolerate disrespect of my in-laws. Your husband therefore needs to add that to his list- his family members should not disrespect yours.
8. Do not listen to your husband if he asks you to ignore his relatives
I have seen instances whereby husbands try and hide from their obligations towards their family members by instructing their wives to ignore them. Constant demands can be overwhelming of course. However, try and do your best to help. It is not always about money. Sometimes to avoid confrontations husbands do not want certain family members around. So how do you explain ‘forgetting’ to invite this difficult person to an event? When he/she shows up to complain, do you think they will accuse your husband? The story will be a loooooong one!
9. Pick your battles and your battleground
Wives who have in-law problems dread family gatherings. Family celebrations often become battlegrounds to settle scores, and engage in all kinds of provocative behavior. If your heart starts beating faster as the reunion draws closer, you need to take a deep breath.
Some of your in-laws will love you. Be thankful for that. Some will dislike you, no matter what you do- accept it. All you can do is try your best. Resolve that you will enjoy each event and should problems arise, walk away. Young wives might have to put up with a lot, but the longer the marriage, the less often you will be tested.
10. Establish what space is yours and what is communal
The most exhausting family dramas often occur when we assemble at our hometowns for family events. Most families see the homes in ‘the village’ as ‘their son’s’ or ‘brother’s house’. Fine. Yet it is yours too. If you have the means to build a house in your community, then you are able to carve out your own space. If it is a family compound, there will be plenty of drama for some time to come. If you are thinking of building a country home, bear this in mind.
As a married woman, your patience and wisdom will be tested. With time and experience, you will learn how to avoid minefields. Finally, remember all you have had to wade through when your son or brother gets married and it is your turn to receive a young, nervous bride into your household. How will you treat her?
Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi is a gender specialist, social entrepreneur and writer. She is the former First Lady of Ekiti State and Founder of Abovewhispers.com, an online community for women.