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Adulting 101: How to avoid conflicts with your parents-in-law

SINGAPORE — My boyfriend and I decided to take the next step in our relationship and apply for a Build-to-Order (BTO) flat in February 2021— or as some dub it, the modern-day Singaporean engagement.

Adulting 101: How to avoid conflicts with your parents-in-law

Adulthood is an invigorating stage of life as young people join the workforce, take on more responsibilities and set their sights on the future. But its many facets — from managing finances and buying a home to achieving work-life balance — can be overwhelming.

In this series, TODAY’s journalists help young Singaporeans navigate this stage of their lives and learn something themselves in the process.

SINGAPORE — My boyfriend and I decided to take the next step in our relationship and apply for a Build-To-Order (BTO) flat in February 2021— or as some dub it, the modern-day Singaporean engagement.

But beyond the congratulatory messages from friends and family, warnings of incurring the anger of the fabled "monsters-in-law" flooded in.

That is what parents-in-law have been called, those who have been villainised for their possessive tendencies, constant nagging and meddling.

Some friends have advised me not to move into the "monster's den" and to wait patiently for my own home.

One friend told me how when she moved into her in-laws' home, her mother-in-law did not like it when she cooked in the kitchen, would keep a watchful eye whenever she used any household appliances, and would complain that she did not do enough chores.

Another friend said her mother-in-law's constant nagging over her pregnancy drove her and her husband insane, so they both decided to rent an apartment while waiting for their BTO flat's completion, eating into their savings.

Even my editors warned me to tread carefully when I pitched this story to them, fearing I invite the ire of my in-laws-to-be.

While my boyfriend's parents have been lovely to me, the horror stories I've heard of my friends' in-laws kept replaying at the back of my mind during our interactions.

Wanting to start on the right foot, I sought the advice of marriage counsellors to understand why such a conflict arises in the first place, and how to handle it.

WHY ARE COUPLES AND PARENTS-IN-LAW LIKE ENEMIES?

Around eight in 10 couples who sought Mr Joshua Koh's marriage counselling services found their relationship strained due to conflicts between them and their parents-in-law.

"There are quite a few reasons for conflict between couples and their in-laws, such as differences in their lifestyles, money management and unmet expectations from both sides," said the professional counsellor from the Singapore Counselling Centre.

While he said that tension between couples and their in-laws is not limited to that between wives and their mothers-in-law, Mr Joshua Koh said conflict between these two parties are more common.

One reason, he said, was that in Asian cultures, women traditionally marry into their husband's family and hence are implicitly required to conform to their husband's family traditions and habits. 

Mr Gary Koh, a family life educator and counsellor, also said that the traditional role of women as household managers results in more conflicts between mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law.

"A mountain can only have one tiger," he said.

"So when a woman moves in with her mother-in-law, there is the unspoken expectations from the mother-in-law, who runs the home, that the wife has to follow. This creates tension between both parties."

However, Ms Theresa Pong, counselling director of The Relationship Room, said that the tension is not just because of Asian cultures as such conflict happens around the world.

Other reasons for conflict may stem from empty nest syndrome — where parents feel a sense of loneliness as their children leave the home.

"If (parents are) unable to cope well with this syndrome, we see issues with parents overstepping boundaries as they will try to intervene with their adult children, even though they are already independent," she added.

She also said that parents-in-law may mean well, but are misunderstood, such as seemingly bragging about their extended family when they simply want to help their children-in-law assimilate to the family.

'IT IS NOT A FIGHT WHERE SOMEONE WINS'

Noting that conflicts between parents-in-law and couples stem from different expectations and misunderstandings, the counsellors acknowledged that communication can help resolve tension, if done right.

"Conflict often starts because there are emotions involved, and both parties are reacting to each other," said Ms Pong.

"Be mindful of your tone and start your sentence with 'I' instead of 'you', so you don't come across as confrontational."

Ms Pong also advised that when conflict arises between the in-laws, spouses should avoid becoming "messenger boys".

"Miscommunication and misconception may arise when there's no direct communication. If you aren't confident in addressing the issue, stay calm and ask your spouse to be there when having a conversation," she said.

Mr Joshua Koh said that this is known as triangulation — where a conflict doesn't involve them necessarily, but their identity makes them play a role in it — and it can be exhausting for the spouse.

But rather than take sides, he said it's important for spouses to carefully navigate the tricky situation, and diffuse the situation without criticising either parent or partner.

"It's important to listen to validate their concerns and feelings... and avoid polarised thinking about which party is right or wrong," he said.

"Conflict (between spouses and parents-in-law) often arises from a situation where there is no right answer... the goal is to find a way to move on or find common ground."

He also emphasised that it is important to address issues with kindness and respect to maintain a healthy relationship.

On conflicts between wives and their mother-in-laws, Mr Gary Koh said that when all else fails, husbands should support their wives for a healthy relationship. 

STARTING ON THE RIGHT FOOT

The counsellors advised young couples like my boyfriend and I, who have yet to tie the knot, to set the foundations early to establish a strong relationship with their parents-in-law.

When asked when is the best time to set boundaries with in-laws, Mr Joshua Koh said "as soon as possible, even before marriage".

"When married, sometimes we create 'superficial harmony' where we comply against our will to keep the peace. But by having a discussion before marriage about our expectations and perspectives, it can be helpful in understanding each other," he added.

He suggested that couples should also discuss with each other about the following topics and set expectations between themselves, before communicating them to their parents-in-law:

  • What are your expectations for the relationship between your spouse and your family?
  • What are your expectations for the relationship between yourself and your in-laws?
  • What are your thoughts on financial management?
  • What are your thoughts on having children, and your parenting style?

Aside from these points, Ms Pong also said that a healthy relationship can be established while in courtship through natural curiosity about each other and their families.

"It's good to know about your significant other's family of origin, so you don't get a shock when conflict arises after making a life-long commitment to each other," she said, adding that a family's lifestyle and how they bond with each other is important to know.

For example, some families may bond through conversations with each other over dinner, while others do so by watching television shows while eating.

"Getting to know your in-laws and establishing a good relationship takes time, just like when you get to know your partner," said Ms Koh.

"Since it takes effort to know your partner, why not take time to learn about their parents and family, too?"

With this advice in mind, I think a sit down with my parents-in-law to be would be necessary so we can start on the right foot when my boyfriend and I tie the knot.

But first, I need to muster the courage to do so.

ABOUT THE WRITER:

Loraine Lee, 23, is a journalist at TODAY, covering environment, housing and education.

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