Korean “Double In-Laws”… and Other Dramas!

(Wedding Day by summer park)

An interesting question from Curtis, a reader with a slightly unusual family in which 2 brothers from one family married 2 sisters from another. As you will see, he was concerned about how this would be received by Koreans:

Dear James,

Lately I’ve been seriously confused and irritated by a seeming issue with relation to Korean marriages.  I can’t figure out why it is even a problem to begin with. I’ve never heard the term until recently, but apparently Koreans (I’m not sure if this is general or only among certain classes) seem to be against marriages that create “double in-laws,” meaning that, for example, member A of the Kim family marries member A of the Lee family. Then Member B of the Kim family marries the sister/brother of member A of the Lee family. The first marriage made them in-laws, but this second marriage creates what I’ve heard Koreans term “double in-laws” which seems to have some stigma.  As far as I am concerned as a westerner, the second marriage has little to no bearing on anything since it isn’t incest or intermarriage, therefore I see no problem. In fact, my father married my mother, and soon after that, my father’s brother married my mother’s sister. I guess that creates double in-laws in my family, but since it’s neither incest nor intermarriage, I haven’t once heard any issues being brought up about it. Could you explain if this “double in-laws” thing is really an issue, and if so, why? All I can think of is that the families are not being spread out far enough for maximum social networking and both sides of the family may end up being in one household, but since Korean family dynamics are changing, this doesn’t have to be the case.

I’ve also heard the English term “co-in-laws” to describe this, but again, I find no reports of issues with this arrangement other than in a few Korean instances.

And an update in a second email:

[I’ve done some more thinking]…, and I thought about the collective culture that Korea is.  I thought that perhaps when a family marries another family, the WHOLE family in that household become in-laws as such, whereas in western societies, the distinctions between in-laws is limited more so to the ones who married into the family.  I, personally, would consider the sister of my brother-in-law just that, the sister of my brother-in-law, not an in-law herself since she did not marry into the family.

(The Bride by Tetsumo)

What do you think? Personally, while this is the first I’ve heard of any potential stigma, I suspected that there might be something to it when my wife instantly came up with the Korean term for people in such arrangements: gyeobsadon (겹사돈), or “a person doubly related by marriage.” Moreover, however illogical any stigma would be, there is certainly precedent too: until as late as 2005, Article 809 of the Korean Civil Code prohibited marriage between those of the same ancestral, regional clan (or local subgroup of Lees, Parks, or Kims and so on), of which the largest had over 4 million members. Or in short, somewhere between 8-15% of the Korean population were literally forbidden to marry each other, with even the children of any de-facto unions discriminated against also because their out-of-wedlock status prohibited them from receiving national health insurance, let alone complicating inheritance and property rights.

But as it turned out in this case at least, my wife knew the term not because of any stigma that she’s aware of…rather, because she remembered such arrangements from dramas!

Probably there is nothing to worry about then, but if anyone could confirm that then I’m sure Curtis will appreciate it, and I’d be interested in hearing any other unusual stories about marriage and Korean families also. If you’d rather read more yourself though, then consider this series on the uncertain role of Neo-Confucianism in the similarities between Japanese and Korean family forms, and especially how daughters-in-law are treated therein.

Update: Speaking of the importance of family names in Korea, today there was an interesting article in the New York Times about the trials and tribulations a Korean man (and subsequently his family) had due to his Japanese ancestry.

19 thoughts on “Korean “Double In-Laws”… and Other Dramas!

  1. Oddly enough, I first learned about the ban on marrying someone from the same clan in an Argentinian film, El abrazo partido, which I think I saw at the London Film Festival. The central character’s mother runs a lingerie shop in a small shopping arcade in Buenos Aires, and one of the other shops in the arcade is run by a Korean couple who come from the same clan and have emigrated to Argentina to escape the ban.

    • Sounds like a good movie, and it would be interesting to see how many real-life couples emigrated due to it; indeed, if I was Korean and hadn’t legally been allowed to marry someone I loved and wasn’t biologically related to, then I’m sure I would have emigrated too. Although there were amnesties and so on, I’m still simply astounded that the law remained until 2005, even with allowances for the fact that most Koreans lived in the countryside until the late-1970s.

  2. Curtis asked me as well. 겹사돈 was never truly an issue in Korea. If you recall, 김유신 and 김춘추 were 겹사돈. (The two men married each other’s sisters.) I also referred to him that there was a Korean drama that (what else?) dramatized it.

  3. I’m actually currently watching a drama, 보석비빔밥 (Assorted Gems), which brings up an issue with 겹사돈. The drama finished airing in Korea about a month ago but because of licensing agreements or what not, is only on episode 46 of 50 here in the states. Oh by the way !Spoiler Alert!. In the drama a woman gets engaged to a man only to find out that her little brother is planning on marrying her fiancé’s younger sister. This puts the family in an uproar and they are forced to choose which couple to marry because neither family wants to be known as 겹사돈. Now like I said I’m only on episode 46 of 50 so I’m not sure exactly how it ends, and I do know that drama’s aren’t exactly the best place to get accurate social commentary, but there certainly was a stigma present between the two families over possible being dual in-laws. This shocked me at first because it was the first time I had ever heard of 겹사돈 or any negativity about it. The drama also touches on other social topics and is also one of the first drama’s I’ve seen that has an American male as a main cast member. Toward the end he actually starts developing a love interest with one of the female characters. Although, even being so close to the end it has yet to come to fruition so I’m not quite sure how the writers will play this one out.

    I had only watched the episode where they bring up 겹사돈 a few days ago and was wondering this myself, thank you for discussing it.

