My Indian in-laws: My Marriage Counselors
By Alexandra Madhavan
“Marriage is for life,” says my Indian mother-in-law frequently. “If you’re having a fight, stop arguing and take some time to cool down,” she says. “Respect your partner’s thoughts and feelings.” This is a story about how my Indian in-laws have become the greatest allies to my marriage.
For most Indian elders, dishing out a bevy of unsolicited advice is their modus operandi. And when a young couple gets married in the family, the elders not only feel responsible but they get great happiness from guiding the young couple through life’s never-ending ups and downs. In traditional Indian culture, a young married couple relies heavily on the advice of their elders for anything from marital, financial, and emotional problems – just to name a few. Not only do Indian elders love giving advice, but they are also expert problem solvers.
My mother-in-law says that Indian elders believe that anything can be solved within the family – that one should not go outside the family for counseling to a stranger. Although sometimes it helps to have an objective perspective from an outsider, that person will not know your spouse. They will just hear your perspective – i.e. your complaints! In the long run, it doesn’t really help. And plus, why pay several hundred dollars to a therapist when you can just talk to your in-laws for free? On a side note, if my in-laws actually billed me for their counseling services I would probably owe them at least $100k!
Sure, the advice can be annoying at times. I mean, they really do believe that they are like an Encyclopedia Britannica of any life advice. But, at the end of the day…aren’t they? I mean, if you look at their resume it sort of speaks for itself. For example, they have been married for almost 40 years…without killing each other. They survived a 15 year brutal long distance relationship, living in two different countries. They raised two children together who are both happily married; and now, grandchildren.
They navigated the complicated Indian family structure without stepping on anyone’s toes. And that too, living in a joint family of 10 people in a tiny 2-bedroom house. They are so loved and admired by all the members of their family. Surely, if they have any marital advice for me I would definitely benefit from it because – let’s face it – they have a lot of experience in these matters! The understand the ebb and flow of life, and the yin and yang of relationships.
One time I was having a fight with my husband, who is notoriously stubborn. This aspect of his character is well-known in the family. Lucky me. I was on the phone with my mother-in-law and I broke down in tears.
I started to tell her about the fights we were having at that point in our marriage. I don’t know why I did. Maybe because I was feeling more comfortable with her after getting to know her better over the years and forming a deep relationship with her. She was becoming a second mother to me. And on that night, she became my marriage counselor.
She gave me the best marital advice I could have asked for. She raised my husband. He is her flesh and blood. She knows what works with him, how to get through to him, and what makes him tick. Like any mother, she instinctively knows her son.
Of course, when I call their landline in despair it’s kind of like playing Russian Roulette because I’m not sure who will answer the phone. I have confided in my father-in-law at times, and he usually directly phones up my husband after and lectures him for ten hours, like you’ve been dragged to the Vatican on Sunday morning. It is very different than how my mother-in-law handles it, but it works like a charm. You can’t get a word in edgewise. So, both of them are incredibly helpful. Yin and yang.
Ever since that fateful night, any time I have an issue with my husband – whether it be an argument, or simply how to speak to him about a sensitive subject – my in-laws are on speed dial. This year, my husband and I celebrated ten years together, and my in-laws take a big credit for our achievement. I’m not sure I could have navigated our young fiery love without their sound advice. Or at least, it would have definitely been harder.
I am fortunate to have in-laws who are so invested in our marriage and seeing it succeed. Their advice has literally improved the quality and the strength of our relationship. With the help of my in-laws, we have made our union unbreakable and I owe a lot to them.
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My Indian husband made it clear from the start that family issues should stay inside the family but couple issues should not be told to anyone on the Indian side of the family. I understand his point of view ; for foreigners it is very difficult to have a clear picture of the subtleties of Indian family dynamics and personal status issues. I wouldn’t want to undermine my husband’s status with mindless chatter.
And then, I don’t think you can compare a friendly ear with a trained counselor. If you ever see a counselor, you will understand the difference.
At the end of the day, your mother-in-law will, and I say this with certainty, chose her son over you so be careful with being overly trusting and confiding. A professional marriage counselor or therapist is always a better option when you need to vent.