John Fuller: Today on Focus on the Family with Jim Daly. We’ll explore the issue of in-laws and how that relationship will impact your marriage. And Jim, there is a warning that we might have for women about extended families. I believe this applies to us guys as well. Did you know that when you married your prince, you also inherited the king, the queen and the whole court, and maybe even a court jester as well?
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Jim Daly: Well, I think everyone can relate, John. There’s always that weird Uncle Bob somewhere in the mix. But whenever this topic of in-laws comes up, you can feel the tension in the air. We’ve all heard the mother-in-law jokes and stories on social media about crazy encounters with her parents or his parents. Sometimes those relationships don’t go as smoothly as you might expect or perhaps hope for. And like I said, we don’t often think about the extended family we’re marrying into and how those relationships will impact our marriage. So today, we’re going to offer you some practical ideas about how to establish healthy boundaries with your in-laws in God honoring ways.
John: And when we’ve addressed this topic in the past, Jim, we’ve pointed to research that says that when you have a healthy relationship with your in-laws, it actually helps your marriage pretty substantially.
Jim: Well, that’s right. And that was certainly true for Jean and me. And I regret that my wife, Jean, didn’t get the in-law experience because my folks had passed away years ago. And I believe Jean and my mom would have really hit it off and become close friends. I think they really would have. On the other hand, Jean’s parents were alive up until recently, so we had that experience. And, you know, there’s always those little things, but they were so kind toward us. And I love when we would take the kids and, you know, they’d spend time with the kids, usually up here in Estes Park in Colorado. They love coming there. It was just a great memory for us. That’s the kind of relationship we want to help you aim for with your in-laws. It might not be perfect, but it can be healthy and good.
John: Yeah, we have some experts to help us better unpack and understand these dynamics. Dr.’s Henry Cloud and John Townsend were in our studio a while ago and they talked about marriage and in-laws. And both men are psychologist, authors and popular speakers. And I’m pretty sure their sons in laws as well. They’re most famous for their series of books about boundaries in relationships. Now you can learn more about our guests and their book Boundaries, when you call 800, the letter A, and the word FAMILY 800-232-6459. Or stop by focusonthefamily.com/broadcast. Jim, here’s how you began the conversation with Dr.’s Townsend and Cloud on today’s episode of Focus on the Family.
Jim: Let’s talk about general atmosphere out there. When you’re counseling and engaging couples, how often is the in-law issue uh involved in marital problems?
Dr. John Townsend: Jim, it’s huge. Um what you find a lot of times is you said a really good line about the space that they allow. And um there’s a good appropriate space to allow, where at the same time, there’s a commonality and a history and a friendship. You know, while I was thinking about uh Ruth, in the book of Ruth, her her mother-in-law, Naomi had a wonderful relationship. So, there are really good relationships. But it comes down to the problems being, when something, either the husband or the wife, hasn’t allowed them to do the leaving and cleaving they need. Then the in-law problem gets worse, and it comes in and feeling’ controlled, feeling’ helicopter parented, feeling’ told what to do. They feel intrusive. And you’ve gotta be an advocate for your marriage, so it’s a big problem.
Jim: Hm. Uh … in fact, Cambridge University, they came out with a study where they identified, 60 percent of women felt that conflict with their mother-in-law caused long-term stress–60 percent of married women! That’s remarkable in my mind. And two thirds of women felt like their mothers-in-law were jealous of the marriage. That’s probably a common theme, I would think, that this mother has raised her little, precious little boy, and now he’s in the arms of another woman. And how does a mom deal with that in a healthy way? And what’s going’ on there?
Dr. Henry Cloud: Well, you know, a lot of times you hear it talked about between the mother-in-law and the daughter-in-law, right? But but a lot of times what that really speaks to is a young man who has not properly separated and individuated from their own family. And so, the poor wife is getting pulled into this struggle that would’ve been there, you know, whether she was there or not. And so, the Bible talks about leaving and cleaving. And there is a balance that is very important. It is so important to have multi-generational in-law great relationships. There’s grandparenting relationships that are so important. There’s help. There’s all sorts of stuff. And so, you’ve gotta have the high value of in-laws and at the same time, get a couple of things right. And it comes down in my view to governance and resources.
