Friday, December 4, 2015

Ask Firangi Bahu: "My Indian MIL is putting stress on my marriage!"

(Img via Jeremy Bishop)

Sharing a letter from a reader...

"Hi Alexandra,

I know you are the Internet guru of Indian MIL's (evidenced by me frequently perusing the archives for advice), and I write to you in need of serious help from you and the firangi bahu community!

My husband and I usually have a great relationship. We live in the US, while his mother lives by herself in India - about a block away from her 3 brothers and their extended family. Her husband left her about 15 years ago, but they never got divorced and she has a history of anxiety and depression. To complicate things, my husband is her only child and thus is the center of her world.

My MIL lived with us for awhile this year, and it was horrible. There were absolutely no boundaries, and I honestly felt like I was more married to her than I was to my husband. First thing in the morning, she would come in and sit our bed, even if I wasn't dressed! It felt incredibly invasive to me. I'm working on a graduate degree, and she's never even asked me what I study or really made any attempt to get to know me as a person. (I know that's partly a cultural thing, but it didn't make it feel any better.) To make things even worse, she has only ever shown interest in making me Indian as possible by dressing me up and refusing to call me by my English name. 

I know that all of this is run-of-the-mill MIL/DIL clashes, but my dilemma is a little more complicated than that. My MIL had a health incident a couple of months ago that caused my husband to take her back to India because we couldn't afford to pay for treatment where we live. He ended up staying there for a month and a half - sorting everything out, which I supported even though it really put a strain on our relationship. He's back now, but this whole situation has brought a lot of things to light for me that I'm trying to navigate on my own because it's hard to talk about them with him without him getting upset.

Maybe it's just my own cultural upbringing in the US, but their relationship does not seem healthy to me. My MIL is very indecisive, passive and negative, which is totally understandable given her past, but my husband treats her like a child. This is even more heightened now with her health situation. I worry about him being her crutch - not to say that he can't be a support for her, but she relies on him so much because she doesn't believe she can do things herself. It's gotten to the point that we can't even go out on a date night sometimes because if she doesn't Skype with him morning and night, she flips out. The rational side of me understands how terrible her situation is, but the emotional side of me just wants my husband back. I also think I have started to resent her for causing issues within my marriage - the only serious fight(s) we've ever had were about her.

My husband dreams of the day that the three of us can be a happy family, and he thought that it would happen as soon as we got married a few years ago. Obviously, it did not, to which my husband's response was "you knew what you were getting into when you married me". I've tried to explain that the reality of it was much different than I ever imagined, and that you can't force two people to have a relationship and live together overnight. However, he loves his mother very much and feels caught in the middle between us. When she was here, he would constantly tell me things like "go hug her now", and it just made me freeze up and feel so self conscious about our lack of bonding that I just wanted to hide in my bedroom all of the time. Now when I don't want to Skype with her (usually because I'm working on homework), he complains that I'm not trying hard enough.

Despite all of this, my husband wants us to be able to live together again and the thought literally terrifies me. He says that she sacrificed her life for him, which I understand - but what about me? What about our marriage? I feel selfish and terrible for even daring to ask these kinds of questions, but I don't know what to do. I don't think she realizes how hurt I was by her treatment of me when she was here, and her health situation hasn't changed any of my feelings about not wanting to live together (although of course I feel incredible sympathy for her and want her to make it through everything okay). I know that she "loves" me in her Indian MIL way, but I don't know how to get past my ill feelings.

What methods have other bahu's used when they didn't feel a connection with their MIL? How can I have a more positive attitude when my privacy feels so violated and my marriage threatened?

Please, any help would be so appreciated. I really have no one else to turn to!"


Dear readers, do you have experience dealing with an anxiety-ridden Indian elder who is too attached to their child?
How can you set up boundaries with Indian elders when they don't respect your privacy, space, or marriage?
How can you bond with someone like that?
What about the readers' husband? Do you think he has been allowing his mother to put stress on their marriage?
What would you do if you were in the readers' shoes?


  1. I'm Indian with a MIL just like this. So she's passive and indecisive, but flips out if your husband isn't at her beck and call on Skype each day? And he thinks it's okay?

    He tries to bully you into hugging her? He complains that you're not trying hard enough with someone who stays in your house for months on end and has little interest in you as a person?

    Does he stay with your parents for months at a time and hug your father on a regular basis? Does he have your parents trying to get him to dress a certain way and expecting you to put your marriage on hold to cater to them?

