Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Confucian Ethics and Family Strife

The relationship between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law in Korean society, like any other Oriental society--some would say like in all societies--is not always harmonious. The breakdown of the extended family and the capitalistic ways of modern society have brought changes, but the dilemma for the son of choosing between mother and wife in conflict situations, particularly in a society still influenced by Confucian thought, remains acute. As Christians we know what is meant by leaving  parents and becoming one with the spouse, but this idea is not part of the Confucian ethic, which can pose a serious problem for many husbands.  

An article in our Catholic magazine for August revisits the issue and begins with humor.

The telephone rings.

Daughter-in-law:  Hello!

Kidnapper: We have your mother-in-law. If you do not give us 5 thousand dollars we will not return your mother.

Daughter-in-law: (hesitating briefly) I will not give you a penny. Do what you want!

Kidnapper: If you do not send the money we will return your mother.

Daughter-in-law: (without hesitating)  Give me your bank book number!

The writer, well-versed in family problems as a lay pastoral worker in the Seoul diocese, points out that all those who have made a study of the issue say, unequivocally, that the husband  should always side with the wife, a view that is sure to make many husbands uncomfortable because of the strong cultural tradition of filial piety in Korean society. He knows that there are those that will say you can always get another wife but parents are not  expendable. Making it even more difficult for many sons, according to the writer, are the mothers who did not receive love from their  husbands; they will be looking for it from their  sons. And many sons will find it difficult to break this overly close connection to the mother, even after marriage.  

One of the old sayings is that "Parents do not win when it comes to their children." In other words, parents want the best for their children. So when the son sides with the wife the parents understand and will grow to accept it, knowing that the children are not likely to forget their mother's feelings and would be willing to listen and talk with her, seeking a common understanding. However, the problem is not readily solved; there is a history that comes with the problem and this is difficult to overcome: genes, family upbringing, education, our personalities and values. They all make us what we have become, the self we imagine ourselves to be.

That being the case, the writer tells us not to force a solution  but to work toward accepting one another.  As with any long standing  problem between husband and wife, it is better to face the problem with humor, goodwill,  respect and wisdom than to try to force a solution.

The mother-in-law and daughter-in-law both have, of course, their good and bad points, but it's the positive qualities, the writer stresses, that should be the focus of each person's attention and not the negative qualities. The obsessive need to solve problems quickly should also be abandoned. replaced by the desire to interact with each other calmly and lovingly. Changing how we relate with the other, when a conflict situation develops, will in time change a negative situation into a positive one.