You’ve moved to Italy and met a man who is different than anyone you’ve ever known in your life. If you’re partner is anything like mine he’s probably emotional, passionate, loving, a great cook and is embarrassing in the PDA department. They’re also dedicated to family which is usually bittersweet. On one hand, family values are important and it’s something we might lack a little in the US, on the other hand the devotion to parents can be exhausting and a form of contention. In many cases it can be a deal breaker. The lawyer league of Italy reported that the “Mother In Law” is the number 1 cited reason for divorce in the country a few years ago. I would be interested in the view of a man who is married to an Italian woman (I think it’s less of an issue, honestly) but my experience and from what I hear, most problems arise for women who marry Italian men. As a fellow expat friend of mine put it, “It’s like the mother has a vagina made like a black hole and for his entire life the son is fighting the gravitational pull to be re-wombed.” Yep. Sums it up, but it’s not just the mom in my experience. Sure, for years the Italian mother has done so much for the family that she’s rendered everyone pretty much dependent on her, but to be honest everyone in the family has their own hold on the man of your dreams. In my family, my mother-in-law fought our relationship like a champ, my father-in-law never fought it but he tried to “educate me” on what’s expected of wives in southern Italy (indentured servitude). It took about four years for us to come to terms with the fact that we all had to coexist, I sure as shit didn’t want to be a “nice Italian girl,” and I didn’t want people to touch my underwear or lingerie, EVER. My family is unique (insane) in a lot of ways but many of my friends have confirmed that they’re also “typical” in many ways. After four years or tears and battles, we kind of figured out how to co-exist. Mostly.
1. Don’t be sweet and passive. Women are pretty much groomed to be sweet and passive in most cultures but Italian culture is a little different. People mistakenly believe that all Italian women are dominant spitfires who run their homes but that’s not necessarily true all the time. Italian culture is surprisingly misogynistic (what culture isn’t?) but Italian women are allowed to be more passionate and feisty. Yelling and speaking ones mind is something that happens a lot in Italy and often more than in the US (were people are encouraged to repress ill feelings until they can strategically dismantle someone). If you do the, “yes ma’am, yes sir,” nice, quiet thing, it’s only a matter of time before the entire family decides you’re a freak and starts walking all over you. In my family, my in-laws are really bothered that I don’t nag my husband. My father-in-law especially takes my calm, quiet approach as some sort of mental disability or as a lack of love for my husband. If I loved him, I would yell at him more, probably in public, and maybe call him fat in front of his friends cause that’s a thing. I would also iron his sheets.
2. Follow their lead. Watch what everyone else in the family is doing and try to be useful. They’ll appreciate it. If your family is like mine it probably looks like this: The men sit on the couch being lazy as fuck while the women run around the house like maniacs trying to do everything. Unfortunately, if you have a vagina and you marry into an Italian family they totally expect you to be running around with the women being stressed. I’ve tried sitting it out but I just got yelled at and told that I will be a terrible mother. I AM lazy but also I don’t think it’s cool to wait on lazy fucking men. I’m not a maid. My happy-medium to this is forcing my husband to help out. This in return makes the women scream at their own husbands to “look how useful Francesco is, why can’t you be more like him!?”
3. Eat but never try to cook. Food is important in Italian culture (no new info, I know) and no matter how great of a cook you are, you’ll never be better than your husband’s mother. Forget about it. Just praise the mother’s cooking and avoid cooking for them. Even if your dish is professional quality it won’t be good enough. Praise, praise, praise, but forget about doing the whole, “let’s bond over how we both cook,” thing. Your food is dogshit. That’s it.
