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Someone asked me in a comment, what is my role in all this? Good question. I am not at all close with Aunt but I am close with my cousin (son of Aunt) and he needs help to keep his mother and mother-in-law peaceable. Unfortunately, he is a member at Stack Overflow under his real name and he feels vaguely disloyal to his mother to ask this question here himself. Call it Indian Sentiment, but it's all right because I have sent him the link and he will read all your advice himself, to help him act as an effective mediator and quickly resolve this interpersonal conflict!


My aunt has gone to the USA to visit her son who emigrated in 2007 and has recently married an American girl (not of Asian origin) whose family belongs to California. My cousin and his wife live in LA and her parents live nearby in the same city.

Aunt entered straightaway into a misunderstanding with her daughter-in-law's mother, and this rather famous type of Indian traditional rivalry was precipitated by an incident involving a cat whose name is not Kitty.

My cousin had got married in India in 2015 and the bride's parents did not bring their cat. So my aunt was aware of it but had not yet met this pet. She has no experience of cats and nor do I -- most cats in India are feral and very independent beasts and Aunt's sole previous pet was a little dog named Roger (name changed to Tinky after a famous sportsperson of the original name rose to justified greatness in the mid-2000s; Tinky is now 15 and lives with Aunt's daughter in Bangalore.)

Incident: When Aunt visited her in-laws in LA she pounced upon their cat and gathered it up into her arms saying O Kitty Kitty -- the cat apparently spat in her face (which may be an exaggeration that Aunt isn't incapable of) and scratched her nicely. Do cats resent being called 'Kitty'?

Now Aunt and her daughter-in-law's mother are embarked upon the Second Cold War. Aunt blames them for 'snaring her son' for whom she had been lining up prospective brides in India; and the son's mother-in-law (who might as well be called Alice) considers my aunt a reckless and stupid person who doesn't even know how to approach a pet. She has no negative attitude to my cousin's marriage but finds his mother a handful. Her husband Tom does nothing but play golf. Aunt blames Alice for her getting scratched:

Indians consider a guest as next to gods but this person allowed her cat to scratch me.

The scratch is deep and I have seen its picture on whatsapp. It is healing well enough. The cat has ignored my aunt after this incident.

(Related question: Should I always ask a dog owner before I pet their dog?)

@Kat has asked in comments:

Why do Aunt and Alice need to interact at all? Is there some reason they can't just avoid each other? – Kat

The reason is that Alice and her daughter (my cousin's wife, code name Jane) live close to each other and Alice & Jane keep dropping in at each other's houses, which is a good thing, except it brings about frequent meetings between Aunt and Alice. Moreover Indians tend to see their son's mother-in-law as a significant relation and there's apparently much covert criticism of Alice by Aunt (and some comments in the opposite direction) that puts my cousin on high alert.

Jane is luckily the calmest person and ignores all the nonsense. But my cousin is tearing his hair out because he has to get through 5 months before Aunt's visa expires, and Uncle her husband is so abstract as to be useless in this inter-cultural crisis. He has been busy visiting his own Indian friends now living in the USA while Alice and my aunt trade veiled insults and embroil my cousin and his wife in serial controversies.

I don't know or blame Alice in any way but my aunt can be a quite unreasonable person. I think she is upset to have zero 'Indian style authority' over her American daughter-in-law nor any customary Indian superiority often enjoyed by being the groom's parent. I am sorry to say that my aunt is showing no initiative to resolve the misunderstanding.

So I need help again from the Interpersonal experts: how to help my cousin resolve his mother's problem with Alice and bring Aunt into harmony with her in-laws?

  • 1
    @Tycho's Nose: I got the impression that Uncle is fine with his son marrying an American woman but Aunty apparently wanted him to marry a 'nice Indian girl settled in USA', or marry a nice Indian girl and take her to US, which is part of the complication. – English Student Sep 9 '17 at 20:27
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    Do you need advice on how to act as a mediator or as a referee? That won't be the same approach. – OldPadawan Sep 9 '17 at 20:39
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    Why do Aunt and Alice need to interact at all? Alice doesn't live with your cousin, and presumably Aunt is staying with your cousin and not Alice, right? Is there some reason they can't just avoid each other? – Kat Sep 10 '17 at 1:04
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    I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that your cousin cannot allow his mother to live in the same house for the next 5 months if she continues to disrespect his wife and mother-in-law - unless he wants to put that new marriage at severe risk immediately. I don't even want to imagine what this must be like for Jane. – AllTheKingsHorses Sep 10 '17 at 22:06
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    This question could do with some merciless editing. You refer to single people via varying familial routes, randomly decide halfway through that some people should have fictional names, you dedicate half a paragraph to a dog that has no relevance, go into great detail about an incident with a cat that you acknoweldge didn't really matter - and then almost as a throw away comment near the end you say "I think she is upset to have zero 'Indian style authority' over her American daughter-in-law" which is probably the only thing you really needed to mention and the crux of the difficulties! – Grimm The Opiner Sep 26 '17 at 9:53
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The situation seems intractable - and the cause, in my opinion, is that there are cultural differences between your cousin and his wife. It is not intractable; these challenges can and should be faced upfront.

