Best-selling author Gary Chapman outlines seven principles that can help improve and strengthen your relationships with your spouse's parents and siblings. (Part 2 of 2)
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Dr. Gary Chapman: Let me say a word to the parents themselves. Remember the objective in raising your children—independence. You raised them to be able to go out on their own in the world and make a contribution. So, don’t control them after they get married. You raised them to be independent.”
John Fuller: Some great insights from our last “Focus on the Family” broadcast with Dr. Gary Chapman and he’s back today talking about how you can build a stronger relationship with your in-laws. I’m John Fuller and your host is Focus president and author, Jim Daly.
Jim Daly: John, you know, I could just imagine some people, hopefully, not a majority of people, but some people’s eyes just rolled, right? How could I build a better relationship with my—
John: My in-laws.
Jim: --in-laws, right. It’s just not gonna happen. But you know what? It can happen and especially if you’re doing it in a way that honors the Lord and honors your relationship with your in-laws. Last time we started sharing on the seven principles that our guest, Dr. Gary Chapman has outlined in his new book, Happily Ever After. One of the sections in that book deals with how to build a stronger relationship with your in-laws. So, if you missed it, go back and listen to it. Get the download or the CD. We’ll be happy to provide that to you and I think that discussion and today’s discussion will give you the tools you need to get the job done.
John: We call this kind of a program “nuts and bolts”—
John: --because it is so practical and anybody that’s married typically has some level of in-law communication or challenge and so, go ahead and listen. Get the app and listen on your phone or tablet at www.focusonthefamily.com/radio or call and we can tell you more, 800-232-6459.
Jim: Gary, welcome back to “Focus on the Family.”
Gary: Thank you. Glad to be back.
Jim: Let’s pick up where we left off. I was peppering you with questions last time, because—
John: You were--
Jim: --it was kind of fun--
John: --you were being engaged there.
Jim: --all these little, you know, examples of where in-law difficult exist. There was another one that I pulled out of your book that is a good place to start, I think and a little humorous. You mentioned and I’m not sure that these would be the same names, but Tim and Marie, who told you about a situation (Chuckling) they were dealing with. Sorry, it’s just so funny. They put the kids down early. They were planning to have a nice romantic evening together with the kids falling asleep and there right in the moment of passion and the doorbell rings! (Laughter) What happened?
Gary: (Laughing) Well, you can imagine it destroyed the evening for them, okay.
Jim: And who was at the door?
Gary: It was their parents, one of the parents (Laughter), his parents as a matter of fact. And this was not the first time. This was just the capstone, you know. They would just show up without calling. They lived in the same town.
John: We were in the neighborhood and thought …
Gary: Yeah and just dropped by to see you, you know. And the wife had already been concerned about this, you know, upset about this. You know, they need to call us, because sometimes I’m working with the kids and it’s not a good time for them to be coming. We want ‘em to come, but if they’d just call and ask, you know, if it’s a good time. And so, this had been going on for a while and this night was the night that just sent her over (Laughter) the top, you know.
Jim: Don’t mess with that stuff.
Gary: Yeah, yeah and so, they asked me what they should do and my response was that, he needed to talk to his father--
Gary: --not his mother.
Jim: Dad to dad.
Gary: Just tell his father exactly what happened that night.
Gary: I said, “Your father will take care of your mother.” (Laughter)
Jim: Did it work?
Gary: And he did; and he did and she said his mother, they did not come to see us for three weeks, ‘cause his mother was kind of upset with us.
Gary: But at the end of the three weeks, she said, everything went back to, you know, and they started calling and saying, you know, “We were thinkin’ about comin’ by this afternoon. Would it be a good time for us to come by?” or tomorrow, you know and she said, it worked out fine.
Jim: Let’s not be too hard on [the] mother-in-law in that case. Talk about that emotional transition. She thinks she’s doin’ the right thing by stoppin’ by.
Gary: Yeah, absolutely.
Jim: And talk about her emotional issue there, to feel hurt and wounded—
Jim: --and then for her to have to process the “why.”
