The Age-Old In-Law Conflict
“I CAN’T stand the sight of your face!” Fujiko screamed at her mother-in-law, Tomiko. Fujiko was tired of being ordered around. Although she had managed to keep calm on the surface, she was living in anguish. “Within myself I felt bitter,” she says. “I was not myself. I just couldn’t stand living like that every day.”
An old woman living alone in Japan states: “I was abandoned by my son and his wife. Now I don’t have to worry about others, and I live my life as I please, but I do feel lonely when the sun goes down.”
The age-old conflict between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law is universal. “Regrettably,” remarks Dulcie Boling, a magazine editor in Australia, “some women will always be jealous of their daughters-in-law. . . . There is very little you can do, except grin and bear it.” In the Orient, there are even legends of old women being abandoned in the mountains, an action instigated by their daughters-in-law.
Today, this conflict is more complicated than ever. According to statistics, life expectancy is increasing, families are becoming smaller, and the gap between the mortality rates of men and women is widening. What has been the result? As more women live into their 70’s and 80’s, the conflict between mothers and their daughters-in-law has become a grueling marathon, not the 100-yard [100 m] dash it used to be.
What Do the Elderly Want?
Such conflicts notwithstanding, how do aged parents want to be looked after if they have a choice? “Over the last two decades,” say Jacob S. Siegel and Cynthia M. Taeuber, researchers in demography, “both women and men were much less inclined to live with other people if they no longer had a spouse.” Elaine M. Brody, former director of the Department of Human Services, adds that in the United States, “living apart from one’s relatives is the preferred arrangement among the elderly.” Often, their children live nearby, visit, and take care of them.
The Orientals prefer it another way. According to an international survey by the Management and Coordination Agency in Japan, the majority of the elderly in Japan and Thailand want to live with their kin. The survey finds that 61 percent of the elderly in Thailand and 51 percent in Japan actually do so.
Of course, this option is also common in the West. Very old or bedridden parents often do live with their children. In France it is common for those over 75 years of age who survive the death of their mates to live with one of their children.
Accepting the Pros and Cons
When two or three generations decide to live under one roof, there are, of course, certain advantages. The aged feel more secure and less lonely. The younger generation can learn from the experience of the older ones, and there are economic benefits as well.
On the other hand, living together can snarl an already entangled in-law relationship. In Japan, for example, where aged parents have traditionally lived with the eldest son and his family, the conflict between mothers and daughters-in-law is proverbial.
If you are faced with such a situation, what can you do? In his book America’s Older Population, Paul E. Zopf, Jr., professor of sociology at Guilford College, says: “The family also generates conflict and the opportunity for conflict management. The ability to control conflict and to interact productively with elderly members may be a skill that carries over into other relationships.”
So take a positive view of the matter. If you learn to control family conflicts, you will probably become more skillful at managing other thorny situations as well. Accept it as a challenge, and you will be a better person for it. Let us examine the problems of living with in-laws and see how such problems can be dealt with successfully. And even if you are not presently living under such an arrangement, you can still benefit from considering the principles involved.
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More Parents Than Children
Now, for the first time in history, according to demographer Samuel Preston, the average married couple has more parents than children. The issue facing many of today’s couples is how to balance their responsibilities to look after two sets of parents.