Ask The Therapist: “I am married into a combined family set-up and it is getting difficult to be in this environment…”

In 2016, the number of people estimated to be suffering from mental health issues like depression and anxiety amounted to roughly 1.1 billion. Since then, numbers have likely continued to rise. Moreover, studies have also shown women especially on average are a) more likely to suffer from mental health issues, and b) less likely to talk about them. The taboo in Pakistan surrounding depression and anxiety disorders only serve to aggravate the individuals suffering even more. For the women who cannot seek out full time therapy, we’ve enlisted the help of a trained therapist. You sent us in your questions – here are the answers!

“I am married into a combined family set-up and it is getting difficult to be in this environment. My in-laws have kept a clear distinction between how they treat their daughters when they visit us versus how they treat us daily. We are now allowed to live independently as in-laws have built emotional pressure and use it whenever they want, which is unfair in most cases. Why do parents address societal pressures but not listen to their own children? I am a mother of a one-year-old and this is becoming extremely difficult to deal with recently. What should I do?”

Shahrukh’s Responses:

Disclaimer: I am mindful that issues with in-laws are very subjective, and that each case is different. As such, there will be things talked about here that might not apply to everyone. I will be addressing the matter in accordance with the information I have been given.

Dear Anon,

Difficulties with in-laws is not something that is unknown to our society, and it’s an extremely frustrating and emotionally taxing challenge that one faces, so I really hear you when you say that it’s a difficult environment to be in. There are several cultural complexities when it comes to managing things with in-laws in particular, yet you can learn how to ground yourself and feel safer in the environment you’re currently in. 

Finding Your Footing And Establishing Your Boundaries

Moving into a new space can be a huge adjustment, and that transition can become even more challenging in the face of difficult in-laws. As you begin to navigate through the dynamics of the house, you will also be able to better understand how they operate, as well as what boundaries need to be set. In a lot of cases, in-laws being difficult have very little to do with you. This is mostly the result of their own stuff that tends to spill over in space, and at the end, it can be tough to change that. That being said, there are ways you can keep yourself emotionally safe while still living with your in-laws.

  • Have a conversation with your in-laws: the idea of speaking to your in-laws can feel daunting, and even uncomfortable, yet when it comes to building a relationship with them, it can help to have an open and honest conversation about what might be happening between you and them. If it makes things easier, you and your husband could both speak to them about it.
  • Remind yourself that it’s okay to keep your distance (physically or emotionally): as stated before, each case is different and sometimes the option of talking things out with in-laws might be pointless or amount to nothing. In situations like this where you have little control over your circumstances, it might be best to create some space between yourself and your in-laws. Minimise your interactions as much as you can, as well as managing your emotional expectations of them.  
  • Staying mindful of comparisons: comparisons can be a dangerous thing – it takes us away from ourselves, and we begin to focus on other people instead. No relationship is the same and when it comes to parents and their children – the dynamics can be completely different. Bring your focus primarily to your relationship with them, and how you would like to be treated by them.   
  • Being assertive, standing up for yourself when necessary and knowing when to disengage: whether it’s related to your child, or just in terms of your own personal boundaries or respect, you need to stand up for yourself in whatever way you can. There might also be times where you may need to step away or disengage from some interactions you may have with them – usually in cases where the discussion or conversation isn’t really going anywhere, and is taking up too much of your energy. This is important as it will not only help you save your energy, it’ll also help you strengthen your boundaries with them. 
  • Communicate with your husband: your husband will be instrumental when it comes to establishing a safe space within the household – whether it’s in the form of emotional support or being the bridge between you and your in-laws. Try to keep communication as open and honest with him about how you’re feeling. Remember: you’re in this together. Stand up for one another.
  • Explore the idea and feasibility of finding your own place: moving out is often an option that couples explore if living with in-laws gets overwhelming. In a lot of cases, there will be push-back from in-laws, and it might come in the form of emotional blackmail and/or other tactics for shame – which in itself can be an indicator that you really do need some space. This is of course dependent on your resources that you have available. If it’s too much of a strain financially, perhaps try saving up some capital in the event you do need to move out. 

Anon, in-laws can be so tricky – and it can be extremely frustrating when they give more importance to the expectations and pressures of others, rather than well-being and desires of their own children. Try to bring focus to your own needs and what’s best for you and your family. Sometimes what’s best for you might not be in line with what your in-laws agree with, and that’s okay! It doesn’t mean that you should ignore your needs. Listen to yourself, and trust what your instincts are telling you. I hope you were able to find the answers you were looking for here. I wish you all the best on your journey. Best of luck and stay in your power!

The above article is written by Shahrukh Shahbaz Malik who is trained in humanistic integrative counselling at CPDD in the UK and currently has her own private practice in Karachi. The views expressed in this article are those of one expert. They do not necessarily represent the views of Mashion, nor do they represent the complete picture of the topic at hand. This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for medical diagnosis, treatment or therapy.

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