Jim: Well, what I hear you also implying in that is, it’s worth the effort to develop that relationship.
Dr. Cloud: Absolutely.
Jim: I think a lot of peo …
Dr. Cloud: It’s a treasure.
Jim: Well, and then a lot of people, when you enter the marriage covenant, it’s in their minds, the married spouse is saying, “I did not sign up for this. I did not sign up to have to engage your mother or your father.” And you begin to just immediately set that up as an adversarial relationship–
Dr. Cloud: Right.
Jim: –instead of a golden opportunity to treasure your spouse in a way that I think the Lord would be pleased with.
Dr. Cloud: And actually, they are signing up for it.
Jim: They (Chuckling) just don’t know it.
Dr. Cloud: That’s that’s–
Dr. Townsend: And and–
Dr. Cloud: –part of the package.
Dr. Townsend: –get to know ’em while you’re dating, ’cause you are signing up.
Dr. Cloud: Right.
Jim: Well, that’s a great point, so take the time to spend time. Don’t avoid them.
Dr. Townsend: Yeah.
Dr. Townsend: They’re gonna be around you all all your life.
Dr. Cloud: They should be friends. I mean, it’s one of the richest potential relationships that anybody can ever have. And it’s very important to work on.
Jim: Uh, earlier this year I asked a question on my on my blog. We did a blog on this idea of in-laws and how is your relationship with your in-laws? We had hundreds of people respond, both in a positive direction, but also in a negative direction. About 40 percent of those who responded reported positive in-law experiences. But among wives that number dropped almost 10 points. Um they it seems that the tension between wife and mother-in-law is higher than the other combination uh with the husband to her mom and dad. What is unique about that? What is driving some of that angst that’s particular to a wife and the parents of the husband?
Dr. Townsend: Well, there’s a couple things going on. One is what Henry mentioned was the mom whose son has not really done the leaving and cleaving yet. So, she’s still his golden child [sic] or his little boy or that sort of thing. He could be 35 years old.
But the other thing is, I think that sometimes wo the wife will experience this at a deeper level because she’s more made for relationship that we are, you know, than men are. She’s more of the connector, the “attacher.” So, any kind of disruption from the relationship affects her more. But let me cut to the chase on this, I think, um Jim, is, if you’ve got that problem, the very best thing you can do if you’re in the middle of it and you’ve got the feeling intruded upon and feeling left out, is that the spouse who’s got the intrusive mother-in-law has got to have the talk and say, “I love you guys, but I prefer my spouse and she comes No. 1,” or he comes No. 1 above you. And I’ve got to put them first. Because so many wives especially will say, well, he never says that. He just lets them do what they want and and he never says that I come first, and I feel sort of like I don’t matter.
Jim: Yeah, we think, many husbands they don’t want that battle. They just have learned to-
Dr. Townsend: Oh.
Jim: –live with the um … you know, the emotional relationship with their moms and they haven’t done anything to leave and cleave and to build that healthy distance.
Dr. Cloud: Yeah, and I think it’s important for ’em, you know, I’ll just sit down together and say, let’s talk about it. Because what’s really important is that we have really good relationships, and we want time with you guys. And we also have to figure out, you know, how to establish our own family. And so, vacations or you know, holidays, all of that, let’s really talk about how we can have a really good balance here to … to have our own family and have the extended family.
Jim: Let me read one of the quotes that came in on the blog site. It … one woman wrote in and said, “My mother-in-law is meddling, intrusive and overbearing. And worst of all, she lives with us.” Wow, she’s gotta deal with this, if that is the underlying reaction that she’s having to her mother-in-law’s presence. Here you’ve done the right thing in my view, which is to take in your elderly parents.
Dr. Cloud: Uh-hm.
Jim: That’s a great thing to do. It’s one of the worst things in Western Culture. We don’t do that well. Um but here in essence, you’ve invited the what she perceives to be the cancer into the home. What would you–
Dr. Townsend: Yeah, but–
Jim: –say to her?
