Part I | Part II
Ask a Muslim couple to give you a challenge in their relationship and many will say “family interference.” The stress that family and in-law interference brings to a marriage can be so overwhelming that for some couples it can lead to divorce. In a recent study by Sound Vision, it was found that ten percent of divorces were a result of family interference. The parent-child relationship, like the husband-wife relationship, is a special bond that encounters challenges when the child moves into a marital relationship, causing everyone to learn how to navigate their new roles. In order for couples to maintain healthy relationships with their parents, while simultaneously nurturing their own marriage, there needs to be communication and a clear understanding of the changing relationships.
Parents and extended family are vital in that they provide the new couple with stability and support. However, if boundaries are not clearly defined, it can overwhelm a couple and erode their marital bond. The collectivist cultures many immigrant families come from have begun to clash with the individualist society we live in and many families are not able to find peaceful co-existence in their newly formed families. Discussions about problems with in-laws and family interference in our community are met with two common arguments: that “children” need to remember to obey their parents and that parents just need to stop “meddling” and allow the new couple space to grow and nurture the relationship. However, neither of these arguments addresses the core issue that is causing in-laws to interfere in today’s nuclear families.
Most immigrants, who arrived in the U.S., left behind villages and generations of extended family. Starting a new life and beginning a family in the U.S. has often occurred in isolation and without family support. The isolation immigrant parents often feel in the U.S. has manifested into a desperate need to hold onto their nuclear family. Immigrant parents left behind their siblings and parents and now hold strong to the only “family” they have in the U.S. – their own children. Children may be seen as not only preserving a cultural lineage but as an emotional bond that is lacking in the parents’ lives. Therefore, the strong emotional attachment a parent feels to their child may be difficult to let go of once their child gets married.
Feelings of insecurity and fear are what are causing many parents to meddle in their children’s marriages. Many parents have a fear of losing their child when they get married and that they may no longer be important in the child’s life. Their behaviors are not necessarily coming with malicious intent; rather the parent’s unconscious feelings of insecurity drives them to interfere as they try to cope with “losing” their child to a spouse. In addition, parents of children who are overly dependent on them for emotional or financial support may have a harder time allowing their child to become independent decision makers once they get married. There are some subtle signs in the early stages of the marriage where the parents may position themselves to hold onto the relationship with their child. Parents may “test” their child’s loyalty to the family by making demands, threats and even withholding support of the new couple. Parents may also be critical of the spouse to see how their child will react in order to determine where loyalties lie. Parents may be insensitive to the couple’s need for physical and emotional privacy. They may give unsolicited advice and give their approval or disapproval of all decisions the couple makes. All of these behaviors may be seen by the parents as showing their care and concern, however the new couple may see it as interference and may not know its causes or how to deal appropriately with their parents.
Couples who are on the path toward marriage must have conversations early on with their parents about the changing family dynamics that will soon be taking place once the couple is married. Open communication with parents and in-laws is vital so that parents can express their concerns and feelings about the marriage as well as feel honored and respected in the family. This is also an opportunity for the couple to reassure their parents that they will continue to respect them and that a space will always exists in their life for them. The change in the relationship between the parent and child needs to be discussed, accepted, and ultimately welcomed as the next stage in life. The new level of interaction between a married couple and their respective parents will require a mature approach.
The Qur’an mandates that children always show kindness and respect to their parents, yet it does not mandate obedience. This is important to distinguish because many couples have a difficult time drawing boundaries with parents out of a fear of “disobeying” them. Allah subhanahu wa ta`ala (Glorified and Exalted is He) says, “And your Lord has decreed that you not worship except Him, and to parents, good treatment. Whether one or both of them reach old age [while] with you, say not to them [so much as] “uff,” and do not repel them but speak to them a noble word.” (Qur’an, 17:23) Couples should always listen respectfully to their parents’ views and advice, but ultimately the couple must make decisions that are best for them as a unit and not out of a sense of guilt.
Many cultures have maintained control over their family through emotional manipulation and guilt veiled by the banner of Islamic duty. Obeying one’s parents has become the catch phrase remedy for all difficulties rather than critically thinking about what Allah (swt) is mandating. This verse from the Qur’an is used repeatedly to teach small children how they must always listen and obey their parents and to never talk-back. Yet if we carefully look at the verse, one notes the phrase “when parents reach old age” indicating that the “child” is actually an adult interacting with an elderly parent. It is in these times, as adults, that we must especially show kindness and respect to our parents when they are in old age and may be experiencing loneliness. Similarly, famous hadith (sayings of the Prophet ﷺ) are often invoked such as, “Jannah (Paradise lies at the feet of your mother,” as well as the reminder from the Prophet ﷺ (peace be upon him) of who to honor most: “your mother” three times, then your father. Muslims are repeatedly mandated to be respectful and to show kindness to parents, especially their mother. Yet, no where do the Qur’anic verses and hadith suggest that parents have control over their child’s life, nor that children must obey their parents’ desires. Numerous times in the Qur’an we are reminded: “…and no bearer of burdens shall be made to bear another’s burden…” (Qur;an, 6: 164, 17:15, 35:18, 39:7 and 53:38). As adults, Muslims are responsible for their own choices in life and even though they may take advice and guidance from their parents, ultimately accountability falls on the individual for the choices made in life.
This understanding is critical when young couples get married and when spouses choose to “obey” their parents’ wishes or demands out of guilt or Islamic deference rather than choose to do what is best for the couple and their future. These early choices and patterns of behavior can have long lasting impacts on the marriage. As a therapist, I have encountered numerous cases of couples with marital problems because of allegiance to a parent trumping regard for their own spouse. The resulting resentment and hostility created in the family is often not resolved and continues to fracture family relationships. Newly married couples have a fragile new relationship to foster and new skills to develop as a married couple. When the pressure from in-laws and parents is excessive, a new marriage will crumble under the stress and interference. This can be prevented only if couples take the time to establish boundaries with their parents and effectively make the shift from a dependent parent-child relationship to an interdependent marital relationship, while at the same time showing kindness and respect to their own parents. The massive amount of change that takes place interpersonally can be overwhelming and many couples are not prepared for the new challenges.
There will always be meddling parents and couples will not be able to change that reality. However, by understanding the insecurities often at the core of their meddling and by creating boundaries early in the marriage, a couple can minimize the potential for conflict that arises from in-laws who interfere. When couples establish boundaries on how they will interact with in-laws, they will develop healthier relationships with their spouse as well as with their parents. The boundaries a couple can establish will be discussed in part two of this article.