    He's married to his mommy and you are just the person who's supposed to cater to her and make her feel good. All parents around the world make sacrifices for their children. Indian MILs don't get to have the patent on that. Nor do they get to explain away their neediness and enmeshment as "normal".

    You life is as valuable as hers. She is willing to jeopardize your marriage with her selfishness. And he puts her above you. This is the reason why the day my MIL moves into my home, I will move out. 'Cos she has no boundaries and no qualms about treating my husband as her surrogate spouse.

    In your shoes, I would make this clear to your husband. She can move next door to you, but no, you are not going to live with her, and he can enjoy his "happy families" fantasy where he is married to his mommy and you are the interloper, but you aren't going to be around if she moves in.

  2. I may not be able to suggest, but want to share I do have similar MIL for past 20 years of our married life. My MIL was windowed when she was in her thirties, so emotionally she replaced the male figure in her life with her son. Even though she has a daughter, she is happy to declare that son is her life. She wants him to decide everything for her starting from living situations to monthly financial support. For even going to the bank or crossing the road she would say No. When we got married she was in her forties and moved in with us in the first 3 months after marriage. She was not able to accept me an independent working woman as a Daughter-In-Law. We had lot of friction, she called me names, initiated fights that made me leave the house in one situation. I couldn't live in same house in India with her. I said if he can afford, it is fine he can visit me over the weekends and stay with mom for the week to reduce the friction. When we moved to USA I got relieved, but remotely also it continued. We will get 2-page long letters emotionally black mailing that she walked away from our life sacrifying alot for her son etc.. Every time when I see the letters I would worry. But in all my husband understood how different we are and kept us separated. I always kept my communication with her to minimum as it failed every time, when I tried connecting she gets more clingy to my husband. She basically wants me to be an outsider while she and her son are the head of households.
    We never had any other fights between me and hubby except due to her. Over years I learnt to keep the peace, he never wants to bring her over to USA as she refused and cried for a week to leave when she came first time after staying for 5+ months. I never dared to invite her again. He keeps his sharing with her to minimum to keep her emotionally not dependent on him, but sometimes he gets caught in it.
    We keep sending her money, I kept my responsibility to that alone. I used to get mad about her asking money as if it is normal not keeping the self respect, But now learnt she won't change and accepted it as is to have harmony at home.
    I tell my husband that I never had to feel guilty for anything I have done in my life, but she makes me feel guilty by putting all the emotional burden on us show casing as if we abandoned her in life. I think that generation single woman they will keep doing this projecting as victims to their sons. Instead of being independent and being a stronger role model they like to be a dependent. Even though it is cultural, they don't want break it. It is up to the son to balance it out and have peace in husband wife relation.

  3. Dear LW - two reasons for this madness I see here: one, your husband's inability to set boundaries and let go of this guilt feeling that he is responsible for his mother's sanity and happiness and two, the conditioning in India that women should live pretty much to get marry, have children and become perfect robot bahus with no passion or interests for anything outside the joint family. It is really sad to see how girls are still been brainwashed into thinking that they are selfish for wanting to have a job outside the house, friends, hobbies, interests, etc... Is like a mortal sin and who are the ones enforcing and perpetuating this archaic belief, women themselves. Starting with the mother and continued by the MIL. This is why, I think, your MIL seems to be so needy and clingy. This is how she knows how to stay relevant. Quite unfortunate that she doesn't seem to have a life of her own.

    I can tell you that I have a good, loving and respectful relationship with my mother in law but it was because boundaries and expectations were set from the very beginning. In this case, it seems like you will be the one that will have to speak up as your husband does not seem to have a spine. This is my advise according to some early experiences with her and what I have seen in the 13 years been with my Indian husband and becoming familiar with Indian culture:

    1) Keep your bedroom door lock if needed and tell her to please knock if she needs anything that absolutely cannot wait until you come out on your own and not to go in your room when you guys are not there. I said this to my mother in law

    2)Tell her that your name is XXX and that you have no desire to have your name changed just because you married her son and this is how is done back in India. My MIL wanted to call me Bhindiya and I told her absolutely not. My name is Millie and that is what you should call me. I will not respond to anything else, sorry! Would you like me to call you Maria instead of Maya?

    3) What do you mean by "dressing me Indian"? Does she hold you down and dresses you? You don't want to wear them don't. I honestly, for myself, do not like Indian clothes. Maybe a kurta with jeans but I don't even own one. I told MIL not to send me any Indian clothes and that I honestly did not like them. Like them on other people but not me.

