Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Love, Duty and Obligation

Before I begin writing what I have to say I feel it's important to define a few of the words I will be using as they can easily be misunderstood based on the various cultures and how each uses the words. These definitions come from Dictionary.com and are the way I've always heard these words defined.

Infatuation - foolish or all-absorbing passion

Love - a profoundly tender, passionate affection for another person

Duty - something that one is expected or required to do by moral or legal obligation

Obligation - something by which a person is bound or obliged to do certain things, and which arises out of a sense of duty or results from custom, law, etc

In the western world most adult relationships are built on love or infatuation. Boy meets girl, they both find each other physically attractive, they explore personalities and if they still like each other they start a relationship. They may get all kinds of giggly and touchy feely - holding hands, sitting beside each other, talking on the phone for hours, going everywhere together and may have little or no time for anyone else. This is the infatuation phase. Some call it love, but it's not yet fully developed into love. 

When they do realize they love each other they are more likely to re-engage in relationships with friends and family and are confident with the relationship. They no longer feel the need to spend every single second with each other, even if they want to, because they know that the other person will still be there when they get there. The couple may still call each other frequently, spend a lot of time together, hold hands, sit next to each other and all that stuff but now it's because they truly and deeply want to. They have learned the true value in each others company and it's much more than just having someone there who is fun and exciting like the person was during the infatuation phase. 

In India, especially when it comes to arranged marriages, the couple does not start out loving each other. They marry and being their marital duties out of a sense of obligation and duty. The husband and wife each have respective roles and even though they most likely agreed to the marriage, the true sense of love is often not there yet. There is some elements of infatuation and there's a good chance they were on the phone with each other as often as the parents would allow (or that they could sneak in), possibly made plans to meet each other (sometimes with parental consent and sometimes without) and they were both excited by the prospect of having a life partner even though they were probably nervous about the upcoming duties and obligations they would have to fulfill. 

Love develops later as these duties and obligations are carried out and the couple's dependency on each other heightens. The man often feels he can't live without the woman because she takes such good care of him and does so much for him (both common phrases I hear when men here reference their wives). The wife also in turn will indicate she knows her husband loves her because he takes such good care of her. Now I make absolutely no claim to understanding the feelings of another couple, especially not an Indian couple because the cultural concepts are too vastly different. But, what I do observe is the love they share definitely has undertones of duty and obligation in it every time it is brought up. 

This is the same among families. In the west, we don't make it a secret if one of our relatives is a jerk, we can't stand them, etc. If we don't like them, we fail to continue the relationship with them. This doesn't happen all the time and even if we don't maintain a relationship with them, if some duty or obligation comes up we still fulfill it with them. The only example that comes to mind is if a child who was put up for adoption finds her birth parents she's very likely to still invite them to her wedding and may ask her birth father to give her away to her new husband (this is a tradition in christian weddings) even though he had no part in her upbringing and there is no close relationship between them. 

In India, from what I've noticed, even the relatives you don't like and may not have spoken to in months are still treated like you would treat your close friends. They show up, you bring them into your home and act as if they've been there all along and life has always been good between you. They are included in every way and never left out - even if you had rather not ever see their face again. To sum that up, you still do your part out of duty and obligation and many times that is described as love here. 

So now my point in all this is to clarify one thing about my life. The question was recently raised as to whether or not my MIL likes me and I don't have a definitive answer. On one hand, we have a great relationship, laugh and giggle, gang up on hubby together, and things like that. If we lived in the west I would say we love each other. Now on the other hand, not once have I been included in any of the "duty" aspect of this household/relationship/etc. I am not expected nor allowed to complete my duties as a DIL in this family. I do quite a bit of cooking, yes but that is because I love it and they let me do just about anything they think makes me happy but doesn't cause me to actually work too much. I'm not included when the ladies of the house go out on daily errands, shopping in the bazaar, etc. They have taken me twice in the past year because I pitched a fit, twice I went to tailors for new measurements, and I went out for Karva Chauth. So 5 trips with the ladies in one year - despite complaints of not being included. So in the Indian sense of the duty/obligation love I would say no, my MIL does not love me. 

But, I can't just say that because I also have to factor in the language barrier and difficulties of being seen with a foreigner in this city. On those few trips out we were always stopped by neighbors or the neighbors came over right after we got back home to ask questions. My MIL is very reserved and has never led an outwardly public life in any way. It would be foolish and arrogant for me to think her only reason for not taking me was because of her feelings towards me. 

So as you can see, this can all be confusing. In this last year of living here I have rarely had any definite answers to any of my thoughts or questions. I've had to seek out and be extra observant to find meaning in most of what goes on around here. It's helped me see and learn about things I never would have noticed otherwise. I'm thankful in some ways, but this is maddening. I've always been a person who knows things. I don't have to guess. I research, I study and I just know. At work, I was the girl everyone came to for help. People knew my work extension and they even visited me regularly or stopped me when I passed by them to ask me questions about the job. I even had supervisors come to me for questions. That's just how I liked my life to be - I liked knowing what needed to be done and taking care of business so to speak. I don't have any of that here. Life is all chaos and there are no cut and dry answers. I'm living in a constant grey area.

I'm not sure I will ever be able to truly buy into the Indian concept of duty/obligation love that grows. Only time will answer that question for me. I do know that when an obligation is fulfilled, either by myself or one of my Punjabi relatives, I do have a euphoric feeling of happiness. Even if it's something simple. So I'm quite sure this "love comes after marriage" concept can lead to a very deep and intimate feeling of love like us westerners expect up front. I just don't feel I've gotten there yet with relatives other than my husband.