Dr. Townsend: –but it’s like having any kind of person in your life. There will have to be some covenants and ground rules set about the nature of the relationship, how much time we spend together and the nature of that. And a lot of times it’s a discussion that was never had. So, I mean, you do want to welcome them and and if she’s experiencing mother-in-law as a cancer, sometimes that’s a judgment on the mother-in-law because the wife herself hasn’t been able to be clear about the expectations and what works and what doesn’t work.
Dr. Cloud: And and Jim, at the same time, I I have seen a lot of situations where … and it may be from the families of origin that they come from, but where the daughters-in-law or the sons-in-laws, they’ve never had good models that they do have a responsibility and a duty–
Dr. Cloud: –to the spouse’s parents and to extended family. And sometimes you gotta train ’em the other way. It’s not always the mother- or the father-in-law. Sometimes somebody’s gotta be trained, how does a multi-generational family operate? You can have just this total detachment and you know, don’t care attitude.
Jim: Well, it’s fascinating, too. You know, I studied in Japan at Wasada for a year when I was in college. And I lived with a Japanese family, and I got a a really interesting insight into that culture living it and the deference that they pay to mother-in-laws in particular in the Asian culture. It kind of tips in the other direction. There’s a very high expectation of the daughter-in-law that, that daughter-in-law will clean the home and do the grocery shopping and actually, in many ways, almost be a servant to the mother-in-law.
Dr. Cloud: Hm.
Jim: And mother-in-laws had to do it when they were daughter-in-laws. So, the expectation’s quite high. In Western Culture we’re so independent. It is about the immediate family. I don’t really care that much if I’m connected to the extended family. I mean, that’s some of the attitude out there.
Dr. Cloud: Yeah, and that’s sad.
Jim: And those seem–
Dr. Townsend: Yeah, they’re missing out.
Jim: –to me the two extremes, you know, the uh you actually become almost a slave in that Asian context, or you’re totally disconnected in the Western context. What’s a biblical framework?
Dr. Cloud: Well, I think the biblical framework is, that there is a multi-generational tie and that’s very clear in the Bible. At the same time, there’s a leaving and cleaving in terms of where the primary unit is. And I think one of the ways to think about this is where the governance is. You know, for, each family unit has gotta be in control of making its decisions about parenting and about you know, all the values and all that kind of stuff.
And at the same time, permeable boundaries where there’s input and discussion to learning and all of that, but ultimately, where they govern their own family unit without losing the ties and the relationship.
Jim: I think at times some of us can uh kind of shake this off, because we don’t have bad experiences in this regard. And we couldn’t imagine a marriage being on the line because of in-law issues. But again, let me read two quotes that we got off the blog and have you respond to this in general. One was from a woman. She writes, “My mother-in-law expects my husband to put her needs first over mine.” Um.
Dr. Cloud: Well, you can just stop right there.
Dr. Cloud: No no, seriously, that that just won’t work.
Dr. Cloud: And so, that wife is struggling, because the created order that God designed is being violated.
Jim: And the husband needs to know.
Dr. Cloud: It’s the husband’s problem.
Jim: (Laughing) Yeah, exactly.
Dr. Cloud: Right.
Jim: She goes on to say, “I don’t think our marriage will survive this.” That was the point I wanted to drive to. This is such a deep wound in her that she’s not being placed in the right position relationally, that she’s willing to give up–
Dr. Townsend: Right.
Jim: –these vows.
Dr. Townsend: But–
Dr. Townsend: –but you go back to who’s got to take the next step and it’s really the husband. You really don’t blame the mother-in-law for those things, ’cause she may not know what the ground rules are. She may not know what the expectations are and she’s just maybe she has no boundaries and she’s sort of, you know, overinvolved. But the husband needs to stand up and in a loving way, to let his mom know that his marriage comes first, but he really wants her involved. And so, when the daughter-in-law’s trying to solve it with the mother-in-law, there’s kind of a no-win there.
John: Hmm. Well, it it seems that that there’s a tough conversation that has to happen then for that wife to address her husband to say, this is not working, so much so–
Dr. Cloud: Right.