In India, in my experience, as well as China and other parts of Asia, it is very common for hosts to cook and clean and pamper their guests. In much of Asia, this is considered "treating your guests well". When I visit Asia as an American (every year for the past 5+ years) I find still find "being treated well" to be very insulting. I can't do my own laundry, cook, clean, or contribute in any way to my in-laws house; as an American, it makes feel that they treat me as though I am mentally disabled or otherwise deficient.

My wife, who is Asian, has the opposite experience on visiting my parents. A guest being "treated well" in my family means that they open their whole house to her - she can cook and eat what she wants, and is welcome to join when we clean and cook together. Of course, she feels uncomfortable that she has to prepare her own breakfast, and that to be polite means that we should help clean the kitchen / common areas if we are visiting for an extended period of time. It makes her feel unwelcome, even though it is 100% treating a guest well.

So I feel unwelcome visiting her Asian family because they don't let me clean and cook with them, and she feels unwelcome because she can cook and clean. We're pretty young too, so in theory we are adaptable. But it still is very difficult.

  1. Your cousin and his wife need to make certain that his mom has space in the USA to feel comfortable - so when cousin's MIL comes over to your cousin's residence, she needs to exhibit common decency. If your Aunt has space that is her own where she feels safe and secure, this will go a long way towards healing these problems, and give your Aunt the space it takes to adjust to a different culture and develop her graciousness. It is no small task to move from India to the US, and she needs personal space to allow herself to be secure. To achieve this, both cousin and his wife need to tell MIL/FIL that while your Aunt is in the US, that they needs to take steps to help her adjust, and that ridiculing her about the cat can cause significant friction your counsin's marriage. They also need to know the stakes - that disowning a parent or divorce are bad, and they must help.

  2. I suggest that your cousin's mother will always be uncomfortable while she is in the USA because the manners for guests are radically different than India. I suggest that you tell her that she must learn to accept that guest/host manners are different in both countries. And when she says it is impossible to adapt, let her know that her long-term presence will lead to long term friction for her son's life. As it seems likely that her son will stay in the USA, and her grandchildren will be raised here, she will need to face this challenge as an adult. As your cousin should already have told her this, She will also need to hear this from you or even better, a confidant (her brother or sister, your parent? maybe a religious figure in the US that she can consult?). If she cannot develop some level of tolerance, there is a chance that your cousin will either disown her or end up divorced. Both of these situations are horrible, and she needs to be made aware of these risks.

  3. Your cousin and his wife, living in the US, have a responsibility to put their marriage and their relationship first. Both sets of parents have a responsibility to ensure that their children have a functioning marriage - and this thrust can only come from this your cousin and his wife. They need to let both sets of parents know that their new role in taking care of their children is to make sure that they grow in their relationship. While the marriage relationship has drastically different meanings in these two cultures, both parents must shift their role as parents to this new mode. Of course, parents the whole world over have problems seeing their children as anything but kindergartners. This is why your cousin and his wife need to push and respectfully fight with both sets of parents.

  4. Your cousin and his wife instead of focusing on reducing friction, need to focus on making certain that everybody heals after each fight to build authentic relationships. His mother and his wife will need to work to build expectations about their relationship, just as he has built a relationship with his mother in law. These 5 months are critical in this regard. Your Aunt needs to accept a drastically different sort of relationship with her daughter-in-law, and your cousin's wife likewise needs to do the same. Both must work to earn respect, and adapt to the different culture. Fighting is an important part of this, in conjunction with healing and growth.