    • Thanks for passing that on, a rather more recent example than the one my wife came up with(!), and I’m surprised by the uproar too. Moreover, I don’t think there would be one if it didn’t reflect social mores at least partially, so perhaps the jury is still out on the acceptability of 겹사돈?

      Keep us posted as you finish the series please! Perhaps there is some special, albeit obtuse, reason for those families in particular? Skeletons in the closet and all that?

  4. I think the notion sounds romantic to most Americans, particularly if the siblings marry at the same time (double wedding).

    By the way, there seem to be divisions about the idea of what in-laws’ siblings are called in English. Language Log had a discussion about it (and some other, mostly European languages): http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=1909

    To me, my brother-in-law’s wife or husband would also be my sister-in-law or brother-in-law (duh!) but to other people it’s equally plan that it wouldn’t be the case.

    • I’ve noticed that confusion myself when I teach about family relationships and so on, although of course they’re nothing compared to the individual terms for everyone in a Korean family (no generic terms like “brother-in-law”, and different if you’re male and female to boot.

      Personally I’m with the “other people” on the naming issue, but admit that I’ve sometimes needed something to fill the resulting linguistic gap!

  5. I had never heard of this stigma, but what came to mind immediately as a possible reason was the logic behind some parents’ refusal to let their children marry partners with one or both parents deceased. In particular, if there is only one father-in-law at marriage and the surviving father-in-law should die, then the couple would be very disadvantaged without a senior male. Likewise, with double in-laws, if misfortune should befall one of the families, the other would be more severely impacted than if only one of the children had married into it. Maybe it’s a matter of spreading risk.

  6. I also noticed this concept in 보석비빔밥 and thought it odd. I asked my husband why double in-laws would be so taboo, and he said he had no idea. His guess is it’s just another silly drama plot twist. This seems like a reasonable assumption to me because (another spoiler alert!) one of the couples n question are high school students. In real life, how many Korean high school students introduce their significant others to their parents, receive approval and have their parents plan for marriage before the kids even enter college? That alone blows the believability of the whole show!

    • Thats probably a good assumption, I’ll be honest the show hasn’t been entirely believable. But then again how many dramas are? I originally thought there might be something to it after I read this post, but so far every opinion of commenters on the blog, ang even people I’ve asked around my college, including proffesors, have said that it’s not really a taboo. Maybe it was at one point, but it doesn’t seem like it carries much weight anymore. I still think I’ll stick around to see the end of the show though lol.

      • You’re absolutely right. Dramas should be watched for entertainment value only. I won’t spoil what happens between 끝순/호박 비취/영국 for you ^^

  7. I was able to get my hands on this Assorted Gems/Jewel Bibimbap (보석비빔밥) drama that was mentioned. After watching some episodes, a scene came up that (at least as far as dramas can be trusted) about my earlier suspicions, that a whole family is considered in-laws. The young girl, Seo Kkeut-Soon, wished to marry Gung Ho-Bak, but because her brother is married to his sister, she considers him an in-law, and according to her, she can’t think of him any other way because of that.

    So, although there doesn’t seem to be a stigma, in the context of this drama, one family “gets married” to another family as a whole entity. Sounds about right for a collectivist culture. Real Koreans most don’t seem to make much of a fuss, but most surely understand the concept and reasons for its prohibition by some families, even if unconsciously.

    Even if most Koreans no longer consider this a taboo, if it ever was, like James said, there may be something to it and it wouldn’t surprise me if at least a few Korean families were against double in-laws.

    It would be nice if census information could provide us with statistics on how prevalent gyeobsadon may be. That’d probably be a lengthy and tiresome investigation.

  8. I never heard of this term. Actually, I never considered this phenomenon. Probably because I don’t watch dramas. I mean it’s not a common thing. It doesn’t sound wrong, or anything, just a peculiar arrangement.

    Upon some navering,
    one poster said “Elders abhor engaging in affairs (that are public- in that everyone can plainly see) that are not considered common sensical. Some examples of this would include 겹사돈, international marriage, an older women dating a younger man, homosexuality”
    It seems that since 겹사돈 is not considered “common sensical” and stands out (You know how Koreans feel about doing things that aren’t considered “normal “. I mean, the other things in that list are considered “perfectly normal” in Korean context. People stare at interracial couples. For a country that seems homo the extent to which Koreans are homophobic is ridiculous.), its frowned upon, especially by the older generation. It seems that the stigma attached to 겹사돈 marriages aren’t that big and is enforced a lot more in the older generation. So I’m guessing that people wouldn’t necessarily jump at the chance to arrange a dual-in law marriage, but if it happens, then they wouldn’t be so incensed by it as to prohibit it. Maybe it’s comparable to the stigma attached to divorce in Korea nowadays.

    It seems that as the above posters mentioned, family order is very complex in Korea, and a double in law marriage disturbs this family order. A lot of things would become really complex. Just thinking about this is making my head spin… Even just the names..would the kids call their uncle and aunt “외삼촌/이모” or “고모부/고모?” So yeah…because of the relationships inherent in the terminology everything would become complicated and confusing.

    I also think the term “dual-in-law/겹사돈“ is interesting in that, although marriage is between the people getting married, the term is centered on the relationship between the families. I think even that alone shows why its sort of taboo.

  9. I think that previous post pretty much sums up everything on the issue. Thanks to James for being so kind as to post my question and to all who provided comments. I understand this quirk issue now and it won’t bug me if it happens again. And now everyone knows a little bit more about Korean culture. ^_^

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