This is a story of early 1950’s- a bride was harassed by her mother in law for matters as trivial as inadequate sugar or salt in the food that was cooked by her. The constant nagging was a problem the bride could not solve by the ways she tried to do so. The bride ultimately became fearful, bitter, hostile and detached from the mother in law. As a defense she compartmentalized her mind into two- one for the family including her husband and in-laws, and the other for her maternal family and personal friends! With her in-laws she presented the ‘victim’ image of being dutiful, obedient, hard working, humorless, harassed yet ‘ideal’ daughter in law. Her ‘victim’ picture was that of an object of pity that works the whole day, does not speak a word. She detached her mind from her in laws family and stopped almost all communication with them beyond the formal talk of greetings and domestic necessities. This process of non-communication is called ‘stonewalling’ in psychology.
She also developed habits of lying for silly things, keeping secrets, making pretences about this and that, eating on the sly and never together, not showing emotions by bottling it up and all such acts that would block communication. She developed the habit of gossiping against her in laws to gain sympathy for herself as the ‘victim’. She also learnt to play small little dirty games with her in laws by her pretences to create a rift among the family. However, on the other hand with her family she was her natural self of bonhomie. She was relaxed, talkative and friendly. Her two faces were maintained quite successfully for a long time.
The story gets into the next generation with the marriage of her daughter. Whenever the daughter asked her mother for her opinion in matters of relating to her husband and his parents the mother would give an advice which would lead to negative choices. ‘Do what you like, do not worry about them, do not give much importance to them, keep away from them, do not share with them your problems for they do not understand, they will never change’ etc.
Such suggestions lead to further conflict and alienation between the members. A similar story was being repeated like the last generation. The daughter had been brought up with prejudices against the clan of mothers-in laws- that they are all like that. All in laws will always be like this- irrespective of the differences between families and their culture, they are all the same under the skin was the teaching! The biases and prejudices were being ‘successfully’ passed on to the next generation! The negative and immature defense mechanisms of handling conflict were also being passed on ‘successfully’. This was
The story now goes further into the third generation of year 2010. The grand daughter is of marriageable age and the process of hunting for a groom is going on. In the process of interacting with this young girl I observe similar strains of ‘paranoid’ thinking in her! She harbors mistrust for mothers in law, tells little lies, keeps secrets locked in her heart and believes in being independent. The elements of developing close bonds with the extended family by trusting them seem to be missing. The aim of treating the family as one large unit has given way to the concept of the nuclear family. The ability to solve problems in human interactions seems to be deficient. The defense mechanism of getting detached, alienated and stonewalling has been adopted by this young girl too! It’s amazing how cultures and abilities get transferred from generation to generation through practices and training. Old habits die hard and change if any is slow- until conscious efforts are made by women. The old cycles of mal-adjusted behavior patterns need to be thrown out and new ones brought in.
The changes that we need are many- some outside our personal sphere and some inside women themselves. To begin with women should change their attitudes towards women themselves- mothers in law should look at brides as daughters and brides should look at in mother in laws as a mother with whom she has to bond. Mutual respect and lots of sincere positive effort will help build bridges and develop bonds of understanding. The aim has to be genuine relationship building and not just doing ones duty mechanically. The aim has to be to treat the parents in law as family and not just extended family. Bonds are not built in a day- it takes years of hard work and constant communication. Stonewalling is negative form of isolation by building impenetrable walls around you.
Positive choices have to be made –instead of becoming and behaving like a victim women must behave in a pro-active way and become victors. Modern girls need to develop better coping skills and problem solving methods than some of their mothers used. Conflict resolution is a major issue and psychological challenge in human relations. Human problems have humane solutions too. Harmful solutions will hurt both the parties united by law- who could actually be united happily in love if sincere efforts are made. In such a case it would be a win-win for both and ultimately it’s the family that benefits tremendously.
Published in The Hitavada – Women’s world persona for 6 October 2010