Focus on the Family Broadcast

Establishing Healthy Boundaries With Your In-Laws (Part 2 of 2)

Establishing Healthy Boundaries With Your In-Laws (Part 2 of 2)

Well-known psychologists and authors, Dr. John Townsend and Dr. Henry Cloud share broadcast advice on how to relate with your in-laws. (Part 2 of 2)
Original Air Date: July 2, 2013


John Fuller: On today’s Focus on the Family, we’re going to examine a very important relationship that can have really a profound effect uh, an impact on your marriage. And that’s the relationship you have with your in-laws I’m John fuller. And our host is Focus president and author, Jim Daly. And uh, Jim, last time, we talked with some good friends, Doctors Henry Cloud and John Townsend about this. And here’s a comment from Dr. Townsend that really summarizes their perspective on this.

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Dr. John Townsend: 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-

Jim: Mmm.

Dr. Townsend: … is to guard from the intruders. But you don’t make the mother-in-law and the father-in-law the bad guys here.

Jim Daly: Well, and that comment does grab the essence of what we discussed last time. And some of the dynamics that are in play when it comes to in-law relationships. Uh, we know that these relationships can be contentious. And, you know, we make jokes about it. And some couples-uh, will struggle more than others with that relationship with their in-laws. But as we continue this conversation with Doctors Cloud and Townsend, um, John, hopefully, we can shed some light on what creates those friction points in your family and how you can work through those issues to have a healthier happier relationship with your in-laws.

John: And our guests uh, we’ve identified them already are well-known authors, radio hosts, and psychologists. And they’ve written or co-written more than 25 books dealing with family and uh, other relationships. And we’ve been referring here in our conversation to two of those books. One is Boundaries, and the other is Boundaries in Marriage. And then, Jim, I like this, you posted, uh, something on your blog and had quite an avalanche of response there.

Jim: We did. We had more than 300 people who responded with stories and comments about their relationships with the in-laws. And to be honest, I can’t wait to dive back into this discussion because there is a lot of potential to improve your relationships. And let me just say to Henry and John, welcome back to Focus on the Family.

Dr. Townsend: Great to be here.

Dr. Henry Cloud: Good to be here.

Jim: Uh, now, we’ve already addressed the negative side of this. And it can be positive, that’s we want (laughs) people to understand. Uh, let’s start by talking about healthy boundaries when a couple is doing this right. Um, maybe we should role play with that. Uh, let’s say, John, that I’ve, I’ve got a (laughs) problem. Um, I’m coming to you for counseling. And my marriage is on the line here. I mean we’ve had frustrations, and they’ve just reached the boiling point. And we don’t know how to deal with it. Um, maybe, my mother-in-law is driving (laughs) me crazy which doesn’t happen. I love my mother-in-law. But just for example’s (laughs) sake, um, let’s say she’s manipulating my wife. She convinces her how to spend our money and how the house should look and just over involved. And you know what? I’ve just gotten to the point where I’m fed up with it. And, uh, I don’t know that I can maintain this relationship with all this stress on me. Uh, did I set (laughs) that up okay?

Dr. Townsend: Yeah. And we’ve heard a thousand times, guys. And it’s really easy to make the mother-in-law the bad guy now. She’s ruining my marriage. She’s ruining my wife as opposed to what’s the structure in your own marriage that’s allowing this to happen. You know, maybe, the mother-in-law is not aware of the fact that this is happening. Maybe, she’s just kind of a dependent person or maybe she has some controlling tendencies. But it’s when you’ve got to have the husband wife talk to talk about what’s healthy for us, what works for us so that we love each other, we put each other first? And then, how do we welcome mom in on our own level? And so, you keep mom. It’s really easy to blame the third party when they’re not there to defend themselves. But most of the time, it’s a problem in the structure of the marriage itself. Solve that.

Jim: It- And it’s an excellent… Yeah. It’s worth investing. That’s the point. In fact, there was more research by a woman named Terry Arbuck who uh, spent 25 years studying 400 families. And she found that men who get along with their in-laws are 20% more likely to have lasting marriages. So when we talk about silver bullets in our marriages and the desire as Christians to make sure that we have a healthy vibrant relationship with our spouse, the research is showing that part of that includes having a healthy relationship with your in laws. Is it that critical?

Dr. Cloud: I think it’s very, very important. It’s part of God’s design. The multi-generational family is the way to set it up that to honor your parents, it goes, you know, from the beginning all- you know, sort of like the womb to the tomb. And it’s very clear in the scriptures. In fact, in the New Testament, it says that we’re to make a return to our parents and actually begin to take care of them in some ways. Where people get lost in the weeds is there’s a difference in honoring and obeying. The Bible says, “Children, obey your parents.” But everybody’s supposed to honor their parents. And it’s when the parents have the governing authority of a married couple, that’s when things go haywire.

