Monday, July 15, 2013

How to Foster a Better Relationship with Your Indian Mother-in-law

The following is a guest post, edited only for aesthetic value as emails don't always copy/paste in an appealing way. I've pulled this week's Mixed Media post because I'm not sure the timing is right for it. Enjoy and thanks so much to Indian Wife for sharing!

Twenty one years ago, I married my Indian high school sweetheart. Fireworks went off for me when I laid eyes on him one fateful summer evening in my Tennessee hometown, and they never have stopped. Our whirlwind romance went on for three years, until we happily tied the knot in college. 

Sounds like a good start, right? Well, no amount of romance or goo-goo eyes can sustain a marriage to an Indian man if his mother and his wife can’t get along. And peaceful coexistence is very hard to gain if that wife is not Indian. Take it from me. I’m American…I was independent, I was stubborn, and I wanted everything to be my way. Well, my mother-in-law was exactly the same way. Needless to say, I had to learn over the years to throw away my western expectations of my mother-in-law, and cultivate ways to relate to her. For everyone’s sake. So, to spare any new gori wives the tears and frustrations our family went through, let me share five tips on how to create a good relationship with the mother-in-law.

Team Up with Hubby
Find out what your husband expects from his relationship with his mother and from your relationship with her. Find out how close he is to her. Does he expect you and his mother to spend every day in the kitchen together, or to share raising your kids? Is it important to him to live with his parents? How much does he want her to baby him? Because, believe me, the babying can go on forever. Once you know his expectations for coexistence with his mother, then the two of you can team up to send the same signals to her. A united front is a must.

Show Her You Will Care for her Son
An Indian mother takes care of her boys. And the only woman she will trust her son to is a doting wife. Now, I don’t mean to say that you should cater to his every whim, and serve him every dinner on a silver platter, but make the effort to show her that he is your priority. Show her that you are making an effort to learn to cook his favorite dishes, that you really listen to him, and, most of all, that you value the importance of his relationship with her. Caring for him means letting her care for him, too. Which leads me to my next tip.

Share and Share Alike
Western couples marry and set up house on their own, taking joy in creating their own little happy bubble of their own. Not so with Indian couples. Even if an Indian guy doesn’t live with his parents after marriage, what’s his is theirs and what’s there is his. Your mother-in-law will feel a sense of possession over her son, your home together, and your children. Share with her. Encourage her time with your husband. Her bond with her son and ultimately, her grandchildren, will not and should not be broken. With firm boundaries, you can find the blessings that come with sharing with her.

Smile and Wave
You don’t have to agree with everything your mother-in-law says or does, nor do you have to be a doormat. But, many times, it’s better to just smile and wave when she does something you don’t like. Pick your battles. Arguing with her over small stuff creates tension with her, and especially with your husband. If he becomes the rope in a battle of tug and war between you and his mother, everyone is miserable. Sometimes, just relax and move on. It’s good for everyone.


Sheryl Parbhoo is a blogger, writer, and intercultural relationship adviser based in Georgia. She is a southerner who has been married to her Gujarati husband for over 21 years, and stays busy raising their five kids. She writes about parenting twins, intercultural marriage and family issues, and loves to share her hard earned wisdom with others.

Her website is a place to read about her experiences and insights as a mom and wife in an intercultural family, as well as a place to get support and advice on relationship and family issues.


  1. I guess I'm lucky, my Indian MIL is an absolute angel.
    I think one thing us American Bahu's need to realize is that in Indian culture in regards to parents, elders, even teachers-
    Disagreement = Disrespect
    No matter how polite the terms you couch your disagreement in or how well reasoned, rational, or right you are it is still considered disrespectful & rude to disagree with an Indian authority figure.
    So definitely choose your battles!

  2. Easier said than done! I find it quite challenging to not disagree with something though I have gotten much better at doing it out of sight, out of mind, etc.

