First, a classic mother-in-law joke: “A man, his wife, and his mother-in-law went on vacation to the Holy Land. While they were there, the mother-in-law passed away. The undertaker told them, ‘You can have her shipped home for £5,000, or you can bury her here in the Holy Land for £150.’ The man thought about it and told him he would just have her shipped home. The undertaker asked, ‘Why would you spend £5,000 to ship your mother-in-law home, when it would be wonderful to have her buried here and spend only £150?’ The man replied, ‘A man died here 2,000 years ago, was buried here, and three days later he rose from the dead. I just can’t take that chance.'” (http://abt.cm/1HmH1Ff)
An avoidance relationship is the “institutionalized, formal avoidance of one individual by another”:
A classic example—and one found in numerous and diverse societies—is the mutual avoidance of a mother-in-law and her sons-in-law. In some societies the ideal traditional marriage might join a bride with a groom who is 10–15 years her senior—and often much older than that. In such situations, mothers-in-law and sons-in-law are likely to be of approximately the same age and therefore to be potential (if illicit) sexual partners. The avoidance relationship circumvents such liaisons, at least notionally, by proscribing contact between these individuals. Similar patterns of avoidance have been noted in brother-sister, father-daughter, and father-in-law–daughter-in-law relations.
I thought it was interesting that centuries-old mother-in-law jokes and stories have an anthropological basis. (Also, why does EB list a father/daughter avoidance relationship but no mother/son one?)
The EB continues: “Many (but not all) cultures that have avoidance relationships also have institutionalized joking relationships, a complementary practice in which specific relatives may tease one another or even engage in ribald exchanges.” I have always found it interesting to observe the use of humor in my own family. Our use of humor is usually a form of aggression, though, and I wonder what anthropologists and psychologists would say about that. (How do your friends and relatives use humor? Comment below.)