John: –that I don’t think we can make it. And then for the husband to go against 30, maybe 40 years of training from mom that, if he sits down and has this conversation, I can just imagine the fireworks that he has to face.
Dr. Cloud: Right.
John: Um boy, that is a real dilemma.
Dr. Townsend: Well, especially if where there’s 30, 40 years of training, he may not now be able to it that night. He may need to sit down with somebody he trusts and talk about what life is really about. Like, why did you get married? Because it’s clear, leave all others, forsake all others and to kind of return to that and and kind of get a new perspective on his values.
Jim and Dr. Cloud: Hm.
Dr. Cloud: I think a lot of these problems can be avoided when there’s a very loving respectful conversation that happens where the couple goes to the in-law parents and and say, “You know what? We love you guys and we we want to spend time with you. We want to hang out. We we want to figure out how that works, so let’s just kind of talk about what that would look like and what everybody’s expectations are” and have an adult conversation about it, where they really feel valued and cared about. And then you avert a lot of this.
John: It sounds like that poor wife might have to kind of lie through her teeth though to say something so forward, to say I want to spend time with you. I mean, it’s … it seems pretty apparent from that comment that Jim read that there’s not a real desire for relationship there.
Dr. Cloud: Well, she’s certainly not wanting more time, because (Laughing) she feels like she’s getting more more than she needs. But
Dr. Townsend: But she doesn’t want no time.
Dr. Cloud: But she doesn’t want no time and and I think that to reassure, you know, everybody that the relationship is desired. It’s just how we’re structuring the relationship right now isn’t working.
John: This is Focus on the Family with Jim Daly. I’m John Fuller. And our guests today are Dr.’s John Townsend and Henry Cloud. And our topic is how to strengthen that important relationship you have with your in-laws. Now, a lot of Henry and John’s insights are drawn from their book called Boundaries. It is terrific and we recommend you get a copy of that. We can tell you more when you call 800-232-6459. 800, the letter A, and the word FAMILY or stop by focusonthefamily.com/broadcast. And now more from our conversation with Dr.’s Cloud and Townsend on today’s episode of Focus on the Family.
John: Let me ask this question on behalf of the wife who is right there. I mean, she’s struggling in this area. How does she talk to her husband about that difficulty, what she’s experience and her feelings about it?
Dr. Cloud: I think it’s very important that she starts from the vulnerable position and not the angry position-
Dr. Cloud: –that she talks about how sometimes I feel um a little ignored in our relationship and sometimes it feels like uh you’re you’re a little more attuned and caring about what your mom wants than sometimes what I need. And I end up feeling’ lonely and sad. That’s very different than coming at it with, you don’t pay attention to me, and you don’t do. You know, it’s just a totally different conversation.
Jim: Well, that’s good advice. Again, it’s so natural. You know, when we look at this and we apply all of these things, all of these truths that we’ve been talking to, to life. Isn’t it interesting that when we rely on our flesh to resolve the conflict, meaning we go to anger? We go to uh more radical expressions of our emotion, rather than a biblical expression of our emotion which is, this is how I’m feeling’. This is how you’re hurting me. Can you help me? Um, it’s amazing how much more trauma we create, but we’re working out of our own fleshly nature in that regard, aren’t we?
Dr. Cloud: That’s right and whenever, you know, the Bible says the wrath of man does not accomplish the righteousness of God. And there are very few problems that leading with anger is gonna get a good result.
Jim: Why do we keep going to that well?
Dr. Cloud: Well, because I think it’s um, you know, when we experience loss or frustration, we want to protest it. It’s a natural emotion to protest it. And protest is good, but wh the anger should kind of give us the signal to – I’ve got to get proactive and protest this problem but do it in a way that it’s gonna have a good resolution in God’s formula of speaking the truth in love.
Jim: Now in your book, Boundaries in Marriage, you talk about some of the things that can create problems between a husband and a wife that I think you call that “intruders.” Uh … you include in-laws on that list.