    4) Don't force yourself to show affection if you feel uncomfortable. Tell your husband to go hug her own mother if he feels she needs a hug. Jeez!!!! I found this one really weird.

    5) I know date nights are very important but if he continues with this ridiculousness of staying in so his mother can Skype whenever she want just go on your own and leave him there. Go watch a movie, to the mall or anything. Hopefully he will realize that he needs to find a way to deal with his mother before you guys become estranged from each other. If not, is sad for me to say but you might want to reconsider the life that you will be having with him and where your place will be. Are you willing to continue feeling neglected and unimportant. Just think of him telling you "you knew what you were getting into when you married me"

    And, parents are supposed to do whatever they can for their children.This Indian mentality that they sacrifice everything for me and now is my turn is quite frankly antiquated and backwards. This guilt trip that I have personally heard from parents to their children is quite disgusting and damaging. Help your parents yes, but don't make them your mission in life.

    Lastly, there is no need to have a super chummy relationship with your MIL but a respectful and hopefully loving one. Take her out to the movies, show her places that are dear to you. Share childhood memories with her. But most of all be yourself. Good luck,

    Millie B

  4. This is a very common situation in Asia where women are taught to use some male as an emotional crutch all the time - first the dad, then the husband and then the son. The son needs to be able to analyse this and set boundaries in the first place. MILs/ FILs (yes, there are FILs doing the same thing to the DILs also!) can get away with this because their sons do not stand up to them and DIL is often always the easy target.

    Notes- When dealign with this, always be calm and speak in a cool polite way. The moment you yell, the fact that you yelled becomes an issue and nobody is listening to your argument anymore. Same in most of Asia.

    "First thing in the morning, she would come in and sit our bed" - Lock the bedroom door.

    "refusing to call me by my English name." - Do not answer if she does not use your name. Pretend she was calling someone else. Say that is your name and she has to call that.

    "Skyping 2 X day" - Let her do it with her son. You don't have to. Your husband is a grown man and must understand that she is using him as a crutch totally. He must be the one making a decision to break free and overcome emotional blackmail.

    "I feel selfish and terrible" - No you are not selfish. This is classic guilt tripping coming into play and how we have managed to supress women for ages.

    It is his mom. He wants to talk to her he can. You live your own life.

    "When she was here, he would constantly tell me things like "go hug her now" - This is so weird. Do not hug if you do not want to. You are not a 5 year old. Next time you are with family, tell him to hug your parents/great grand aunt and totally creep him out and make him do weird funny stuff like raising hands and saying something as a greeting (something that looks totally ridiculous but funny and insist it is your traditions etc)

    Frankly, I really have no patience for men who cannot stand up to their families in support of their spouses and would tell my husband to go to hell if that happens. If he can't fight, I would. I would just treat the MIL as total non existent entity. But yes, before I do that, I will explain to her how her behaviour is harming your marriage, ask her if she wants this marriage to break up like her and how you wish to be treated. If she ignores, I would handle it like I handle a bullying colleague. No interaction unless vital and that too as if Iam interacting with a stranger. You are acting like a typical Indian MIL by not rebelling and she continues like an Indian MIL. Just plain refuse to adjust and she will back off.

  5. Maybe tell her this is not something you are used to.the culture in India is totally different they are all dependant on each other and u can't expect your husband or her to know that unless you explain that. Good luck.

  6. It doesn’t seem like you “signed up for” being the only person in the marriage to adjust. I suggest that you take a step back to discuss expectations on both sides. It’s tough to know all of the underlying expectations from your partner or his family. If you can revisit that conversation of expectations and what you are comfortable with, that is a good first step.

    Your husband needs to be your partner and advocate. From what you said, he isn’t making an effort to improve the situation and putting all of the responsibility on you. I would communicate boundaries you’re comfortable with, that are solution oriented and would allow you to develop a relationship of mutual respect with your MIL. If your husband refuses to support your boundaries, like the bedroom is private, then I’d suggest a couple’s councilor to get an unbiased third party included that can help mediate the conversation.

    A problem that I’ve seen with Indian MIL’s is that they just view you as someone coming into their family. They don’t recognize that you are part of their family, like your husband is part of your parent’s family, and you are also forming your own family. There are now three overlapping families that need to adjust to the new arrangement to successfully make things work and create balance. I tried to remind my MIL of this when she declared how things were done in HER family. I asked if it was her family, or her MIL’s family? I will say my MIL has become much more flexible over time, so there is hope. Good luck!


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