4. Set boundaries. A friend of mine put it best, “Italian families see each member as an extension of themselves, there are no boundaries.” In my experience it’s completely true. It doesn’t seem to occur to people that you might not want them to come stay at your house for the entire duration of the only vacation you have for the entire year. They’ll struggle to understand why they can’t just buy you orange curtains that they think would look good in your house. Why can’t they inform you when you gain or lose weight? They are just trying to help! If you’re not Italian, you’ll probably struggle with your mother-in-laws need to rush over and baby your boyfriend/husband when he’s ill, you’ll probably struggle with spending every vacation with his family, and with the family’s overbearing opinions about your decor, life decisions, sex life, choice of mop. You want to be fair and understanding that family means a lot but being understanding doesn’t mean that you have to be okay with being controlled and dominated. If you don’t set boundaries right away you’ll just become frustrated, bitter, and explode. My rule is if I wouldn’t let my own parents do it, I don’t let them. Being Italian doesn’t get to be an excuse for having no consideration for my lifestyle or culture. If I have to respect them, they have to respect me, that’s it. I’m not saying you should be mean to your in-laws, but I am saying you should be honest with them. Tell them “no,” or explain why you don’t like it when they come over and clean out your freezer while you were in the bathroom for ten seconds peeing. No.
5. Set boundaries again but this time with your husband. And again. And again. And again. It’s important to get your partner on board with what you need and how you feel but sometimes that can be difficult. It was difficult for my husband to set boundaries with his parents because he’d never, ever done it before. If they’re fine with their mom going through your laundry hamper or coming over to re-fold your laundry, it doesn’t mean you have to be okay with it. Tell them how you feel. Trust me, if you don’t you’ll become resentful and start screaming things during fights like, “What!? Hungry? Call your mom over! She can whip out a tit!” Another issue is that the concept of age is different in Italy. Thirty is ancient to an American but very, very “young” in Italy. My family really struggles to allow my husband to make decisions for himself because he’s “too young,” and my husband often feels like he can’t handle large decisions because they’ve convinced him that he’s too young and I’m like, FIFTEEN YEAR OLDS IN MY COUNTRY MAKE BIGGER DECISIONS! FOR GOD SAKES JUST CHOOSE A MIXING BOWL! That happened at Ikea once when we were first dating and no shit he called his mom to help him get “the right one.” It’s not like this now. After he initially stood up to them it became second-nature and now we’re a team and we hold hands and scream, “NO YOU CAN’T….” at his parents and it’s awesome.
6. Learn to shrug off criticism. There will probably be more nagging and criticism than what you’re used to from your in-laws. Just accept that they probably dish out the same amount to their own children, know that the rest of us are dealing with it, too, and laugh. You really have to have a great sense of humor. Sometimes it’s difficult, I know, about the ten-millionth time that my ma in law told me that I dressed terribly and am always “a mess,” I started to feel really bad. After a while I realized how hilarious it was and just started to laugh. It helped that my husband jumped in and set some boundaries.
7. Don’t try to fit in. You’re not Italian. Even if you speak Italian fluently, dress Italian, look Italian, you’ll never be Italian. There will always be things about you that noticibly sets you apart and that’s probably why your partner married you to begin with. I know it’s a stupid cliché but really, truly, just be yourself. Eventually, after years, you’re weird expat shit will become endearing. Probably. I’ll let you know when that happens.
8. Love them. I know it can be difficult even if you’re not an expat, but try to love your in-laws even if they are annoying as shit. I promise you that I can win the contest of “who had it harder” and I still manage to love mine. I try to remind myself that our problems are part cultural, part insanity, and part them just trying to be good parents to their son by protecting him from the evils of the world (ME). My father is an immigrant (Iran) and he’s every bit as batshit crazy as they are and his weird way of “loving” is offensive and downright boundary-crossing (in a different way, he sends my husband pics of them together at midnight with “miss you” under them but that’s another story) but I know that he means well. When they drive you crazy just try to remember that it probably comes from a good place, or fear, or tradition, or brain-washing and it’s not personal. Except when they grab your tits and tell you they suck and then ask everyone in the bridal shop how “she’ll possibly find a dress because look at how small her boobs are!” That shit is totally personal.