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[Opinion] Relationship between Mother-in-law and Son-in-law

[Opinion] Relationship between Mother-in-law and Son-in-law

Posted November. 28, 2003 23:39,   


It is common in a Korean society that the relationship between a mother-in-law and a daughter-in-law is not a pleasant one. This is because they are in a competitive relationship for a man who is one woman’s son and the other woman’s husband. Contrarily, the relationship between a mother-in-law and a son-in-law is normally a good one. “The love of the mother-in-law is for the son-in-law,” “The son-in-law is a guest for a hundred years,” and “If a wife is so lovable, his husband will bow to a stake at the wife’s old home”: these sayings all reflect how much mothers-in-law love their sons-in-laws. However, it seems that conflicts between mothers-in-law and the sons-in-law are increasing. A famous law-counseling firm has set a separate clause for “conflicts between mothers-in-law and sons-in-law” in their list of counseling.

The worsening of the relationship partly reflects the current tendency of women’s rights of speech becoming more respected and their increased involvement in society, thus changing the center of a family from the husband’s family to the wife’s. Now, “living at the wife’s house” is increasing more than “living at the husband’s house,” and it has been a long time since Imo (an aunt on the mother’s side) and Wae-samchon (an uncle on the mother’s side) has replaced Gomo (an aunt on the father’s side) and Samchon (an uncle on the father’s side). For women, they can endure being disappointed by the husband to some degree, but they say they cannot endure their husbands not respectfully treating their mothers. Korean men who had to rush to their wives’ old home every holiday while trying to read their wives’ mind (since they first visit the husband’s family without any exception - explanation by translator) are now living in a world where they have to care how their mothers-in-law would think about them.

It was while I was participating at a long-term training program for international journalists at a university in the U.S. in the mid 1990s when I met a senior woman who was working for a famous newspaper. She had a look and a caring attitude very similar to my mother-in-law, so I said to her, “Every time I see you, it reminds me of my mother-in-law,” while saying hello to her. What I received as a response was her obvious embarrassed expression. It was too late when a colleague has tipped me that “the relationship between a mother-in-law and a son-in-law in the U.S. is not much different from the one between a dog and a cat.” Some time after that when I was explaining, in a seminar about differences between the cultures of the East and the West, how the traditional relationship between a mother-in-law and a son-in-law in Korea works and saying that I missed my mother-in-law, only then did her face brighten up.

There is also a “as good as it gets” relationship between the mother-in-law and the son-in-law. A son-in-law who calls his mother-in-law everyday to say hello for three years of marriage runs out of his house after a fight with his wife, goes to the wife’s old home, and stays there for three months. Now, every time the mother-in-law needs some help and is facing some difficulties, the son-in-law is the person she calls, not her daughter. The son-in-law thinks that his wife has many complaints about him but is still living with him because he is treating her mother well. He is assured that he has to first pay attention to the wife’s old family if he expects the wife to pay attention to his old family. The son-in-law now worries about preparing to make kimchi at the wife’s old home (which is a seasonal practice at the beginning of the winter every year in Korea and is a big load of work- explanation by translator) today.

Editorial Writer Oh Myeong-chul, oscar@donga.com