Monday, February 26, 2018

Why Do People Live in a Joint Family?

Back in the day in my in-laws' generation, when a woman got married she was expected to live with her husband's parents. It was a cultural norm, and a couple living on their own away from elders was seen as something unusual. It was also a societal pressure - if you opted to live on your own, people would turn their noses up at you. Young women getting married were prepared in advance on how to navigate moving in to her husband's natal home and how to deal with in-law's. My mother-in-law says that this is because the old families in India usually had a large multi-level ancestral property and the whole family would live there. Elders, aunts and uncles, and cousins would grow up on one property, and the property would just be handed down the generations.

But, India has changed. A lot of young couples in India are making the choice to live on their own, away from their families - even if they reside in the same city. Most people view living with your husband's parents as more trouble than it's worth. Nowadays, young couples and elders both think that living apart peacefully is better than living together and being unhappy - this is becoming a societal norm, especially in urban metropolises. Elderly people are living on their own longer than ever before, and only moving in to their kids' homes only when one of them is widowed. However, the elders do wistfully value everyone living under one roof like most people did in their own generation.

The concept of the joint family has also changed it's definition. A joint family used to mean that it was a home shared by elders, husband and wife, and the husband's siblings and their families - with cousins growing up as brothers and sisters. Now when people refer to a joint family they refer to living with only the in-law's.

There are also many different ways to reside in a joint family. For example, you could have an in-law suite/wing on the side of your home or a lane way apartment. You could build a suite on top of your garage, or have a basement suite. You could live on the same property but have separate apartments, having a sense of spacial privacy. Or you could live separately, but in the same neighborhood - a short walk or drive away.

One of the many Laneway Houses that have popped up around Vancouver: a seperate detached smaller home on the same lot as the main house

Making the decision to live in a joint family is a choice but in some cases it's also not a choice. There are a lot of external factors that come into play that are more complicated, such as:

a) Your husband is the eldest son OR only son.
If your husband is one of these, then there is no doubt that your in-law's will eventually move in with you. It's going to happen, he just hasn't told you about it yet! It may only happen after one parent is widowed, but it's still going to happen eventually. Parents are still seen as the eldest son's responsibility and this mentality is an unwritten rule even in this generation.

b) Valuing grandparents being heavily involved in children's lives.
Some people are fine with grandparents seeing the grandkids a few times a year and would prefer to parent the kids on their own. Others really value the grandparents' involvement in the kids' lives and could not do without it. You might be more swayed by this if you were very close with your own grandparents growing up.

c) You live in an expensive urban city and you can't afford to live separately.
Many times there is also a financial factor in living in a joint family. If your in-law's are retired and don't have much money, it just makes sense to live together as a big group rather than rent a separate apartment. Some of the cities with the most expensive housing markets are: Hong Kong, Sydney, Vancouver (our city), Auckland, Bay Area, Melbourne, London, NYC, etc. All of these cities have large Indian populations, small urban properties and extraordinarily high rents (like $2000 for a 1 bedroom apartment - not including utilities!). What young couple has $2000 extra to waste on rent? Financially, it makes more sense to stay together...even if it is cramped.

For us, living in a joint family was important because both husband-ji and I were extremely close to our grandparents growing up and we wanted our kids to have the same experience. I also value their input in regards to parenting the kids - it's helpful to have an elder's perspective. At the end of the day, no matter how tough it is on me as an individual to live in a joint family at times, seeing my kids close to their grandparents makes it all worth it.


What about you? Do you or would you ever live in a joint family? What are the factors that made you decide to live or not live in one?


  1. Hi Alexandra,

    Thanks so much for this post! My husband and I have been married almost 9 years, and my position is much different now than earlier on in our marriage.

    My in-laws were threatening to disown my husband if he married me. Automatically, that set us in adversarial roles. Our first initial visits were difficult. At the time, I was positive I could never cope with them living with us.

    Slowly after having children, things changed for me. My mother-in-law and father-in-law have provided me with a lot of emotional support. I wish they could see the kids more, but my father-in-law is the eldest son, and he's taking care of his aging mom.

    So for me, it's more than just my husband being an only child. I have grown to love them as much as my own parents.

  2. Hi Alex,

    Cute picture with Veda and Grandparents! Hope you are well.



  3. Joint family system should be by choice. Hopefully Indians learn save for old age instead of wasting on useless wedding feasts. Neena

  4. I didn't decide to do it. The decision was made for me. I like the idea of keeping two apartments in one compound. That's healthy. Property is at the root of most joint family set-ups. Things like emotional security and inter-generational attachment are possible even if you don't live together. I enjoyed reading your views on this subject. Just saying, you use a fair bit of Hindi in the posts I've read, but your sasuralwalas seem to be south Indian. Most south Indians I've met prefer using their Tamizh, Telugu, Malayalam or Kannada speak to Hindi. But Hindi is a link language for the whole country besides English. Living as I do in the heart of the Hindi belt of India. I find that quite convenient. Most of the true joint families have something major in common like a family business.

  5. We're going to live with our in-laws eventually because my husband is the oldest child AND the only son. I'm okay with it, but definitely glad that we're not doing it just yet. It gives me time to come to terms with it, and have the opportunity to live with my husband without feeling like my in-laws are breathing down my neck. They're very nice but I don't want to feel like I have to walk on eggshells in my own house.

  6. I am so happy I found your blog!! I just commented on another post as well, but my husband and I have been married a little over a year. He is from northern India (Bihar), and I am from the U.S. He is the only son and was raised by a single mom. I remember a week before we got married, he asked, "how would you feel if my mom lives with us eventually?" so your line, "It's going to happen! He just hasn't told you yet!" rings true. This is something I've been processing this year and am still struggling with at times. Thanks again for your candid and thoughtful posts!


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