Conclusion

This has been my experience with a US-Asian relationship; my finding has been that when my wife and I hide from the friction, nothing ever gets resolved and nobody learns anything. When we respectfully make space for ourselves to have a strong relationship with each other and with our parents, all parties grow together. In fact, it seems that all of our parents have learned much from us, and it has added a richness that they would not have experience if we had both married within our native cultures.

Afterwards

The reward from working through all these relationships has been great; without the friction, perhaps we would not know each other at all? The presence of friction for me has provided a huge opportunity for personal growth.

6

Allow me to say that reading your story felt like watching a comedy show.

First of all, cats don't resent being called Kitty but they usually don't like being picked up by strangers. Your aunt, who like you said has no experience with cats should have probably avoided pouncing on the cat like that. Your cousin's mother in-law probably either didn't have the chance to warn her or thought not picking up a cat as a stranger, was self-explanatory. Nobody is really to blame. The cat's reaction (do we have a name for the cat?) is pretty normal.

If the underlying problem is that your Aunt doesn't agree with her son's choice that is really a separate story and it's something your cousin and aunt need to talk to about.

(Perhaps your cousin, his wife, the aunt and the in-laws with their cat should all gather together and just have a laugh about it.(joking) Sorry couldn't resist).

Cousin could have a word with his mom, in private, first about the fact that the cat did what all cats would do in her/his situation, tell her that it was not the mother-in-law's fault and second explain his mom that he made his choice about who to marry long time ago, is happy and he would like his mom to feel happy for him, too. Doesn't mom want her son to be happy?

Wife or cousin or both, could talk in private with Alice and ask her to be a little more understanding about mom's overreaction and unfamiliarity with cat handling.

A mutual apology might be needed if both sides are willing to put their egos aside. It might not happen right away but with enough talking from cousin to mom and cousin's wife to her mom might be all it takes and may it be done with bit of humor.

  • 3
    +1 and thanks for the kind and helpful ideas @Tycho's Nose. It is a fact that the cat had nothing to do with it but many people apply family pressure in indirect ways. I don't blame Alice in any way but my aunt is a quite unreasonable person. I think she is upset to have zero 'Indian style authority' over her daughter-in-law nor any customary Indian superiority often enjoyed by being the groom's parent. My cousin will read this answer and I am sure he can persuade Aunt and Alice to come to at least a temporary cease-fire! – English Student Sep 9 '17 at 21:04
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    I appreciate the support, @Tycho's Nose -- I am a constant reader but never thought I would use that ability to write up a family problem online: yes I can afford to give it a half-humorous treatment because I am not in the firing-line myself and Aunt deserves a bit of a lesson, but my cousin is harassed and worried, so your kind advice will be very welcome, for sure! – English Student Sep 9 '17 at 21:13
5

The solution to this is rather simple. Grow up. Your cousin and wife are acting as son/daughter to each of their moms. They should be acting as the heads of their family.

They are grown ups in a relationship and that should what they should aim to preserve. Now both of them must confront separately each of their moms. Tell them that the lousy fight is affecting their lives and undermining the family they are trying to build. Now that they are married each mother is family to the other and that they need to let go of this.

They will probably throw a tantrum, they always do, but the couple must stand their ground on this cause they will keep interfering if let unchecked. If they menace with stop visiting the couple house, then they need to go visit each mother house, not letting them use the victim excuse. Loving them will be the best countermeasure to avoid cheap tactics from both of them.

  • Solid yet simple answer that my cousin and his wife need to read; thanks @Salvador Ruiz Guevara! – English Student Oct 3 '17 at 23:19
2

The easiest way to keep the peace is to keep them apart.

Some people just do not get along, and there is no benefit from forcing them to. This solution will require buy-in from the wife (Jane) to work, but if you* can get that, then the rest should be easy. It's only five months, and then Aunt will be back on a different continent. Tell Aunt something like:

Aunt, I'm so sorry that Alice mistreated you as a guest. It's clear she doesn't understand how important it is to treat a guest properly. We've decided to not have her over as a guest while you're here, and think you should avoid being a guest at her place as well. Besides, you're here for such a short time. You don't want to waste your time with her anyway, do you?

Tweak the wording so that it will resonate with your Aunt, but it sounds like agreeing that she's the aggrieved party will bring her around. Hopefully this will also help mend her bruised pride and make her feel like she has some of the control that she wants. Then go to Alice, and explain the need as well. Jane will know what will work best, but if Alice is reasonable, then I would go with something like this:

Alice, I am so sorry about how Aunt has been acting. She can be kind of unreasonable, plus I think the cultural rift between you two is just too big for you to get along at this point. For the sake of all of our sanity, we think it's best that you two avoid each other. While she is in town, will you please check that Aunt is out of the house before coming over or ask Jane to come to your place instead?

