The Desi Son-in-Law


By Nadia Shah

While we all know that mother-in-laws and daughter-in-laws have been hot topics for generations, father-in-laws and son-in-laws aren’t discussed nearly as much in the South Asian culture. So let’s take a moment to do just that.We’ll start with how son-in-laws are viewed in the Western culture, and how much that differs from the South Asian culture.

In the West, son-in-laws are generally expected to earn the respect and approval of their in-laws. If you think about how son-in-laws are portrayed in popular movies and television shows, they’re often clumsy, funny, and disrespected. In the movie Meet the Parents, lead character Greg Focker, the potential son-in-law, tries eagerly to gain his future father-in-law’s approval. And, while Greg is eventually accepted by his father-in-law, his approval is never overly exhibited or vocalized.


Greg Focker earns his father-in-law’s approval by agreeing to take a lie detector test in Meet the Parents (2000).

That stands in stark contrast to the South Asian culture, where parents tend to treat their son-in-laws with the utmost respect as a general rule, rather than making them earn their position in the family. While this usually creates a positive impact on the family as a whole, some South Asian families can take matters too far and put son-in-laws on a pedestal. This can eventually cause tension between in-laws and between spouses.

To understand why South Asians treat their son-in-laws this way, we must first look at the Indian culture. In some traditional desi families, daughters tend to be thought of as burdens to be unloaded upon potential suitors and their families. For many Indian families, dowries support this generality. A dowry originated from a loving act,  in which parents would gift their daughter a dowry offering some economic security as she entered marriage. However, with economic pressure, a dowry is often now viewed as a payment to the groom and his family to wed their daughter. This may imply that the son-in-law is somehow “owed,” for taking on the “burden.”

While dowries are becoming less common, the mentality of some parents toward their future son-in-laws remain rooted in the concept. Popular Indian movies and dramas depict this mentality quite well. Daughters are basically “given” to son-in-laws, and her parents usually feel they no longer have a “right” to her as a child. In my own family, my mom jokingly (but with a little truth mixed in) says “I can’t call you or drop by your house, what would your husband say?”

Of course, no one is saying that son-in-laws shouldn’t be respected, because they should. Everyone in your family needs to be respected. But should anyone really be glorified to unreasonable levels? If someone has to be exalted, I’d think it our elders deserve it, specifically our parents and in-laws.


Abhishek Bachhan with his in-laws.

There are also other issues with idolizing someone or putting them on a pedestal. Often when the glorified person, in this case the son-in-law, doesn’t meet expectations, relationship satisfaction may decrease. And people, including son-in-laws, who feel over-idealized are often less likely to put in effort or make accommodations for their in-law relationships. Also, a barrier and unintentionally form between the son-in-law and parents-in-law because they may not necessarily consider themselves as “equals.”

Of course there’s much more to this topic than we have time for, but the point of all this is to get our minds thinking about our culture and the norms within regarding son-in-laws.

Most of all, we need to remember that the extremes of putting someone on a pedestal or, disrespecting them unnecessarily, are never beneficial for positive in-law relationships.

What are your thoughts?

Nadia is a Therapist at Laguna Behavioral (949) 367-1200.

For more tips on managing in-law relationships, see more posts by Nadia on:

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