Dr. Townsend: Well, think about what is required to have a good marriage. I mean, you’ve got to have the love and the truth between you. You’re building a family. You’re building a culture. You’re working on finances and parenting and all the things that create the next 40 or 50 years. There are all sorts of intruders that come in and kind of undo what you’re doing. There’s cultural intruders. There’s uh … there’s sometimes friends that are kind of toxic. And if you haven’t done the leaving and cleaving, sometimes the mother-in-law and father-in-law can be seen that way. So, your first job is to guard what you’re trying to create in this family structure. And that’s your primary responsibility–
Dr. Townsend: –is to guard it from the intruders. But you don’t make the mother-in-law and the father-in-law the bad guys here. You make the fact that you’re vulnerable to that or still need them in some way and you fix it within the couple.
Jim: Well, le let’s go back to some of those examples we talked about from the blog post we did. Um, if there is that kind of conflict, that deep conflict where I don’t think my marriage is gonna survive, um, let’s role play a little bit. I’m the husband and talk to me and my wife about how we need to address this issue. Just help me understand. I mean, we’re at the brink of divorce here and it’s because of the in-laws. We kind of still love each other, but this frustration runs so deep. Um, what would you counsel me to do? What can I do first to engage uh, the problem?
Dr. Cloud: Well, I think the very first thing is, it’s not about the in-laws.
Dr. Townsend: That’s a symptom.
Dr. Cloud: Yeah, if they’re marriage is about to break up, there is something that he is not getting about the level of distress that she’s in. And whether – it doesn’t matter what the topic is, if you’ve got a guy that is so unplugged from the amount of misery that she’s in, that’s the first point.
Jim: Okay, so–
Dr. Cloud: Like, how can …
Jim: –you gotta work on that.
Dr. Cloud: You gotta work on that.
Jim: –together as a couple.
Dr. Cloud: You you say say you know; your marriage is in a lot of pain. And something is breaking down in the two of your’s ability to hear each other’s needs and pain and to respond to that well. We can figure out the practical part of solving, you know, the family relationships later, but wh how have you guys gotten so apart in this? Because that’s the first part of the problem.
Dr. Townsend: And the second part of the problem is your view of the function of marriage as God designed it. So many people think that marriage is supposed to make me happy. So, my wife or my husband, their task is to make me a happy person. God never intended it that way. Marriage is supposed to make me grow.
Dr. Townsend: And sometimes growing means confrontation and dealing with reality. And then I get happy because we’re growing together. But we’ve got to get happiness off as the primary goal of marriage. The primary goal of marriage is to grow.
Jim: Uh … there’s a collective sigh as people hear that, John. I mean, because so much of our culture, even in Christian circles, is about my happiness, my joy, uh not necessarily what the Lord wants for me.
Dr. Townsend: And you don’t make me happy the way my mom made me happy.
Jim: Correct. And their–
Dr. Townsend: And that can …
Jim: –comparison and that need to uh step up. Uh, we’ve lost the covenant relationship in marriage and turned it into the contract. And you’re you’re hitting on something I think is the core problem, not just in in-law relationships, but in our marriages, that it is about my happiness and about what I want and what I perceive I need. And uh wow! That is a whole bucket of issues that we need to deal with. Let me say though in the role playing. Let’s say I’m one of your you know; my wife and I are one of your better patients. And so, we’ve tried to mend these big issues. She feels better defended in that relationship with the in-laws. But now how do we finish that process and what kind of discussion do we have with father-in-law and mother-in-law? How should that play out? We go to dinner, we’re at the dinner table what should we be saying?
Dr. Cloud: Well, I wouldn’t do this at dinner. That’s a dumb idea. No seriously, I mean if it is at that point what is wrong with going to the in-laws and saying you know what, we love you guys and we want our relationship to be strong. We’ve had some struggles in figuring out what you want from us and what we need from you and all of that. And we haven’t done a good job at talking about it. So, we’d like to invite you to sit down and let’s talk about our expectations and talk about how we can have a good relationship and what all of us need here. And then I would go further, Jim, that this is worth it to say and if we can’t do that alone, why don’t we go see a good family counselor together, all four of us?