Do not imply to either person that they are at fault in any way. That will make them less likely to agree to help you, and won't bring any benefit. Also don't place any blame on Alice when suggesting this solution to Jane. Make sure she understands that what you say to Aunt is for the purpose of keeping the peace, and that you don't really believe Aunt is blameless. It's important that the two of you have a united front for this to work.

I would also give Aunt plenty of opportunities to entertain herself and to feel included in their lives. Hopefully that will distract her from the disagreement, and make her feel less threatened in general. If Jane can find opportunities to let Aunt exert some "control" in ways that don't bother her, then that would probably help too.

This may seem strange in Indian culture, but it is very normal in the USA. My mother and mother-in-law have never met, even though my mother-in-law lived with us for almost a year and I see my mother regularly. My father's mother and my mother's mother have never met either, and they've been married for 30 years. That's probably an extreme example, but generally in-laws are not close, so any Americans involved will not think this is a crazy solution, even if it seems like one to you.

*I directed my answer towards your cousin to make the wording less awkward, so "you" means "your cousin", not literally you.

  • Thank you so much @Kat for an eminently sensible answer that will help my cousin a lot -- "For the sake of all of our sanity" is the operative part here!This strategy is mind-blowingly diplomatic in a very subtly sneaky way that is all for a good cause -- I appreciate and upvote. I also like this part: "I would also give Aunt plenty of opportunities to entertain herself and to feel included in their lives. Hopefully that will distract (...) and make her feel less threatened in general." Aunty is tough as nails but less sensible, and too competitive! But this will work well, I'm sure. – English Student Sep 10 '17 at 6:58
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    @EnglishStudent Honestly, if I had a son and he left me, my country, and my culture for a girl on another continent, I would probably feel like I had something to prove, too! Even if he doesn't mean it to be, it's in some ways a rejection of everything she's ever given him and who she is. It's completely understandable, even if her way of showing it is aggravating. Show her she's still valued and don't force her to "compete" against the family she was left for, and a lot of this will probably go away. – Kat Sep 10 '17 at 7:16
  • Time is indeed the best healer @Kat and you are a good soul for looking at it from Aunty's perspective. Yes she needs reassurance whuch only her son can provide. Here in India they always say that the arrival of the first grandchild will create a nice diplomatic friendship between all parties concerned! – English Student Sep 10 '17 at 13:58
1

I'm not sure if this is only semantics, but to me it sounds like the premise of the question gets misplaced here:

How to resolve the problem with Alice....

A rational being can perhaps easily see that the problem is not with Alice, nor the kitty!

....and bring Aunt into harmony with her in-laws?

Your cousin sure might be tearing his hair out at the moment, but he must understand that he's the link between the two families. And, therefore, whether he likes it or not, he (alone) is in the best position to handle the situation, if it's drifting away from the expected state of harmony.

He may be suggested to talk to his Mom privately. Break the whole problem down into small, manageable points of contention and then address each independently:

First and foremost — the injury caused by the scratch:

Make sure that the wound has not caused any infection and that it's getting healed properly. This should help in at least conveying the notion that sensitivity towards the injury, and his Mom's wellness is important to him.

Secondly, cultural differences:

It should be explained that while the guests are treated with respect everywhere, they are not necessarily considered as next to gods in too many other countries outside India. At least, not at all costs! So, unless the in-laws have explicitly demonstrated an ill-treatment towards his Mom, there is no rationale in flexing one's muscles for merely being in-laws and guests.

Thirdly, unwarranted claims — snaring her son:

Does your cousin believe this to be true? If yes, then I'm afraid I don't have anything more to add to the answer, you may please ignore the rest of the text. However, if you are answering that question in negative, then one must ask: can he stand his ground and assertively state that it was his conscious choice to get married to the girl he chose? This sentiment / thought must have to be driven out of the way.

Finally, animal's behavior:

Try to get your cousin's Mom to agree that, after all, Kitty is just an animal! And though she can respond to Alice on occasions (if at all), it isn't as though she'd take a command, devise a plan, and hold a malice / grudge in her heart to intentionally cause a grievous injury to the lady.

