By Sami Yacoub
Talking about the relationship between parents and their sons-in-law and daughters-in-law is a sensitive issue, even though to me, it has always been a source that supplies me with lots of encouraging and joyful memories.
I was blessed with a mother-in-law, who was to me and my family, an oasis where we resort to drink cold water to overcome the thirst of tough circumstances. And because she is now in heaven, bearing the crown of glory that doesn’t wear out, I find no shame or boredom to share of my experience with her; this model which may open up a door of hope to anyone who seeks to make peace with the parents of his/her life partner, and to anyone who is working on his/her relationship with his/her children, such that it will overflow with mutual encouragement and joy, with the hopes that every relationship between a mother-in-law and her daughter-in-law becomes like that between mother and daughter. The father’s role in this relationship is of equal importance, whether positively or negatively.
The sensitivity that accompanies talking about this relationship, comes from the fact that we are trying to discuss the relationship between two teams, who are meant to be in harmony and unity. However, the differences in background, and the way of dealing with mutual expectations - whether logical or not - may lead the sides into struggles, instead of being one loving family. I admit that the Arabic proverb with the meaning that “The savior only gets his clothes torn”, expresses what a person would go through if he tries to intervene in a relationship. If the couple's relationship succeeds, it brings overflowing joy, however, if it fails, it becomes a renewable source of bitterness in the new house. This grief extends to affect the children who usually watch closely the struggles between their parents and their grandparents. They usually feel torn apart, and unable to express their disappointment. They become more and more isolated in rejection, and they even question the whole idea of marriage.
Clearly, marriage is the deepest bond between two people, a man and a woman. In fact, God didn’t mean for marriage to be just a source of happiness and mutual support between two couples in love, nor did He mean it to be a mere tool for reproductivity and continuity of the human race. But one of the major divine purposes of marriage is God’s desire to prepare humans for life with Him in eternity, through making him/her live with a person who is different in some aspects, thus, a person's life positively changes through daily interaction with his/her partner with whom he/she is united through marriage. “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another!” The secret of this inexpressible joy coming from the unity with your life partner, is nothing but a shadow of the joy and blessings of being united forever with God, when we go to be with him eternally. So this is a very deep concept; God wanted for this relationship between every man and woman, a spiritual bonding in the covenant of a sacred marriage, that will continue till death separates between them.. This is true, except in the case of infidelity which leads to adultery, where the person does not want to repent about his/her sin, or when the other partner who was hurt by such infidelity is unable to forgive... And he who thinks the church is being too strict by holding on to this important Biblical principle, was probably affected by worldly concepts.
You might be surprised to know that God uses the arguments arising from differences between persons, who have been brought up differently, to develop the man or woman's personality into learning the true meanings of love and submission, sharing and sacrificing, acceptance and forgiveness, and into putting some efforts to understanding the other person and appreciating his/her feelings and needs. Whenever we are ready to learn and grow in these qualities as husbands and wives, we will receive our strength from God's promise, “Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” And by the way, this promise is sometimes mentioned outside its context as a warning against separation. While on the contrary, it is a guarantee for the continuity of the relationship, since the guardian is God himself! If we confront ourselves with the reality of what we are facing these days, we will discover many arguments between couples, which reaches the point of separation, whether internally although they live under one roof, or through seeking divorce, and probably blaming the Church for not acknowledging it. If you look at the underlying reason for many of these scenarios, you probably find that it's due to interferences by parents or relatives in the life of the couple. And although I tend to feel that many of these interferences come spontaneously and in good will, or in a real desire to help, as a way of expressing their love to their son or daughter, or it could even come from the feeling of responsibility for the happiness of their child by fulfilling their needs, but unfortunately it could be a sort of “deadly love”.
Lets be very frank and face the fact that the parental care given to children after they get married, probably results form a highly controlling parent, who feels that children are a personal property, and thus finds difficulty in accepting the fact that their son leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife. These possessive feelings could leave the mother of the husband alienated from the reality that her relationship with her son has changed, and so has the nature and expression of family relationships, due to the change in times.
The modernity in societal factors has definitely affected a lot of the concepts of tribal bonding in families. This could have been acceptable and effective in the past, but its practical expressions are now very different, even though the core is still the same. There are many examples for the changes that are currently affecting the patterns of living and relationships between parents and their in-laws. For instance, the daughter-in-law does not cook in the same way as her mother-in-law used to cook delicious meals for her son. She also has a special taste for picking appliances or furniture, which might seem strange to her mother-in-law. Strangely enough, the wife prefers to be financially independent from her husband's family, and she prefers to live according to a pre-planned budget, and she prioritizes her expenses, and not just spend haphazardly! As for the issue of being pregnant, and when to have children, the daughter-in-law sees that this is a totally personal issue. The question that's commonly asked “what is taking you so long??!!” usually causes a disaster. Especially when accompanied by comparisons with other ladies who were pregnant right after they got married. Not to mention the extreme care given to the first born, or the issues concerning raising children, or the choices of the wife to go to work and leave her kids in nurseries, and many other illogical expectations that sometimes cross the limits for the new family. Then problems begin, and the mother-in-law starts feeling that her son has a failed marriage. While the wife feels that the mother-in-law is in a way too nosey. While both assumptions might not necessarily be true.
In conclusion, its quite obvious that every marriage brings to the new home two cultural backgrounds that are not necessarily identical, and in the best case scenario, they are similar. And usually these differences do not appear during the romantic period before marriage. Especially when the main concern of the couple is to prepare for their new home, more than trying to understand their natural differences. And it usually doesn't take long before the differences translate into daily actions and attitudes, and each of them holds on to the social habits that they think is the best for marital life. Since the first day after the wedding, the iron starts shaping the iron, such that the heat of the friction goes up gradually, and may sometimes cause sparks. Here, every father and mother needs to understand that the newly married couple needs some freedom of space and some time without any interferences, in any form whatsoever, or even approaching them to help.
This allows the new loving couple to interact and go through the proper cycle that needs some time to cool down their differences, and their unity moves to completion. Only then, the relationship between the two sets of parents becomes much easier and more enjoyable. Honestly, I think that the one who mostly needs to move further from the new couple is the mother of the groom. For our local proverb says, “ the husband of my daughter is more precious than my eye!” However, the struggle over the man is probably between two women, his mother and his wife. And eventually the victim becomes the marriage itself! So can we find someone who would say, “My son's wife is so precious to me!” ?
Now what should be done? The solution rests in a balance between the two commandments that the man should leave his father and mother, and that the children should honor their parents.
Copyright © 2012 Focus on the Family Middle East. All rights reserved. Originally published in Watani Paper 28.10.2012