Friday, August 28, 2015

Describing Family Relationships: Shorthand, Asymmetrical Obligations, and Thorny Issues

When an Aspie tries to make systematic sense of potentially complex family relationships, intriguing questions can emerge. On the one hand, this may seem a rather esoteric issue; on the other hand, because of the importance of relationships, the strong emotions associated with certain relations, and the obligations one may feel both to the family as a whole, to the central connector between oneself and another, and to "connectee," I am wondering if these are problems that real people actually struggle with.

Ever thought of this one?  Suppose that Amy has a mother-in-law named Alice and a sister named Abby. Alice can refer to "my daughter-in-law's sister" as a way to specify their relationship, but that is a rather lengthy description for a relationship that could be rather close in some situations. In the U.S., many would probably see any strong relationship between Alice and Abby as being somewhat optional. It's great if they get along well, and their family connection could allow them to bond over a shared interest or perspective. Ironically, for example, although Amy may be on quite favorable terms with Alice, Alice may actually end up spending more time with Abby if the two of them share a passionate interest in digital photography. If Abby is the younger sister and Alice only had sons, she could also emerge as "the daughter I never had."

In some cultures, there may be norms requiring the acknowledgement of a rather explicit relationship, and, as such, a term such as "niece-in-law" could emerge--both as a shorthand and a as way of acknowledging the centrality of the relationship. Rather than quickly picking up the nature of the relationship from familiar shorthand, confusion would set in.  Hearing someone express this rather bizarre term could be seen as an attempt to be innovative, philosophical or as an attempt at humor. Yet, if the relationship comes up repeatedly in conversations, "my daughter-in-law's sister" really does become rather cumbersome.

Alice, faced with being a mother-in-law for the first time, may wonder if the if there is a concise way she way for her to refer to a relation likely to be important to her daughter-in-law. But, as a means of expediency, if Alice finds herself repeatedly referring to Abby, how much freedom does she have to innovate around the long and cumbersome relationship description? Could she light heartedly refer to her "nice-in-law" with her friends until that term becomes understood? Could she legitimately attempt to establish Abby as a person in her own right--with a concise name of her own--or would this be an egregious evasion of a relationship that exists and should be acknowledged?  Would thinking of the individual Abby rather than the family member either make Alice feel guilty for favoring expediency over deeper meaning, or could it make her feel more enlightened? And is any violation against Abby, her sister, Amy's husband, or the family as a whole?

Does Alice have a greater obligation to ponder her relationship to Abby than vice versa, either because of the role as elder person in the hierarchical relationship between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, or perhaps because Amy only has one mother-in-law but could potentially have several sisters, possibly diluting the importance that any one sister of one's daughter-in-law might have? Or, does Abby have an obligation to defer to Alice? Do the two of them try to sort out this issue between themselves, perhaps reducing tension by laughing as they muse at the complications of life? Knowing the kinds of complications that Amy has thrust on these two women as a result of her marriage, what kind of responsibility does Amy have for helping these two people--each important for her--figure out their relationship to each other?

For men--who do not face quite as much pressure to understand and consider relationships--is the issue of the meaning of "my son-in-law's brother" less significant? And what happens when things get complicated as a man refers to "my daughter-in-law's brother?"

Once we have resolved this issue, we can ponder the nature of the "aunt-in-law" relationship.