Gary: Because one of her responses was, her son would always call her when he was comin’ over to her house to pick up some tools. He’d say, “Mom, would it be okay if I stopped by and pick up a tool?” He said, they said, “Son, you don’t need to call. You’re family. Just come on over.” He said, “No, mom, I just want to let you know.” So, he was doin’ the right thing, but her attitude shows you, she thought she was doing a good thing by—
Jim: Right, she’s family.
Gary: --coming to visit there. We’re family, so you just show up. You don’t have to call to go see family, you know. It took her a little while just to realize that, though her intentions were good, it was not sitting well with her son and her daughter-in-law and she recognized that and so, they got into the pattern of calling and they negotiated the settlement, but he had to talk to them first. Nothing would’ve happened if he had not shared that with his father.
Jim: Right and again, in your book, Happily Ever After, you talk about these seven principles and learning to show respect; that’s one of them and it’s gotta go both ways, right?
Gary: Yeah, yeah, the respect has to go both ways. I think young married couples have to show respect to their parents on both sides, even if they’re not respectable and let’s face it—
Gary: --some parents aren’t respectable. They don’t live respectable lives, but his parents gave life to him and therefore, you need to honor the parents for giving him life, even if they don’t live responsible lives. And so, we honor them and we do that in several ways. I think we do that by keeping in touch with them. You know, if it’s local, you can see each other, have dinner together, have lunch together from time to time. If it’s long distance, you can send e-mails or texts or you know, call them on the phone.
Gary: So, we honor our in-laws by keeping in touch with them and there’s no magic number of how often do you do that, but you keep in touch with them. And I think we also honor them by praying for them—
Gary: --you know, praying that God will bless their lives and their ministry and in our relationship. So, you know, we have the responsibility to honor our parents, but we cannot allow our parents to interfere with the well-being of our marriage. And this is where we have to make our own decisions.
One of the common complaints is, I remember the wife who said, “You know, I thought I was marrying Jake. I really found out I was marrying Jake and his parents.”
Jim: That’s true, yeah.
Gary: Every decision we made he had to run by his parents, make sure it was okay with them and she said, “It just irritated me to death,” you know. And what I said is this, “It’s fine to listen to your parents. That’s a way of honoring them. If they want to share their ideas on whatever the topic is and whatever the decision is, let them share their ideas. You receive that as information, but you go home and the two of you decide what you’re going to do. You make your decisions, not your parents. And if the parents get upset, then give them the freedom to be upset.”
Gary: You know, and they’ll likely get over it once they begin to realize that things are different now. You’re married and the two of you are makin’ decisions and you don’t have to run everything by them.
And another area, Jim, that I think is often [where] young couples make a mistake is, they will have conflicts themselves and she goes home to her mother and talks about their conflicts and tells her mother what’s goin’ on in their conflict.
Jim: Well, let me ask you. Is some of that helpful or is it always harmful?
Gary: It may be if the mother-in-law’s a counselor. (Laughter)
Gary: But most of the time (Laughter), your parents are not in the best position to be your counselor.
Jim: What motivates the daughter to do that? She’s gonna find comfort there.
Gary: Comfort there, right.
Jim: But it does create a wedge—
Gary: It does.
Jim: --which is what we’re pointing to.
Gary: It does and I think, you know, what happened was, she would go home and share with her mother. Then two days later, he would apologize to her and they’d make everything right, but she didn’t tell her mother about that.
Gary: So, three or four or five of these conflict areas, her mother’s beginning to think he’s the big bad wolf, you know.
Gary: And so, she’s built up a real barrier between her mother and him.
Gary: So, I say, you know, typically better to go to a trusted older friend and share conflicts, you know—
Gary: --or a pastor or someone that you trust. And I’m not saying never go to your parents, but that should not be the pattern, that you’re running to them with every little difficulty that the two of you have.
Jim: Well, and that’s true. I mean, in more serious situations there may be some things that are going on that talking to your dad or your mom or both—
Jim: --would be helpful. I’m thinking of an abusive situation.
