Sunday 4 December 2016

How to Deal with Difficult In-Laws

A sister recently left a comment on the blog describing problems she was having with her mother-in-law. You can see the original comment here and a truncated version below:

I am also a daughter in law. I made the intention to live and look after my mother in law who is currently in her 40’s and so her son can also do so. 2 weeks after my marriage I overheard her tell my husband; Leave her, you can get better from your back home country; He of course did not agree to that. She then started to lie to him and say I tried to punch her. I had a lot of house work being heavily pregnant straight after the wedding but she hardly helped with anything. When I asked, I was ignored. When her son asked I got told off by her. She is not a very honest individual and keeps cursing me. She threatens me by saying she will make her son divorce me. She has made me cry and laughed in my face saying I act like a baby. She turns the water switch off so neither I and my husband can have a shower in the morning which we of course need. I did everything to please.

Over time I have had a number of comments and e-mails on the theme of struggling with in-law’s. It seems to be a recurring issue for so many people at different level – from disliking each other’s way of doing things to physical abuse and neglect. I think there are a number of issues at play: different backgrounds, cultures and lifestyles colliding, a difference in values, personality differences, and a lack of understanding of how a family unit can work from an Islamic perspective. I think another part is that a lot of fear, anxieties and insecurities can rear their ugly heads and influence the way women behave towards each other. 

I don’t believe in women being martyrs and enduring cruel behaviour or abuse because they should “just be patient”. I don’t believe in turning the other cheek if it is only to offer it up for another slap and not to resolve the matter. I think a lot of the time we internalise behaviours that we see in our families and around us without knowing it: putting up with bad behaviour and not speaking up, not answering back to our elders, having a desire to please. We internalise values and an understanding of how women should behave and of how a daughter in law should behave: helpful, patient, sacrificing, submissive even. Which is very noble alhamdulillah, but not if it is not appreciated and not if it means putting up with unkindness or unfairness.

One of the biggest lessons I have learned in life has been that you cannot change others very easily or sometimes at all. You cannot choose how they behave. But we can change ourselves and we can choose how we want to behave. I think Muslim women should work to become confident and empowered. We should find our voice and share our opinions. We should value ourselves, our dream and our needs. We should stick up for ourselves and others. I don’t think these things are un-Islamic. I think they are an essential part of being a Muslimah who is strong enough to be positive and live according to her faith in the best way.  So my first advise to this sister would be to look at yourself and ask the question: if you truly see yourself as one of Allah SWT’s blessed, beloved creation, would you settle for this behaviour? Would you put up with it if this was happening to your sister or best friend? Why is it so important to please someone who doesn’t care to be pleased by you? Why not please yourself?

I don’t mean to sound harsh when it feels like the problem is not yourself, but someone else. But the other person is unlikely to see it that way or change any time soon. There is no easy solution. Another life lesson alhamdulillah: when you are clear on what you want and don’t care what others think, suddenly people’s behaviour towards you changes. When you stop looking to them for approval, they start looking to you for approval and agreement. To stop caring what others think is the hardest thing in the world for me, but some things you can do are:
  • Become clear on what you want out of life, how you want to live and your plan to get there
  • Understand what internal measures of success you need to set for yourself, such as achieving a goal or feeling accomplished. These should slowly start to replace any need to please others
  • Work on building your confidence and sense of self-worth in the face of those who do not value you.
It seems as if you are not what your mother-in-law envisaged in a daughter in law. That’s not your fault. It does seem that you are what your husband required in a wife, hence he is with you despite your mother-in-law’s opposition. I find in many families parents overstep their limits in finding a spouse for their child. They will look for someone that fits their requirement and values and matches their view of what a son or daughter in law should be like. They forgot that the purpose of our spouses is to fulfil our own needs in a partner: emotionally, spiritually and physically. Only we can know what we need, which is why Allah (SWT) gives us the right to choose who we want to marry. I think a lot of parents are still some way from understanding this concept.

Perhaps when we find ourselves in situations like the sister who commented, we need to re-evaluate our roles as a daughter-in-law. Is it to cook and clean? To exclusively take care of all of the care of parents and elders? To mould ourselves into what someone wants us to be? If we choose to help with the housework and care of parents, then this is a kindness on our part, it should be done for the pleasure of Allah (SWT) and not to please our in-laws or others. No matter how much we do, there will be a time when they will seem ungrateful and hurt us. But when we do things for the sake of Allah (SWT), He will never let us down, we earn the reward no matter how small the good deed.

In traditional families, this kind of thinking is scary and takes courage. To step back, assess and decide to change how we behave or react and what we tolerate from others. To make a decision to accept and deal with the consequences of doing this – which are usually not as much as we have allowed ourselves to imagine. 

At the same time, it can be challenging to deal with the range of behaviours you find yourself up against: misunderstandings, arguments, passive aggressive behaviours, emotional blackmail etc. You need to be able to recognise them for they are and armour yourself against them. When I see a grown women who is old enough to be a grandmother, resorting to passive aggressive behaviour or emotional blackmail, it tells me she feels powerless to deal with things directly, she either lacks the courage or be lives that her views or decisions do not hold enough weight to stand on their own without resorting to this kind of behaviour. I think I would feel very sorry for a person who even at this age feels so powerless.

When I have had to deal with this kind of behaviour, on the first few occasions I felt stressed, anxious, guilty and helpless. Over time, I decided that I will be the adult, carry on behaving in the best way I can and carry on doing what I have to (the bit about having a clear vision and plan). This was met with sulking, refusing to eat and hypochondriac type behaviour (saying they felt unwell). Throughout I carried on speaking to the person as normal, which confused them. I behaved as normal and was polite. In the end the person realised there was no point in playing games and went back to normal.

I know this is easier said than done, but at some point we are no longer young girls, new brides or 

We must take the difficult steps to becoming strong Muslim mothers, wives and women. Women who fear Allah (SWT), strive to do the right thing, fulfil their responsibilities, but also respect themselves and inspire respect from others.

May Allah (SWT) have mercy on the many sisters I have come across that struggle with this issue and may he reward their good intentions and resolve misunderstandings and bad feeling that develop between them and their in-laws insh’Allah.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for posting this! I’m so glad that you wrote this piece in a productive and helpful manner instead of with a negative tone. May Allah reward you for your efforts.