  1. Hi Kristy,

    Dont be upset of how they treat you lead you to be confused if they like or love you. As long as you know that you dont have bad intension for them its enough Kristy, you might need a break after one year living in India. They will miss you and you will miss them too. My Indian friend (lady) told me as long ur husband is with you dnt care of anything. Even she doesnt have good relationship with his MIL.

    Love to you,

  2. >{"love comes after marriage"}that is most likely bogus. love may not come after all. only duty may persist, as is often the case. it is a perverted scenario, I agree. those who are born into this society have some familiarity with it and fool themselves into believing that they understand this crazy knot. in reality, they do not ... sex is probably the only thing that binds the couple, though it is very hard for me to figure out how someone does it with a complete stranger without it being a "one night stand". for a male it is strange enough ... for a female, i dont think it will anything less than disgusting in any culture, no matter what the upbringing is. But I am no female and can hardly speak for all the females.over time there is a chance that this sexual interaction leads to something resembling love, but certainly not guaranteed ... i have seen plenty of such couples to prove my point (and also many where love really happened). it may very well be the case that love (the romantic one) is a bogus thing itself, though I certainly don't believe it (I know it as far as is possible for a non-psychiatrist to know).anyway your point was only tangentially about the husband-wife love, but about wife-inlaw or husband-inlaw "love". and here I think there is not much difference between the west and the east (Is India really east ? It is probably some direction totally other than the basic four).lack of any natural glue like "sex" or "long time familiarity" puts such relationships into the same category as strangers who will be forced to be related for the rest of their life without having any choice ... in all cultures.given that, i dont think you would be less perplexed had Rohit been a total white American born and raised fully in the deep south where you belong. the only amelioration probably would be that you wouldn't live in the same house, though with the recession it too is not guaranteed.So I would say, it is nothing to fret about ... your MIL loves you as much as your hypothetical white MIL would do. that leaves your confusion/paradox about duty=love in the indian context. to wit, if duty=love and you are not allowed to "duty" then "love" must also be absent. I would resolve this paradox as --it is very likely that your family is extremely protective about you. even a minor harm to you would be unbearable to them as you are not just a DIL but someone from outside India and hence qualifies as a "guest" in some sense. They probably consider you as a prize member of the family (DIL's usually are, in many normal familes, more so if they are the only one in the family). You being a non-Indian and living far from "home", most probably puts them in a self appointed role of your custodian/guardian, and answerable to your parents if some harm comes your way. Mind you, not answerable to Rohit, but to your parents. I know, it may sound alien to you but for Indian parents, kids are a little too precious for comfort. They assume that you are just as precious (in the quintessentially indian way) to your parents and hence they must guard you with their lives ..In case, you doubt my theory please try to find out with ... do it  very carefully and with subtelety ... most probably you will hear this phrase from your MIL - "tumhare maa-baap ko kya munh dikhaoongi" (what face will I present to your parents if something happens to you) I will be interested to know whether I am wrong or right.

  3. Thanks so much sweety! I'm sure you're right. The advice from your friend is good as well.

  4. I don't doubt your theory. It makes a lot of sense. I've heard such phrases before - many times lol. It's one of those things that makes me do the childish stomping out of the room type behavior because how can I argue with it lol. I appreciate it, but hearing that phrase mean's I'm not getting my way hahahaha. Thank for your thoughts.

    Btw, how do you like the new name and look for the blog?

  5. I don't think there is much difference between "love" and the feelings(caring, longing etc etc) one builds during his/her stay with the other person. The only difference is sex which is reserved between pair bonds. If you minus the sexual relationship, the rest of the nature of relationship between all family members will be at par but could vary depending on how close(communication, revealing secrets etc) the members have decided to be with each other.

    There is already a communication deficit between you and your MIL. Your in-laws will not bridge that gap by learning english to communicate with you. Instead, you will have to learn punjabi and get close to them which means that you need to reveal your inner thoughts to them. Then they will reveal their inner thoughts to you. This is how bonds are made. If you can't communicate, your chances to create a bond drops to sign language which becomes a ridiculous act after a while.

    Also, indians are bound with "duty". It means living a monogamous life. It means following gender roles. It means following hierarchical codes. All of which are meant to keep "order". The quicker a family abandons these codes, the quicker it heads towards a dysfunctional state of affairs. The threat of becoming dysfunctional causes many to keep secrets(unfaithful partner, family politics, abusive husband, lunatic wife, monster in laws etc). Unfortunately, for some families, there comes a point when keeping secrets becomes almost like applying bandages to a breaking dam; it will break no matter.

    Hence, it is important for you to know that your family(most indian families) have built-in honour codes. Though these codes imply obligation on them to behave in a certain way, that does not mean that they do it out of love. Your uncleji's family and your family might be going through power tussles every once in a while but know that he too is bound by duty so he can't make a scene that damages family name. Blood is thicker than water. Offspring or no offspring, you're deemed blood now.

  6. From my personal experience, i have noticed a difference in the feelings of love, infatuation and duty/obligation. MIL has learned some English and continues to do so but it's only what she needs to know to get by and that's fine because that's what I'm doing with Punjabi. I just don't have the time and energy for it right now though I really want to learn it. I think the duty aspects of these relationships are actually very important but some actually label that love.

    You're right though, offspring or no offspring they are stuck with me. :D I have no intention of divorce ever and I have serious doubts that Rohit will ever do any of the things on my marriage breaking list. (That sounds weird to have one but I was clear up front I won't tolerate some things..just as any self respecting arranged marriage would do as well I would hope.) Even I can never be sure they love me back i do love my MIL and my FIL is one of the best men I've ever known. They are invaluable in my heart and I would never want to lose them.