Gary: Yeah, absolutely.
Jim: And that’s usually mom and dad are gonna be aware of it and then you need to—
Jim: --to quickly decide to get help and get safety.
Jim: That would be the right thing to do, but those are severe situations. I appreciate that. You’re kind of talking in one of the seven key directions that you highlight in the book and that is, to speak for yourself.
Jim: Now my sense is, that husbands tend to not force themselves in this area very much. That’s just my assumption. So, when your wife is talking about your mom and your dad being too engaged or whatever it might be, I would think that the normal thing is that a lot of husbands roll over and say, “Okay, well, let me know what you want me to do.” Is that fair that, that would be the normal thing, that there may be conflict, but it’s passive conflict. In other words, the husband is saying, “Okay, I’ll talk to my mom about it” and then maybe he does or doesn’t.
Gary: Yeah, yeah. It depends on the personality of the individual. Some guys use that as a copout. They’ll just say, “Okay, I’ll take care of it.” They don’t intend to do anything. They think time will take care of it.
Jim: And that can create friction.
Gary: That creates more friction, yeah, but I think to be honest with each other and share your feelings, your ideas with each other about whatever the situation is, because the husband often will not feel the way the wife does.
Gary: For example, I remember the wife complained. She said, “His parents give us money every month to pay our bills.” She said, “That’s not right.”
Gary: And he said, “What’s wrong with that?” (Laughter) What’s wrong with that, you know?
John: Give me money. (Laughter)
Gary: And so, she had to hear his perspective. He had to hear her perspective and they had to find a meeting place on that, you know.
Gary: So, what do they want together? What do they want? Because the parents were just tryin’ to be helpful.
Jim: Yeah, but it is an issue of independence.
Gary: It is, yeah and again, let me just say to the parents, always ask your children would it be helpful to you if we did so and so?
Gary: And if they say yes, that would be very helpful, then fine. If they say, you know, really we’d prefer you not do that, then respect that. Respect their wishes.
Jim: Gary, one of the things that I took away from the book that spoke to my heart was this idea of making requests, not demands. That applies in every aspect of our life; it’s not just how you deal with your in-laws. It’s how you deal with your spouse, even to some degree with your older kids, you know, when they become teenagers, you want them to begin to think independently and you still have control, but I just found that to be one of the best aspects of what you’re saying. Learn how to make requests, not demands.
Jim: Give us a practical example of how that plays out in the in-law battles.
Gary: Well, the one that jumps to my mind was, the parents who were reluctant to take their grand … grandchildren over to see the grandparents, because the grandfather was an alcoholic.
Gary: And they’d been over there a couple times when he was drunk—
Gary: --and they did not want their children to be exposed to that.
Jim: Now that makes sense.
Gary: It makes a whole lot of sense and so, the son talked to his father and his mother together and said, “You know, here’s the situation and dad I know, you know, that you drink and I can’t make you stop drinking, but I’m gonna request that when my children come over here, you not be drinking before that, you know, so that you’ll be sober when they come, because we want them to love and respect you.”
And he made that request to his father and his father said, “I’ll try to do that.” And for a little while he did, but on one occasion, they came over and he was drunk and so, after the next week, he said to his father, he said, “Dad, you know, I’m willing to be forgiving one time, but if that happens again, we won’t bring the kids back for a month. I just want you to know, that’s how important it is to us. I want my kids to know you, but I don’t want my kids to be exposed to that behavior.”
Gary: And so, his father after that, acquiesced in that.
Jim: That’s amazing. I mean, the fortitude of that young man. He learned a lot growing up in an alcoholic—
Jim: That took a lot of courage--
Gary: Yeah, it did.
Jim: --for that young …
Gary: And it takes a lot of courage to talk to your parents about anything. I mean, you know, if it’s a conflicting area.
Jim: How do you measure that? How do you, as the son or daughter, you’re now in your 20’s and 30’s, maybe 40’s and your kids are comin’ over there and you have that, how do you muster the courage to confront a parent that maybe their behavior is that bad?