Dr. Townsend: You know, so many problems with the in-laws can be solved when you do the hard work as a couple and the in-laws just most of ’em, unless it’s really serious like in what Henry was talkin’ about, most of ’em appreciate that. I remember when um, our kids were really young and my mom I’m the firstborn, so my mom had never had grandkids before. And so, she’s kind of trying to figure it out. And we’re at dinner, you know, my wife and kids and my parents. And one of my kids acted out. I don’t know talked too loud or threw something’ or whatever and my mom came in as the mom, disciplining my son. And I thought, okay, I gotta nip this in the bud.
Dr. Townsend: So, my mom and I had a little sidebar conversation and I just said, well, this is new for all of us, but can you just come to me and say, you know, uh, Ricky’s doing’ whatever? And she got it. She goes, “Well, thanks, you know. This I’m kind of trying to figure this out, too.” So, it’s just the conversation doesn’t have to be bad. They appreciate sometimes that kind of structure and value.
Jim: Hm. You know, with the blog post there was one that caught my attention. It was so positive, and I think it’s important to let everybody know this example. Uh, this young man wrote in and said, “I became engaged a week ago and my future in-laws are part of the reason that I proposed.” Um, he goes on to say, “They’ve always been kind and hospitable to me and they were overjoyed when I asked them for permission to marry their daughter.” Um, that’s a very positive statement, isn’t it? This is a young man who’s looking to the future and actually, that’s part of his proposal is looking at the relationship with the in-laws.
Dr. Townsend: Uh-hm.
Jim: That’s healthy, don’t you think?
Dr. Townsend: Oh, it’s very healthy and it it really bodes well um for the future relationship thing and if you’re starting out on a good track. And I would say to all the singles out there or the engaged couples, get this right from day one. Establish that healthy relationship and show them that you care and and respect them and all that and it’ll go a lot better later.
John: That’s Dr. Henry Cloud, our guest today on Focus on the Family, joined by his colleague, Dr. John Townsend. And they’re sharing insights about marriage and family relationships. They’ve written so well about these topics in the book Boundaries: When to Say Yes, When to Say No, to Take Control of Your Life.
Jim: And John, this has been a great conversation today about some of the common pitfalls husbands and wives can experience when they haven’t navigated that relationship with their in-laws very well. That’s probably why we have so many in-law jokes, right. And the core message we keep coming back to is the importance of good communication, not perfect. You can’t expect to have healthy boundaries in your marriage or with your extended family if you haven’t taken the time to sit down and talk about it. I bet your spouse has some great insights about your in-laws. This issue is so important for couples to get right, and we plan to come back next time with more from Henry and John. We’ll discuss how you can reap the benefits of a healthy, loving relationship with your in-laws, how that will strengthen your own marriage and be a blessing to your children. But in the meantime, I want to recommend you get a copy of John and Henry’s book Boundaries. This is a must-read resource for every marriage and every Christian. Because there’s so much more content in this book about healthy relationships beyond the topic of in-laws. We can send you a copy of Boundaries when you make a pledge of any amount to Focus on the Family today. Your ongoing support every month helps provide the fuel we need to strengthen marriages, equip parents, and share God’s love with hurting people. And if a pledge is more than you can do right now, I get it. A onetime gift is fine. Just let us know and we’ll send you the book as our way of saying thank you.
John: Yeah. Request the book Boundaries by Dr.’s Cloud and Townsend, when you donate generously. Call 800, the letter A, and the word FAMILY. 800-232-6459. Or stop by focusonthefamily.com/broadcast. And it might be that this conversation has surfaced some concerns that you have about your own marriage or family relationships. Please know that we have a team of caring Christian counselors here at Focus on the Family ready to help. Donors make it possible for us to offer you a one-time phone consultation with one of those counselors. So call today and request to speak with one of them. Our number again, 800, the letter A, and the word FAMILY. Next time, you’ll hear more from Dr.’s Cloud and Townsend about healthy ways to interact with your in-laws. For now, on behalf of Jim Daly and the entire team, thanks for listening to Focus on the Family. I’m John Fuller, inviting you back as we once more help you and your family thrive in Christ.