  3. The "Disagreement=Disrepect" concept was so hard for me at first. I'm a hard head. My dad taught me to debate and question everything, and he and I enjoyed many heated disagreements over things as I grew up. It didn't take long for me to realize I couldn't do that with my MIL!

    You are so blessed to have an angel MIL! Did you have any growing pains at first getting used to each other?

  4. Yes, out of sight is good! I also struggle with wanting to complain to my husband about her (which is no good). Do you struggle with that?

  5. "Did you have any growing pains at first getting used to each other?"

    No, never had any of the dreaded Indian MIL/FIL problems.
    My MIL speaks not a word of English, she's never been outside the town of her birth, she can't read nor write, she does all the food shopping for the 12 people living in the 'joint family' compound every day & cooks for them too. We immediately 'bonded' over our love of cooking & my interest in learning the 'old' Kashmiri ways of preparing food.
    Now I do have a SIL & BIL(and their nasty children) that are absolutely horrid - but that's another story!

  6. She sounds like an amazing lady...and so do you! My grandmother-in-law was the same, old-school, loving and accepted me right away.Just passed away at 90. Family like them are a treasure.
    I wish had words of wisdom for the horrid SIL and BIL...I've got some too. Good luck to us both on that! :)

  7. Is that why they kept saying that I had "Attitude problems?" I was wondering where that all came from. They have recalled alleged frequent times when I was "very rude" and they even said I did it to my own mom, even though my mom never took offense nor said a word. considering that I have never taken a harsh tone nor told them off or yelled etc, I was always confused by that conversation and it's maddening to be accused of being a rude person without having any clue what it is that I did. However, now that I read this and think about it, I have disagreed with the parent generation on both sides (my own and my IL's), especially when they trot out all the old wives tales and I might say I don't think that's true anymore, or it's been debunked, etc. I don't do it to be a bitch, but just to make sure that in areas like parenting and child safety and medicine, we are going by accurate and correct information. Also, my mom has never minded when I correct her or disagree even a bit firmly. I guess Indians interpret that tone differently though. Great post!

  8. I really enjoy Sheryl's blog and have found her to be a great e-mentor on the intercultural relationship circuit. Nearly every post I have read over the past 7 years on the American wife/Indian DIL relationship is written by an American woman who largely recommends acquiescing to the Indian side in various ways. Sheryl writes about setting boundaries and not being a door mat - but we're not given information on how to do that. Rather tolerance of the behaviors and information/understanding of the Indian MILs background seems to be the prescriptive tool kit across the board. I am critical of this approach because I did all of these things, emptied myself for the Indian family for years, and I have found their desires to be unquenchable and to in fact have very little to do with me. Although their agenda for quenching said desires directly, and almost obsessively, involves my husband and myself. My control and subordination and very important in meeting various aspects of themselves - aspects that are in no way of a higher psychological order. I have found their insidious attempts to control usually manifest through the mundane - the domestic life - that Sheryl articulated.

    I vote for a new approach. I have found feminism to be a safe haven for me over the years and reminding myself of my own rights and validity to my own case. There has yet to be a sweeping feminist movement in India and although I eagerly await such a change, the simple fact is feminism happened in the United States. You need not live under suppressive tenants which promote inequality. It's something any woman living in America can employ and embrace to her benefit.

    *Note I don't blast my feminist views aloud of my Indian family...I just hold them in my pocket and carefully formulate words and actions for various situations where I feed dominated or uncomfortable. **Also note: I have not mastered letting my wishes and desires be known, but I am getting there.

    I vote for listening to your inner voice, really thinking about what is comfortable for YOU and not anyone else in these situations. Figure it out -- if you don't like your mother in law elbowing you out of your own kitchen (like me) tell her. I suppose you can go through your husband, but you have a voice and are a family member too. Your home, your marriage is your domain. Learn how to express your needs and wishes clearly and effectively. Tell your MIL how her actions make you feel. Be honest. Work on scripts... I have "Ataya [MIL] I'd prefer you not do that... why don't you have a seat in another room please" programmed on the tip of my tongue. This is a scary, risky thing to do. You may inflame your in-laws, they may not understand... but it is worse my friends to bottle your own deeply important needs, wishes, and desires for your life in order to placate people who, in my experience, will never truly be placated anyway.

