The moment they hear their son or daughter say the wedding vows of total commitment and exclusive love to their bride or groom the parents’ hearts sink and ache. The child they have raised is no longer theirs alone to have but must be shared, if allowed, with the usurper in-law. Resentment, if not outright hostility, is the reaction, which in turn sets off a counter-reaction in the newcomer whose disappointment in finding something less than total acceptance turns into bitterness and anger at the parents-in-law, which, perceived as disrespect, intensifies the latter’s ill disposition toward the daughter- or son-in-law. In no time the self-feeding vicious circle spins out of control and wreaks havoc, the prevention of which is of paramount importance.
(1) Long Maturation
The basic cause of it all is that humans take an awful long time to mature, 3 decades, give or take, if you add graduate schooling and professional training. So far no 3D printer has been invented that stamps out on demand a fully functional adult human.
Sexual intercourse still remains the primary method of fertilization, that is, combination of male and female gametes into the zygote with 23 paired chromosomes which must gestate 40 weeks in the mother’s womb for live birth. Artificial insemination may replace sexual intercourse and in vitro gestation the womb, which however takes just as long.
But birth is only the beginning. The helpless infant must be brought up through childhood, adolescence, and puberty to become physically mature, which, however, is a far cry from social maturity to function as an independent productive member of society. Who carries them during these years of dependency? The parents, who devote all their energy and resources to their upbringing, deservingly earning their gratitude and affection, as well as social recognition of parental authority, absolute and exclusive. But at one stroke the wedding vows obliterate this relationship, the wedding couple now seemingly dedicating their love entirely to each other with nothing to spare for anybody else.
No owner gives up his right to his property without a fight. Hence Archie Bunker’s perpetual meanness to his “dumb Pollack” son-in-law in the 1970’s sitcom and the brutality of Korean mothers-in-law to their daughters-in-law in 90% of current Korean drama, all striking a sympathetic cord.
(2) The Cure
But sympathy should not translate to acquiescence which is the recipe for disaster. We must stop it at the source, the parents who refuse to let go their obsessive love for their child. As a parent who has had three children married, I have this to say to them.
First, understand that it is nothing but sheer ignorance that perceives as your loss when your child pledges all his or her love to their spouse, the inability to distinguish the different shades of meaning in the English word “love.” The Greeks weren’t so dumb and any half-baked seminarian will tell you that “love” could mean, among others, eros sexual (romantic) love, ludus playful love, philia deep friendship, or agape cosmic compassion, as embodied in Jesus. What the bride and groom are promising each other is obviously eros with a touch of ludus and even philia, because eros in the long run matures into that. The relationship between parent and child is definitely philia, perhaps with a touch of ludus. Granted there are some overlaps on the fringe but the essential parent-child relationship cannot possibly be threatened by the child’s romantic relationship.
But if this intellectual leap is too difficult, let’s play a game: put yourself in your child’s place and your parents, whether living or dead, in yours. You must have done to your parents exactly what your child is doing to you by marrying your spouse. You broke their hearts then and it’s only fair that this time around it’s your turn to get yours broken.
Moreover, way back when you married, you didn’t even suspect that you were hurting your parents’ feelings the way you are hurting now. If you had been told that, you would have laughed it off as the most ridiculous thing. All you wanted and expected was your parents’ unreserved acceptance of your bride or groom.
The romantic love you promise your bride or groom is categorically different from the deep affection (philia) you feel for your parents and does not in any way compromise or diminish it. Besides they should know that what you’ve got with them can never end the way marriage can by divorce.
Returning to the present – bear in mind that your daughter- or son-in-law is some other parents’ dear child, just as valuable as your own is to you. Don’t ever think your child deserves a better mate. We are truly all equal, regardless of position, power, money (see The Lottery: The Equalizer, 11-3-2018, typakmusings.com). Be content that you have done your best to bring up your child so as to be acceptable as a mate to someone else’s.
Because it is philia you have with your child, it doesn’t matter whether he or she and their spouse live under the same roof with you. Sex being its primary element, eros can be best enjoyed in private space, as you know. So if they want to set up house by themselves miles away, don’t take it as your rejection. Bless them, though you’ll miss seeing them around, and help them with the furnishing. Be gracious and generous with your gifts and loans, because you have more resources now, though the young ones will hopefully soon catch up and surpass you.
On this score remember you are getting on in years and won’t be able to go on carrying your child as a dependent the way you used to. You are lucky that your child, married, has a spouse to support and depend on.
Turning now to the children, the other branch in the in-law dichotomy, I have no special advice for you. If the water is clean upstream, so is it downstream, the Korean saying goes (웃물이 맑으면 아랫물도 맑다). I have straightened your parents out, so you won’t have any more grief from them. Just carry on, make love, and support and defend each other in all things. Your marital harmony and peace means everything to your enlightened parents. Please do not fight, because that hurts them worse than dagger thrusts. Once in a while call your parents and tell them you love them, sending cards on their birthdays. That will put them on cloud nine every time.