“I have reached the end of my patience. My in-laws know that I now want to live separately. However, my husband cannot afford the rent of accommodation near his parents’ home, and he doesn’t want to move far from them.”
It is natural for a married couple to desire the autonomy and privacy afforded by living as a nuclear family, which is not always there when they share accommodation with extended family members.
Living in what is known as a “joint family” setup involves considerable compromise of a married couple’s independence, privacy, and living space. They often need to live in a single room with their small children for years.
Living in a joint family more often than not totally kills the spontaneity in a married couple’s sexual relationship because they cannot be intimate anywhere besides their bedroom, or at any time of the day besides night time, and that too only when their children have fallen asleep. Many a time, I listen to sisters living in joint families express their justified desire to move out into a separate home for this very reason.
However, what they do not always realize because of their lack of experience in living independently is that living as a nuclear family is not always the rosy picture that it seems to be.
No safety nets, free and trusted babysitting, or economies of scale
For a young couple with small children, living alone in an independent house unit is not easy, especially in a country like Pakistan, where political stability and personal security is fleeting.
A young married son or daughter, who has never lived alone, usually has little idea about the many day-to-day challenges related to smoothly running a household their parents/elders take care of for them, keeping them carefree and undisturbed.
Furthermore, no matter how small a house unit, it comes with its own set of bills and expenses. An extended family household benefits greatly from economies of scale by breaking down and sharing all monthly bills among its residents, such as running water, drinking water, gas, electricity, internet, telephone, salaries of domestic staff, and neighbourhood maintenance charges.
However, when a young, married son moves out and solely maintains a separate house unit, he has to foot all bills for his new home himself, which cuts out a significant chunk from his monthly salary.
Secondly, elders and extended family members provide a comforting ‘safety net’ for younger married couples just by being present nearby at home, which frees the former from taking care of every household errand and chore themselves. Elders also often readily provide loving and trusted babysitting, which is a great boon, especially for first-time, overwhelmed young parents.
For example, if there is a pot of food simmering on the stove, a small child demanding to be supervised, a grocery to be purchased at the last-minute, a maid to be directed in cleaning the house, and the car to be urgently repaired, all these chores can be done simultaneously in a joint family household, because multiple people are present to take care of them. Older ladies usually tackle the indoor chores, whilst the outdoor errands are taken care of by the men of the house. In Pakistan, trusted family servants are also almost always present to help.
In a nuclear family setup, however, only the young wife is present at home during the day, whilst the husband is at his job throughout most of the week, rendering most of the major chores undone till the weekend. A wife can hardly handle her small children and/or a maid all day long without getting overwhelmed; it is hard to imagine how she would take care of other chores or outdoor errands simultaneously.
Therefore, the added stress of running a household entirely by themselves, without the support of wise and experienced elders, can sometimes add strain to a married couple’s relatively new marriage.
It can get lonely and quiet
Joint family homes, where elderly parents and/or grandparents reside, expectedly become hubs of activity and hustle and bustle, especially during annual holiday seasons and Eid celebrations. Someone or the other is always visiting the house so there is never a dearth of having someone to talk to or hang out with.
The couples who live separately as a nuclear family usually have it rather quiet around their house in comparison, and thus, they sometimes miss the merriment during special occasions, especially if they cannot join the rest of their family for the celebrations due to travel or job constraints.
It also gets downright depressing, if not debilitating, when a husband or wife in a nuclear family falls ill and needs to be taken care of or hospitalized. This is because the burden of running the home falls entirely upon the other spouse’s shoulders, with no one else to step in and help.
Long, dreary, snowy winters also add to the loneliness and isolation felt by couples living on their own, especially if they live in a far-flung foreign land, where they have no relatives nearby.
Consequently, many nuclear families, who live in foreign countries, resort to proactive involvement in community events and extensive socializing with other like-minded families (viz. those belonging to the same ethnic origin or religious faith) to fill the gaping ‘hole’ of familial socialization in their lives, which compounds their loneliness, in order to dissipate the incessant boredom and quietness at home.
Conclusion: The ideal solution
Living with in-laws in the fledgling years of marriage helps create loving bonds with them, which becomes the basis of their relationship for decades to come. However, extreme caution should be practiced with the use of tongue during this time because using inappropriate words or tone can cause irreparable damage.
Not everyone benefits from a joint family setup, however, and it can be particularly challenging for women who value privacy, solitude, and autonomy.
Sisters living in joint families should always remember, whenever they wistfully wish to move out and live separately, that they are probably enjoying several lifestyle privileges, comforts, and perks because of their in-laws, which will not be there if they live on their own.
Proactively recalling the many benefits that they are reaping because of living with extended family will help them feel grateful, Insha’Allah, such as the many ‘free’ services their parents-in-law provide to them willingly and selflessly.
At the end of the day, helping the husband please his parents is one of the best acts of charity that married women can do. Moreover, children raised in the company of wise grandparents learn to serve others and many other valuable skill sets of life that even schools cannot teach.