He’s A Great Guy!

We have a major cultural difference

I am a 31-year-old woman, and am seeking a happy warrior as a husband. I seem to have met such a gentleman, 36-years-old, and we seem to align on our values and our vision of family. Except for one thing – he strongly believes in and prefers to live in a joint family set up, with his parents and two siblings (both yet unmarried, one brother and one sister). With this in mind, he and his brother had purchased a house large enough to accommodate future additions to the family. His reasons for this are many. He says that we are from an Indian culture and it’s more of a western idea to live in nuclear families. He appreciates having his children being around their grandparents. Having more people at home would result in more things to do, and less chance of “getting bored with each other.”

The way I see it, I feel as though this would dilute my role/function as a mother and a wife. I feel as though it may take away from me being truly myself with him as a wife, but maybe that’s only in my mind. I saw my role as a parent as having prime responsibility for the upbringing of our children, but I feel like a joint system would not support that. We come from different parts of India and there may be potential for culture clash when living with extended family.

I do appreciate the value of grandchildren being around their grandparents, and I think that is extremely important, but my question to him and you is, how much is the right amount? I accept our moral responsibility to take care of the physical and social(spiritual) needs of our parents, but until their condition is such that they need our physical presence at home, my thought was that we should live independently. I have grown up in a nuclear family set up, where my parents and their siblings lived close to their parents, but not in the same house. This allowed for each family unit to have their own space and privacy, but also to spend time together and look after each other.

I discussed with him the concept of a man leaving his father and mother, as RDL shared in a message on youtube. But that particular message talks about economic independence and emotional independence. What about independence in the sense of living on your own, in particular coming from a non-western culture?

For him, this would be a deal breaker, if I declined to a joint family set up. However, we did share our thoughts on the matter and I found him open and willing to listen to the opposite person’s view. But I myself am not sure which is the best family structure, if we are to keep our 5Fs in balance.

I want him to be happy, and I don’t want to compel him to do something that he would have to compromise terribly on. I am open to doing the right thing, whatever it may be. And I hope and believe that he would also consider the excellent reasons I am confident you will provide in response to this question.

If it is relevant to this discussion, we have both never been married before. We are Christians and live in India.

Thank you dear Rabbi and Mrs. Lapin for the wonderful work you do.

Yours,
Misty

Dear Misty,

What a complex question you are asking! What makes it complex is that there is not a right and a wrong way of family life when it comes to this issue. The core of a marriage is a connection between husband and wife. However, ancient Jewish wisdom does emphasize a strong focus on the extended family component. It is emphasized in two important ways.

First, there is no Bible word for either bride or groom. The words conventionally used, kallah and chatan respectively, actually mean daughter-in-law and son-in-law. This teaches that one’s son’s wife becomes a daughter and a daughter’s husband becomes a son. We also see that after meeting Rebecca, his future wife, Isaac brought her into the tent of Sarah, his mother, “…and then he loved her.” (Gen 24:67) His full attachment to her demanded a deeply-felt conviction that his wife would help him continue the value system of his parents.

Thirdly, a Jewish marriage is a week-long celebration (as we see in Jacob’s marriage to Leah, “…wait till this bridal week is over…Gen 29:27) during which time, the wedded couple enjoy celebratory meals with the two families and friends. This further cements the cross-link, with the honeymoon postponed until after the completion of this family celebration. Thus we discourage the common practice of a young couple fleeing from their family and friends immediately after the marriage ceremony, heading off alone to some remote vacation destination. This new covenant is about a whole lot more than just the two of them.

That said, clearly the man’s paramount obligation is to his new wife while hers is to her new husband. We go into depth about this in our Scrolling through Scripture verse-by-verse study of Genesis:1 and Genesis:2. Wise parents delight in seeing their children form a marriage attachment more important than all previous ones.

We completely understand your trepidation about whether you will be able to grow as a wife and future mother rather than being assimilated into an existing family structure. We would want to know whether this approach to family living arrangements is common in his community or whether his parents have accentuated this pattern beyond what is conventional in their culture. One of your legitimate concerns should be whether his parents in some way have discouraged the very concept of marriage or if they are eager to embrace their son’s wife. We would like to see this young man show you that he understands your concerns and will help to devise an approach that deals with them.

We can easily imagine two women from different cultures, one being appalled at being told that she will be eating at her husband’s parents’ table for many years of her marriage and the other equally appalled at the idea that she will be expected to run a house, take care of a family and also work. It would shock her to hear that when the time comes, care of a newborn will fall chiefly upon her without supportive hands from female family members in close proximity. So much of what we think results from that with which we are familiar.

You and this gentleman both have views that are valid and there are pros and cons in the way both your families function. Not only are you correct that you should not compel him to act in a way that makes him compromise his values, but if he is truly the Happy Warrior you believe him to be, he would not do so.

The next important step is for a frank and open discussion (probably many discussions) between just the two of you. You might choose to use this response from us as your meeting agenda. You might start with an expression of gratitude to God for having made it possible for the two of you to meet regardless of the final outcome. Discuss how your concerns might be allayed. Please try to meet his family as often as possible and spend real time with them so that you are weighing up reality vs. something imagined. Explore whether you enjoy being with them and whether you respect them. Do you feel they are considerate of your feelings? Does your potential husband seem the same person to you when it is just the two of you alone as when you and he are in the company of his family? Are all rooms other than bedrooms communal or would there be places and times when you might eat and relax by yourselves? Knowing the details of the arrangement might help your decision.

I (Susan) would like to share some guidance with you that I received from a very wise woman—my mother-in-law. When my husband and I were engaged, she asked me how I felt about adopting a family tradition of theirs. My (future) husband had made clear that this was a deal-breaker for him.

I told her that because it was so important to her son, I would do it. She, in turn, quite firmly told me that an attitude like that would lead to failure. My choice was to accept the marriage proposal, knowing that this was part of it, or to reject the proposal. Once I decided yes, I needed to work on myself until I was doing this action for me. I wouldn’t be able to do such a major thing for a lifetime for another person, including when (as would be inevitable) our relationship would be going through a difficult patch. With those words, she shattered any picture of martyrdom or “well, he’ll owe me one,” attitude. I worked on myself and learned to love the tradition for myself.

In the final analysis, after all the discussions, you either need to embrace this extended family environment or end the relationship. If you move forward, your husband will need great sensitivity and firm resolve to support you as you adjust. He will need to be firm in his own mind as to being able to cope when conflicts between his marriage and future children and his siblings and parents arise. You will need to work together as issues come up that you can’t even imagine now. This strikes us, however, as a basic decision that you will need to make.

Wishing you clarity and then happiness in your decision,

Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin


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