Jim: And you’ve, to some degree, been under their control and there’s, you know, organizations. I mean, Adults of Alcoholic Parents that exist to help you cope—
Jim: --in areas that you didn’t learn good coping skills in the first place.
Jim: How does a person find that courage? Where do you go?
Gary: I think what we have to do as a couple is to recognize that if we don’t confront the issues, they will not go away. The passing of time does not solve anything.
Jim: Or looking the other way.
Gary: Or looking the other way and if we think this is important for us and our children, then we have to find the courage to go do that. And I think, yes, again, prayer is important. We ask God to guide us. We ask God to give us wisdom in how to express it—
Gary: --so that we’re not going over there, you know, with demands, where we’re going over there with requests. And yes, there does come a time, if they don’t acquiesce in our request, that we make the decision, you know, the consequences are there.
But we’re not going over there and say, “You’ve got to do this and you’ve got to do it now.” I mean, that just destroys the relationship further. But if you request and tell why you’re requesting, most of the time in-laws will understand that and even if they don’t respond exactly at the timetable you wish they would, they will come around.
Jim: No, that’s good to have hope and to have faith that it will work. Gary, let me press you a little bit. You’re an in-law. You’ve got how many grown children?
Jim: You’ve got two grown children and you’ve got the respective in-laws in that situation. Have you ever been put to the test with what you’re talkin’ about?
Gary: You know, we really have not. Both of our children married strong Christians--our son, a gal and our daughter, her husband. And we have just loved them from the very beginning and had a good relationship from the very beginning. We’ve never had any in-law problems at all with them.
John: That you know of.
Gary: Well, that we know (Laughter), that we know of and I think they’re--
Jim: No, that’s good though to think.
Gary: --I think they’re both strong enough that they would tell us if there were a problem, you know, but we have given them freedom.
Gary: And we have not intruded into their lives. We help our son financially, because he’s in a ministry, you know, and so, we help him with that, but we have not intruded ourselves into their ministry. Where our daughter has much more contact with us, because she lives 2 ½ hours away and she has our grandchildren. And our son lives, you know, 15 hours away and they don’t have any children. (Laughing) And so, you know, we don’t see him as often, as much as our …
Jim: You’re not ringing their doorbell.
Gary: No, we’re not ringing, no, we’re not (Laughter) ringin’ the doorbell anywhere. (Laughter)
John: Well, Gary Chapman is our guest on “Focus on the Family” today and you can find the kind of practical insights that he’s been offering. If you’re the in-laws on the grown parent side or perhaps you’re the young couple and you’re trying to navigate some of these conversations, some great scripting, if you will and ideas from Gary and you’ll certainly find more of the same in his book, Happily Ever After: Six Secrets to a Successful Marriage and that would include Gary, the in-law relationship. Find out more about the book and a CD or a download or listen on the app. Now you can get that all at www.focusonthefamily.com/radio.
Jim: Gary, let’s talk at length about what I think is again, one of the most important. I keep saying that with each one, don’t I, John? But that idea that love is above everything else, that you can actually be good friends with your in-laws—
Jim: --as a goal. How do you set the compass to move in that direction? How do you put love above all when you have irritation under it all? (Laughter)
Gary: Well, I think you have to recognize that love really does reach out to try to create a positive relationship. If it’s not there, then love says, I really want to have a better relationship and one of the things I suggest in the book is, the in-law with whom you’re having trouble, take them to lunch and sit down and spend extended time asking them questions about their past, about their childhood, about their own marriage, how they met each other, how did their early years go? And the more you get to know your in-law, the better you’re gonna understand their behavior—
Gary: --and the more you ask questions of them, they begin to ask questions of you and let’s face it, friendships are developed with conversations. You can’t stay away from your in-laws and expect things to get better.