    You married on the terms of modern love why should your marriage not reflect that?

  9. S Bee-
    I agree with you for the most part.

    The first 2 yrs of my marriage several of my Indian in laws treated me like crap.

    I tried to respond gracefully & ignore bad behavior (as we are taught to do in the US) but the ill treatment only worsened.

    I made the mistake of taking it personally. Why do they hate me so much when they don't even know me?, I thought.

    Upon researching the issue on the internet I discovered that Indian DIL's are routinely treated like crap (the Choti Bahu treatment) - nothing personal, that is just the way it is.

    After 2 yrs of marriage I'd come to the definite conclusion that some parts of Indian culture & traditions weren't for me. This crappy 'Choti Bahu' tradition was not something I wanted any part of.

    I began setting boundaries, being what I felt was OVERLY assertive, & rudeness was met immediately with rudeness. No passive aggressive stuff, no more bothering to be gracious, polite or trying to 'please' anyone.

    My Indian in laws soon learned I was not to be messed with or treated disrespectfully.

    Truthfully, I'm uncomfortable having to do this as it goes against MY culture.
    With some of the crappy, absolutely uncalled for & downright nasty things that have been said & done to me I do feel as though my Indian in laws are children in adult bodies.

    But I have to say....IT WORKED!!!

    So what you allow to continue will continue.

    Choose your battles, set your boundaries, be firm, & be assertive just like you would with bratty spoiled children.

  10. S Bee-

    Having lived in India & Nepal for 12 yrs now I can honestly say that 'education' does NOT make a difference in Indian family dynamics.

    Culture trumps education & religion in India (and Nepal) UNFORTUNATELY.

    I just think it takes more DILs refusing to put up with being treated like crap.

    My husband is not 'educated' although he is a very successful artist & businessman.

    And you know what-
    If my 'demands' are not met when we visit the Indian in laws (which I feel are NOT unreasonable) then we check into a 5 star hotel.

    I didn't marry my husband to go from a being highly successful professional career woman to being the house slave & peon to my Indian in laws.
    I'm not sleeping with other family members, or on the floor, or having stuff stolen out of my suitcase, or being constantly criticized & harangued, or living in filth to please my husband or my in laws.
    I let it go tooooo long in the first 2 yrs of our marriage & I agree the results were more toxic for me than the in laws.
    But I assure you your Indian in laws will respect you more if you assert yourself & show some backbone!

  11. Love it girl! Feeling empowered :)

  12. I did in India. He didn't get upset with me but dismissed her behavior. I'm sure he wanted to keep the peace and I was a little crazy dealing with the culture shock.

  13. This is great advice. I too struggled with how much to bend for my in-laws. I think most of the time we (American women) bend because the Indian traditions are dominant and very difficult to reason against. Some Indians will push back 10 times as hard if you try to rebel. It's a very tricky battle and how you fight it matters.

    In my case, I got lucky in many aspects but I also chose to follow some of their customs. It was my choice. I have to remind myself of that from time to time because I still sometimes feel that resentment you mention. I know there were things I could have done to go against them but I chose not to. Things are much different now. I know they tried to work with me while I lived with them (in some ways) but I'm much better off living away from them. For my own health and sanity, as you mentioned.

  14. "Sheryl writes about setting boundaries and not being a door mat - but we're not given information on how to do that."

    Thank you for the honest feedback. I have been guilty of dancing around concrete, real-life actions to create a peaceful family environment, and I promise to produce a "tool-kit." However, since my own experiences are constantly evolving, so will be my efforts at mentoring.

    "Put the ball back in your court today. Work with your husband. Enlist a couples therapist. Read the modern books on love and relationships. Strive for more than to please others. Put yourself at the center."