Jim: Well, let’s roll the film back 25 years. And what’s happening in that parent-child relationship at that moment that is sowing the seeds for this dysfunction 25 years from now when junior is about to marry. Uh, what is going on there? Are we putting the kids in a place that they’re even um, being treated better than your marriage is being treated? Are we creating that problem because our kids are more the center of the family than we are as married couples?

Dr. Townsend: Mm-hmm. Yeah. There’s a number of scenarios that don’t work that actually interrupt God’s leaving and cleaving process. One of them is the young man who is still dependent on mom and dad for emotional support. So he can’t kind of survive without their advice. Sometimes, it’s the golden child that, you know, mom and dad give him the atta boys and trophies. And he, he comes home to this wife and says, “You know, you hadn’t picked up your socks.” So he… Then, his mother says, “You know, you’re the fourth member of the trinity.” Well, you know, he hasn’t been leaving and cleaving either. Sometimes, it’s the rescuing one where-

Dr. Cloud: It’s financial ties.

Dr. Townsend: Financial ties and rescuing-

Jim: Mm-hmm.

Dr. Townsend: … where you feel like I’ve got to take care of mom and dad because I’ve always been the glue that held them together. They’re the reason… I, I was the reason that they stayed married because I kept everybody happy. So the best thing you can do if you’re looking down the corridors of time at your own kids getting ready for this problem is to make sure your kids are equipped for life without you so that they love you, but they don’t need you. But it’s a great relationship. But it’s not a need-based relationship and that they want to, that they want to be out in their own and have autonomy. Then, you solve a lot of this.

Jim: Uh, you know, you’re touching on something I think we should dig in a little bit on because I’ve experienced that, uh, with couples who have talked with me about difficulty they’re facing, particularly in the 20, 30-something category where um, there’s this prolonged adolescence that’s-

Dr. Townsend: Which is also the getting married category.

Jim: Right.

Dr. Townsend: The adolescence is happening at the same time that they’re getting married. So-

Jim: Correct. And this idea of an unhealthy relationship with your parents especially for young men that mom has taken care of them. I mean they…

Dr. Townsend: Yeah.

Jim: In fact, Jean, my wife Jean was telling me just the other day, “College campuses now, you can pick from a menu of services where you can get your laundry done. You can have catered meals.” I mean think of the impact on that for young men particularly that, hey, mom and dad, I mean I’m going off to college. But I’d like this, this whole list of services to be provided. My laundry, my shirts are-

Dr. Townsend: Or I can drive home to you, mom. And you can do my laundry. Whose- Which choice do you want?

Jim: Yeah. Right.

Dr. Cloud: You know what? It’s even, it’s even worse than that schools I’ve read articles where schools now have had to set up offices, entire divisions that deal with parents day to day because it used to be when you go to college, you call home once a week. Well, now with texting and cell phones, it’s like parents are involved in dorm room conflicts and all this kind of stuff in the day-to-day life of college students.

Jim: Mm-hmm. Uh, when we look at boundaries which you guys are the experts, this is so many of your books talk about healthy boundaries as parents, as couples dealing uh, with your in-laws. I mean you guys really are the boundary doctors. And uh, when we look at that and we talk about boundaries, some that are not trained, what are some of the red flags? Let’s say you’re the mother of a, a son who’s 23, and he’s about to get married. What would be some of the conscientious red flags that maybe I haven’t done the job? What would you look for in your relationship with your son or daughter that foretells a bad situation, uh, when they get married?

Dr. Townsend: Well, one of them would be the over dependency.

Jim: Okay.

Dr. Townsend: I gotta tell a funny story. I was at breakfast um, with my girls who are 10 and 12. And I said, “So what kind of guys do you think you wanna marry?” My 10-year-old says, “Well, I know what I don’t want.”

Jim: Hmm.

Dr. Townsend: I said, “Really. What?” She goes, “I don’t want somebody who’s 40 and lives on his mother’s couch.” (laughs) I mean they don’t even see it; you know. I- It’s just… It’s not normal for an adult to still be dependent on their parents. And so, parents have really got a role to play in this launching, right, and not enabling your adult 22, 23, 24, 25-year-old to be living like they’re 14.

Jim: That’s absolutely true. And, and again, um, you know, so many write to us where their marriages in the first year or two are falling apart because my spouse, man, she does not do what my mom did for me. Uh, we’ve got to prepare our young men to, to go in wide open to know what that world looks like, you know, that you gotta, as you said, being responsible to others and for ourselves. That’s one of the concepts you talk about. We’ve got to train our kids to be ready for that.

Dr. Townsend: Yeah. And one of the best things if you’re in that situation, you just said, that a couple can do is if the man really feels like my wife doesn’t, you know, affirm or respect or support or whatever like, like my mother-in-law did. He needs to get in a good men’s group-

Jim: Hmm.

Dr. Townsend: … where there’s other guys that are talking about the responsibility man and how to get connected and have good friendships. And it takes a lot of the pressure off the wife to perform as he thinks that she should because he’s comparing it to the mom.

