Ask Sahaj: My fiance’s family doesn’t accept me. What’s next?
Dear Sahaj: I recently got engaged, and we are both South Asian but not the same ethnicity. Our religion, culture and languages are different but we understand each other. Overall, I feel like my fiance’s family will never accept me because I am not Punjabi/Sikh. They have never welcomed me into their home as if they were gaining a daughter, and they have always made me feel like I am a stranger.
Sometimes, I express my thoughts and I feel judged or shamed. I’ve tried to go out of my way to be kind but it makes his family feel like they need to give me something in return because I brought them something. For example, if I gave his family chocolates for the holidays, my fiance’s mom would look for something to give me on the spot so she didn’t feel indebted to me.
My fiance and I had a private destination engagement, and the only people who knew were his parents. After, when we arrived at his house, no one greeted me with excitement – not even a “Congratulations.” I had to bring up the engagement for his parents to even acknowledge it.
I’ve always dreamed of my future in-laws embracing me into the family. Instead, it was such a cold experience, I was honestly speechless. I obviously want to have good relations with my in-laws, but now I feel like there is no point in making an effort.
How do I navigate the pain of realizing that my future in-laws may not show me the love and affection I’ve longed for all my life, because my family growing up didn’t show me love the way I needed it to be shown?
– Outsider Daughter-In-Law
Outsider Daughter-In-Law: You held out hope that if your family of origin couldn’t give you what you needed, then maybe the family you marry into could. Now, you’re disappointed, and you’ll want to give yourself time to process the grief you feel.
Have a frank conversation with your partner about what you are feeling, while being mindful that you’re discussing his parents. To some degree, his role is to be the buffer as you build a relationship with his family. After all, he’s the common factor.
Being on the same page with him is more important than being on the same page with his family. It’s natural to want your in-laws to embrace you, but more importantly, you want to agree on the role your in-laws will have in your life and how to navigate issues with them as a united front. Otherwise, any disconnect can create a chasm that could cause serious issues for your partnership.
It may also help to learn more about your fiance’s own experience with his family. You are joining a new family with potentially different norms, expectations, and values, and it will be useful to know more about how his family functions and what dynamics already exist. For instance, if your future mother-in-law has always been known to have the last word, give the last gift, or do things that absolve her own feelings of indebtedness, then this behavior isn’t about you.
In South Asian households, many of us are taught that when we marry a person, we are also marrying their family. For some parents, religion and culture are seen as non-negotiables for their children’s partners. If this is true for your fiance’s family, then you have to learn to accept that they may be disappointed that you’re not Punjabi/Sikh. Know that even if this is how they feel, it still doesn’t give them permission to be disrespectful or mean. And that their reaction is completely unrelated to if you are worthy of being a member of their family.
Learning about these dynamics may help you take their behavior less personally. It can also take time for families to adjust to change, because adding members can disrupt how a family functions. His family might need more exposure to you and the relationship before coming around to accepting you more warmly.
Two themes I have seen from my work with people who have less than ideal relationships with their in-laws: In-laws usually require more patience and understanding than they sometimes deserve. And, finding a way to get along with in-laws may not always involve liking them.
Since you want to have an amicable relationship with your in-laws, find ways to prepare yourself for your inevitable interactions. You can observe from a place of curiosity rather than reacting to the feelings you have during your interactions. By doing this, you’ll start to identify triggers that lead you to feeling shamed or judged. This gives you an opportunity to prepare for these interactions and to retain control over your feelings, rather than feeling overwhelmed. It also allows you to manage your expectations to connect with your in-laws in more realistic ways.
Avoid trying to force your in-laws to like you. Performing for them will deplete your energy and may cause you to show up inauthentically. It will also just be disappointing and hurtful to you. Instead, be kind, as you have been, show up with good intentions, always try to find middle ground, and let the relationship evolve naturally.
If you feel that your in-laws are being intentionally hurtful, then it may be time to consider what boundaries you need to protect your mental health while also being in this family. Again, focus on the relationship with your fiance, move through your grief, and take care of yourself. And lastly, I hope you find relationships and spaces to not only celebrate your engagement but also to provide you with the care you haven’t been able to get from your family of origin!