Jim: You know, one of the things I remember with Jean’s dad, it was really interesting, ‘cause Jean would say that, you know, they weren’t really open with their early years and she didn’t know a lot about how they met and those kinds of things. And there may have been details there that they didn’t want to talk about. I don’t know.
But it was really interesting, in-laws can sometimes have the ability to ask questions that maybe are too tough for the family to ask. Have you ever found that? So, I can remember, we had a video recorder, ‘cause Jean, this really troubled Jean, ‘cause she wanted our boys to know some of her dad and mom’s family history and that.
So, we were on vacation together, so we were in the hotel room and I got out the video machine. I just started asking her dad questions.
Jim: You know, where’d you grow up? And what was it like? And he was very vulnerable and shared tough stuff and did it all gladly on the video. And I walked away going, that wasn’t difficult, but Jean was saying, “Oh, my goodness. I couldn’t believe he was answering those questions.” (Laughter) That could be a positive thing, too. Sometimes—
Jim: --you give a little more latitude than what the close family members would get.
Gary: Yeah, I think that’s true and I think it’s extremely important for us to build those kind[s] of relationships with our in-laws. We already have some kind of relationship with our parents. It may be positive. It may be negative, but we have a relationship with them and we’ve kind of negotiated things.
But the in-laws are new people and we don’t know much about them and the only way you find out is to ask questions. And asking questions shows that you’re interested in them. You want to know about them. You want to know what their life has been like and most in-laws respond positively to that.
Jim: Sometimes generationally that can make a difference. I know the older generation, they were a little more closed to those things, how they met, because circumstances may have been not as pristine as what they would like. Now they’ve got the advantage of wisdom and years and they would not tell you as a child of theirs, what they did in their 20’s.
Jim: I mean, that’s normal for parents, right? So, it’s a matter of just talking with them and being interested. I think that is a great way to go and that’s how you build friendship, isn’t it?
Gary: It is, indeed, yeah and becoming friends with your in-laws is worth the time and effort.
John: What about the person that married into a family and wants that level of friendship, but just can’t. I mean, it may be the guy cannot connect with the dad or the new wife cannot connect with the mom. I mean, that has to be somewhat common. How do you get to a point of accepting [that] it’s not gonna be what I hear Dr. Chapman saying?
Gary: Yeah, well, it takes two people to have a friendship. One can reach out; one can try; one can do even what I’ve suggested in terms of conversations and the other person can still shut you out. Maybe they didn’t want you to marry their son or their daughter anyway and they have a little resentment about that and they haven’t gotten over it. And so, they tend to cut you out of things. Maybe they’ll invite your husband over for a dinner and don’t invite you.
Gary: That hurts, you know. So, it’s expressed in different ways and I think we have to recognize that ultimately we have to give our in-laws freedom to reject us, if that’s what they choose to do.
Jim: That takes—
Gary: You know—
Jim: --great courage.
Gary: --I know.
John: It’s hard.
Gary: God gives us freedom to reject Him. It must hurt God and it hurts us, but there’s some people who will reject you no matter what you do. You can’t make people love you.
Jim: And what you—
Gary: And we have to recognize that.
Jim: --what you’re getting at there, Gary, again it impacts so many areas of our lives, but you’re talking about expectations. So, when you get married, you think it will flow in a certain direction. That’s an expectation. I’ll have good relationships with my mother-in-law, with my father-in-law. And then you get into it and they don’t invite you into the family, so to speak.
Jim: You feel it. It may not even be verbalized, but you’re not invited to certain things, to participate and it can really hurt and wound, but to have that ability, that maturity to say, “Okay, it’s their choice. If they don’t want to love me—
Jim: --I can’t control that,” but that is painful and then how do you, the next step then is how do you have the pillow talk with their son or daughter, which is your spouse?
Jim: How do you convey to them, it hurts, but I’ll accept it?
Gary: Yeah, well, I think essentially you do that. You simply say to them, “You know, if you have any other ideas, I’m certainly willing to try them, but I’ve tried everything I know to do to get along with your mother and it just seems to me like she doesn’t want me to be around. So, if you have any other ideas, I’m open. Otherwise, I’m just gonna accept that, that we’re not gonna have a close relationship and hope that maybe someday her attitude will change or something will happen.”