If this doesn't work out, reverse the plot, based on the following:

Aunt's sole previous pet was a little dog named Roger.

....

Aunt blames Alice for her getting scratched. Indians consider a guest as next to gods but this person allowed her cat to scratch me.

  • Suggest your cousin to ask his Mom to imagine that Ms. Alice was visiting them in India. Further, ask them to imagine the same scratch, or worse still, a bite being inflicted upon Ms. Alice by their dear Tinky. Would she then accept the following conjecture, if it came from Ms. Alice?:

"Indians consider a guest as next to gods, YET this person / family allowed their dog to bite me"

  • Also, if discussing the matter privately doesn't yield the desired result(s), it might be worthwhile for your cousin to try and get his Dad involved. Of course, the hope here is that, from his busy schedule of catching up with his long lost pals, he might also spend some time to give an ear to his son and maybe distinctively identify for himself as to what is reasonable / logical and what is not. Then, bring Mom and Dad together to carry out the same discussion again. The hope here is that, with two people (from a closely knit group of the same family) agreeing simultaneously, it might help his Mom to open up her mind, or at least tone down her resentment to a good degree.

Things to keep in mind when speaking with Mom (and, if required, Dad):

  • One can't take the excuse of being a member of particular demography to let the irrational expectations flourish.

  • Be fair.

  • Attempt to align her / their position closest to how it should really be.

  • Be nice and thoughtful while explaining / discussing the whole scenario to / with Mom (and Dad).


As for his mother in law (Alice), the only feedback that I might suggest would be around this:

Alice considers my aunt a reckless and stupid person who doesn't even know how to approach a pet

It should be conveyed subtly to Alice that while your cousin's Mom might have been ignorant in dealing with Kittty (maybe because of no prior experience with cats), calling her outright reckless and stupid is perhaps a bit of a stretch. Although, this might be best conveyed to Alice by your cousin's wife (for, she too could prove to be a useful link between the two families).


Hopefully, the situation can be resolved amicably and the rest of the trip brings up rather pleasant experiences for the two families :)

  • Many thanks @Lost Soul for your very detailed answer that covers all the angles.As you may have understood, my aunt has a dominant personality and expects her son to fall in line with her ideas. I think the kitty matter is merely an excuse to project her resentment that Junior actually married an American girl that Aunty cannot dominate the way she may have expected to dominate an Indian daughter-in-law!As I noted in the question, my cousin will be sure to read your answer and I believe that your pertinent advice will help him to tactfully and effectively make the appropriate interventions. – English Student Sep 9 '17 at 23:49
  • Note 2: You are totally right @Lost Soul to say that the real problem is not with Kitty or Alice -- but it is that disharmony that is troubling my cousin right now. Of course I have no influence wirh my aunt and I don't even know Alice. That's what makes your answer and the earlier one so important. Note too that "snaring the son" is an unwarranted claim indeed and it is many Indian mother's typical reaction when her son marries a girl of his own choice. Of course my cousin is ignoring that nonsense. – English Student Sep 10 '17 at 0:00
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While I like the approach to keep the two MILs separate, I fear that this is not the end of the problem.

I cite from your question:

"She has no experience of cats ...most cats in India are feral and very independent beasts ..."

"When Aunt ... she pounced upon their cat and gathered it up into her arms "

This strikes me as a very unusual behaviour. Who in all world would "pounce upon" a "feral ... beast" and "gather it up" and not expect some reaction from said beast?

So for this I'd say Aunty specifically was trying to start trouble. And upon reading "Aunt blames them for snaring her son" I'm pretty certain this is the core of the problem.

So, from my personal experience with people absolutely determined to get their way and sneaky enough to do so with as few open confrontation - but starting as many a distraction as possible - I strongly advise your cousin to take a stance against his mother, to openly and firmly speak to his mother about his decision for his now wife, just like suggested by Lost Soul.

Because I fear with the wife's mother-in-law out of reach, his mother will turn against his wife next, defaming and picking on her as much as possible.

  • OMG you think Aunt was deliberately provoking an incident? She is not incapable of it, nor is many another Indian mother when it's an issue of her son! "with the (...) mother-in-law out of reach, his mother will turn against his wife next, defaming and picking on her as much as possible." That is indeed my cousin's major worry, @user6349. Moreover his wife being American and not Indian, might not tolerate it! So he is having nightmares of marriage on the rocks, etc. – English Student Sep 23 '17 at 12:33

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