A reader writes: My brother and I are experiencing the problems you mentioned regarding in-laws (In-Laws? No, Outlaws, Nov. 29, 2013). We are in the textile family business started by our father. I am the elder brother, and when I got married, my father asked my wife to help us [and] she [handled] the finances. My brother got along with her until he got married and his wife said that he was not being treated fairly. My brother is five years younger, so is his wife. His wife is spoiled so she does not work hard. She comes to the office late and travels often.
You say that in-law meddling is common in Asia since ancient China, where emperors were susceptible to pillow talk among their wives and concubines. My friends say that it is indeed common here, but not in the US or Europe, where family ties are not as close, or in the Middle East, where males generally are dominant. Do you agree? What can I do?
Pillow talk is universal. Witness the plethora of in-law jokes in the West, though they revolve more around on mothers rather than sisters-in-law. We Filipinos are generally known for close family ties—but this does not mean that family is not deemed as important elsewhere.
Unfortunately, in-law issues also plague family businesses in the United States, Europe and the Middle East.
In September 2017, the New York Times ran a cover story on Zuheir and Fuad Sahyoun, brothers who run adjacent, almost identical, competing falafel shops in Beirut, Lebanon.
Their father, Mustapha, opened the original shop in the 1970s, but he died in the civil war. In 1992, the shop reopened under his two sons.
For almost 15 years, they ran the shop together, but in 2006, the younger one opened a rival shop. The menus were the same, although Fuad’s sandwich cost an extra 50 cents and has one more falafel ball.
Why did the brothers split? Fuad did not give a clear reason to the Times, saying only, “The most important thing in life is for the mind to be at peace. If … not, there’s no point to anything that you do.”
Zuheir did not mince words. “Pillow murmuring,” he referred to his brother’s wife. “His woman.”
As the elder, Zuheir used to hope that he and Fuad would reunite. “Unity makes you stronger. But now I’ve stopped wishing.”
I find it interesting that you, the elder one, would write to me. Unlike Zuheir though, I hope you have not given up hope of turning things around.
Your problems appear to stem more from your brother’s wife rather than your brother, so engage in a one-on-one discussion with him, without your wife or his. Remind him of what your father would have wished, and state calmly how his wife has undermined your relationship.
Stick to the facts, such as absences and work left undone, rather than attack her character. Instead of “Your wife is so lazy,” say “We lost two contracts when she did not make a follow-through.”
Your brother would likely say negative things about your wife in turn, so be prepared to respond not with defensiveness, but with a genuine desire to resolve things. Try the carrot and stick approach: list everyone’s responsibilities clearly, with bonuses for those who have exceeded their work and consequences for those unable to meet them. I suspect that you and your brother have long stopped talking openly with each other, leading to a toxic atmosphere.
If all else fails, get a professional counselor to act as mediator. This is not easy (many shy away from in-law problems). Read the second part of my in-law piece, which gives the pros of having them involved if boundaries are respected in the business (Dec. 6, 2013).
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