    Well said. Working with your husband is most important. As a woman, I have always struggled with putting myself first, I've learned how to put myself "at the center," and honestly, striking that balance of caring for those you love, is difficult. Have you ever read "The Five Love Languages," by Gary Chapman? It is my Bible. In my marriage and my extended family.

    "Work on scripts... I have "Ataya [MIL] I'd prefer you not do that... why don't you have a seat in another room please" programmed on the tip of my tongue." - excellent works.

    I think It is all about talking to your loved ones in the ways that they can receive your message. I guess I approach my in-laws in that way....I do not cave or cower, but connect with them in their own cultural context. I will definitely write more about this concept on my blog.

  15. Great stuff. Many thanks for your openness to feedback!

  16. Indian MILs and DiLs come with social baggage which often prevents the building of a healthy relationship. The Indian DILs are not exactly "Paragons of Virtue". The interference from the bride's side is constant and often not resented too as it comes under the category of "protecting feminine rights". The DILs often come pre programmed to behave in certain manner by their mothers irrespective of how their inlaws behave with them. Keep aloof, do not interact with your inlaws from the very first and try to get separated at the earliest instance. This are the standard instructions issued. If a man talks to her mother it is construed as interference while the bride taking ill advice from her mother and acting accordingly, does not make her "mummy girl". This type of political correctness and leeway often prevents objective analysis of marital problems. The problem with such issues is that all we get to hear is the DILs. There is absolutely no inputs from husbands and MILs. There are always two sides of the story.

    Men often have absolutely no clue about what is happening till they are caught in cross fire. The battle tactics of the MILs and DILs can often put a seasoned war veteran to shame. Women come up with brilliant strategies to torment each other. I absolutely admire their potential.

  17. "The battle tactics of the MILs and DILs can often put a seasoned war veteran to shame."

    Well said!
    You might extend this to SIL's too, I've seen some battles between my SIL's that rival the dramatics of the most tawdry 'saas bahu' serials!

  18. I think the key to avoiding the anger & resentment that can build over these MIL- DIL issues is-


    It isn't about YOU it is about the CULTURE.

  19. The sad thing is, it can happen in American families as well. But, in my experience, they can be more passive-aggressive...MIL gossips to daughter about DIL, etc.(my life) Sometimes, I've gotten it from both sides. Ugh, families...can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em. :)

  20. I've experienced this in an American family. This time the MIL told everyone, not just family, lies and rumors about the DIL. DIL couldn't get a job, had very limited social contacts, etc. It can be quite ugly here in the US just like in India.

  21. There was a TV serial called "Raymond" where surprisingly the MIL and DIL hated each other. I was like, does it happen in USA also. I thought people fall in love, marry and parents do not care at all about DILs. I guess human relations are the same everywhere. It refreshing to know that we are not the only ones who have to suffer this.

    However, as far as "creative mischief" is concerned, nobody can beat the Indian women. They have had centuries to perfect their lethal art. They can even use something as harmless as food into a topic for deadly confrontation. The modern version of Indian women is ever more lethal. I think married men should henceforth enter their homes wearing bullet proof jackets, life for them is very dangerous.

  22. It definitely happens here but for different reasons. In India families often pick their DIL, in the US MIL's abuse them because they don't like them and didn't get to pick them. It's like there is no good solution! It's crazy!

  23. Wow, you're a real slut you cheap piece of shit. how much did he pay you? fucking whore

  24. THIS! "I began setting boundaries, being what I felt was OVERLY assertive, & rudeness was met immediately with rudeness. No passive aggressive stuff, no more bothering to be gracious, polite or trying to 'please' anyone.

    My Indian in laws soon learned I was not to be messed with or treated disrespectfully.

    Truthfully, I'm uncomfortable having to do this as it goes against MY culture."

    The only times I have been treated with respect or common decency by my MIL have been the times that I behaved in what felt, to me at least, like an over-the-top manner. I still struggle with setting boundaries and making expectations clear, but getting a better grip on feminism and getting a better grip on my own self-confidence have helped me to stop feeling like a doormat.