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Friday, July 19, 2019


Pop goes the father-in-law


In a largely imperfect world, the patriarch can still be a friend
PRANAB BORA | Issue Dated: May 13, 2007
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Pop goes the father-in-law The father-in-law in the Indian context is in a tricky position – playing the role of father to his children and their spouses. The overall manner in which the father-in-law relates with the younger members of the family, determines whether a person becomes vulnerable. A function of the father-in-law is to serve as a buffer between the individual and society, protect family members from outside dangers and pressures and train family members in acquiring the coping skills to deal with life.

Shilpi Barua, a lawyer in Guwahati, had married after a traumatic marriage and even more traumatic divorce. “So would you like a beer or a shandy?” she remembers her bhadralok father-in-law asking. “We aren’t interested in your past; our son likes you and that is what matters.” Like Barua, the younger members in a father-in-law’s house count on the family to shore up their self-esteem. The opposite happens in many cases: self-esteem comes under attack in families. The difficulty is that such a family is not always obviously dysfunctional. On the contrary, the majority of families appear normal and typical. The dysfunction only shows up in the compulsive behaviour of its members. Part of the difficulty in identifying such families is that the behaviour has become so common in society that is the norm.

In a society where much emphasis is placed on image, acceptance, success and power, the needs of the younger members of a family are largely expected to be met by the patriarch of the family, the father-in-law. But, if the father-in-law is struggling emotionally or economically, he might fail to meet the dependency needs of his ‘children’. As a result, the younger members of the family take on adult roles without being inwardly prepared and capable of coping with life’s challenges. What’s not usually evident is that beneath the well-functioning exterior of the professional, there is an adult-child with hidden, unmet dependency needs. At times, this can emerge in nasty fashion. “My son-in-law scares me because he is over-ambitious and greedy,” says Suresh Patel, a retired state government employee in Guwahati, who has borne the brunt of his son-in-law’s whims and constantly worries about the wellbeing of his daughter.

In other families, the father-in-law could be an adult-child preoccupied with trying to fill his own emotional needs most of the time without being aware of this. Without realising it, he might relate to children as objects, an extension of himself, rather than as separate individuals with separate needs. This father-in-law may be unable to provide the acceptance the younger members need to grow into truly independent people. Case studies can be found on both sides. But, the basic battle the father-in-law is fighting is one of being two adults rolled into one. How he performs in that battle will affect many.
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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017