John: I can hear a husband who wants to fix things, giving one or two answers there. “Well, you just need to tell her or I’ll talk to her.” And neither of those seem like they would be very appropriate pieces of advice to give.
Jim: Well, it sounds like it’s not logical, so it’s hard to fight illogical, irrational behavior with logic and patience.
Gary: Yeah and when you’ve done everything you know to do already, trying to reach out, trying to build a relationship, I think we just have to recognize the reality, you can’t build a relationship by yourself. There has to be some response on the part of the other person.
Jim: Well, and at some point, the healthy response that you’re saying is, there’s something broken in the person’s heart--
Jim: --you know, they’re not willing. There’s gotta be pain. There’s gotta be something that’s happened in that person that is preventing them from even being open to a relationship—
Jim: --even if it’s mediocre.
Jim: So, let me give you another hypothetical, Gary and I think some people are caught in this kind of situation, kind of that sandwich generation, you know, where you have kids that are just being launched, at the same time you have parents relying upon you. Someone close to me has been in that space. They have made decisions with their spouse to limit their career advancement. They chose to be near the in-laws—his in-laws—in order to give the grandkids the opportunity to know the grandparents. And then by the time it was ready to find that better career experience, maybe outside of that geographical area, moving out of the small town, now grandma’s sick and no one else is here to take care of her and your wife is saying, “I gotta take care of my mom.” You could feel trapped in that situation.
Gary: Yeah, I think you can and I think you have to stop and analyze your situation and ask yourself the question, do I regret the decisions that I made to allow my children to have contact with their grandmother or grandfather? Do I regret that? Well, you can’t undo it, but you’re trying to identify, you know.
And then again, do I at this juncture, want to abandon my mother-in-law [now] that she’s sick? Or you know, if it’s a matter of survival in terms of, you know, having enough money to survive and a job to survive, you might just say to your wife, “You know, Honey, I’ve got a job. It’s 600 miles away, but we can take your mother with us and we’ll take care of her there. You know, we’ll still be together, it’s just gonna be a different place. But right now, I don’t see how we’re gonna survive here, because I’ve been six months looking for a job and I can’t find one.”
And at that juncture, the wife may be willing to go with that. You know, you’re doing both. You’re providing for the family, but you’re also taking care of the mother-in-law.
Jim: Yeah. These are difficult intersections where life is messy.
Jim: Family life is messy and Gary, I so appreciated your wisdom and writing the book, Happily Ever After that addresses not only the in-law issue, but so many other issues. Thanks for bein’ with us today.
Gary: Well, thank you. Always good to be with you.
Jim: And as we're coming to a close here, I'd like to ask you to consider supporting Focus on the Family. Every day we're providing broadcasts like this one to help strengthen your marriage and help you in your parenting journey. We're offering a multitude of tools and resources such as counseling and books and programs like our National Institute of Marriage. I'm excited about that. I mean, we're having about four to 600 couples go through that a year. I'm hope at some point, 4 to 6,000 couples are going through that each year, because they have an almost 85 percent success rate in saving marriages that on the last run of the ladder. They're desperate and I'm tellin' you folks, they will equip you to communicate more effectively in your marital relationship and I'm thrilled with that.
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Our program was provided by Focus on the Family and on behalf of Jim Daly and the entire team, thanks for listening. I'm John Fuller, inviting you back next time. We'll a hope-filled message from Rob Parsons about wayward children, kids who are straying away from the principles you've given them, taught them, prayed for them about, as we once again, help your family thrive.
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Gary ChapmanView Bio
Dr. Gary Chapman is the senior associate pastor at Calvary Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, N.C. He's also an international public speaker and the best-selling author of numerous books including The Five Love Languages which has sold more than five million copies and has been translated into nearly 40 languages. Dr. Chapman holds several academic degrees including a Ph.D. in adult education from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.