Jim: Hmm.

Dr. Townsend: He needs to get some other sources of support. So it takes the pressure off her so she can just be a person with him.

Dr. Cloud: Hmm. And you know what? A lot of times, he’s got to grow out of his own narcissism-

Jim: Well-

Dr. Cloud: … because the idealizing mom has taught him that he can do no wrong, and he’s never gotten a critical word, and everything is wonderful. And a wife just doesn’t, you know, come with those batteries included (laughs) right? She… Her job is to speak the truth to him.

Jim: Well, and typically, I would think, uh, wives are gonna be connected emotionally this way because they’re better at it. They’re gonna feel the nuance in the relationships with the in-laws both directions. Uh, what are those proactive things that a young couple should do um, to nurture a healthy relationship with their in-laws? What should young men be thinking about what they can do with their father and mother-in-law to let their spouse know I care about you enough to love them?

Dr. Cloud: I think you’ve hit a nail on the head. I think proactive is the word. I think if you’re reaching out and you’re inviting them over to dinner, if you’re showing them that you wanna spend time with them and you wanna do these things, then, you’re taking the first step and you’re showing respect and you’re showing love, and you’re building a positive relationship.

Jim: We have concentrated on a lot of the (laughs) negatives. And uh, we want to talk about the positives of investing into that relationship with your in-laws. Uh, let’s hit some of those takeaways that when you invest in the right way that the dividend of a healthier marriage is gonna be there.

John: Mm-hmm.

Jim: Uh, what are some of those positives? And why should we go to the effort of investing?

Dr. Townsend: Guys, there are just so many of those to have a great multi-generational family. First off, you’ve got just the wisdom of being around people who’ve been through the life and can… and offer a big perspective when, you know, you’re upside down with kids or, or finances or life or whatever. A second one is, um, that our children need somebody to aspire to. And they’re supposed to aspire to be like us at our- as parents. But then they have another whole generation to aspire to. That’s, that’s what I wanna be like. I wanna be like grandma. I wanna be like granddad. So we’re giving them great models.

Jim: And it’s healthy.

Dr. Townsend: And it’s so healthy.

Jim: Mm-hmm.

Dr. Townsend: And then, the third one is a sense of legacy that here’s our family all the way through the ages. Here’s how we’ve done it. They’re part of that big kind of the generational path that’s bigger than us, but we would fit into. So these are great benefits to a family that welcomes in-laws.

Jim: Hmm.

Dr. Cloud: I think the grand parenting thing is so huge, that grandparents are so important to children and also to the couple. I mean to have some help, who doesn’t want that, right, and to learn the values and the discipline and for kids to learn that they got to obey somebody else besides just mom and dad and, and, and value them. I think that that’s a huge one. I think another one though is just the sheer fun of what it means to have adult relationships with parents. And I would add to that that, that there’s a lot of good re-parenting. I have seen so many situations where one of the spouses came from a situation where they lost a parent, or they didn’t have good parenting. And their relationship with their mother-in-law, her father-in-law was very, very healing in their lives. And that’s a great opportunity if you do this well.

Jim: Hmm. Uh, we’ve talked about this idea of leaving and cleaving and the importance of that. And it comes differently to everybody. I think that’s a very individual experience. There’s general buckets. It t dawns on me, uh, that my experience with that, um, was actually facing my father when I was 11. Um, you know, I’d come out of foster care. My dad and mom divorced when I was five. And there I was. I came out of a very bad foster care situation. My biological father reappeared on the scene. And we lived with him for a year, my sister and I. The other three siblings were grown and out of the house. But she was 17. And I was, uh, 11. And at the end of that year, my dad was still struggling with alcoholism. And the siblings and I, we got together. And we just thought it would be unwise for me when my sister turned 18 to remain living with my father. And I had to face him in a family meeting at 11 years old. And uh, my siblings were probably right in this coaching. But it was hard. But they said, “Dad’s gonna have to hear it from you-

Dr. Townsend: Mm-hmm.

Jim: … because if he doesn’t hear from you, he won’t believe it.”

Dr. Townsend: Mm-hmm.

Jim: And so, I sat in that living room on that day. And I told my dad I didn’t wanna live with him. And that was a moment for me where I kind of went from being a boy to being a man.

Dr. Townsend: Mm-hmm.

Jim: And when he looked at me and he said, “Why not?” And I was thinking, “Boy, what do I answer to that?” And I just said, “Well, ell because of the way you treated mom and the way you’re treating me.” And to his credit, he got up. And he came across the room and he hugged me. And he said, “I wasn’t a good husband, and I wasn’t a good father.” But, man, I had to face that. And that was the day-

Dr. Townsend: Mmm.

Jim: … I kind of left him emotionally. And he died a year later just to add pain to it. But I think it set me up in a very unusual way, in a healthy way when I was courting Jean to understand the special relationship that I would have with her mom and dad. I’ve never thought about that until now-

John: Mm-hmm.

Jim: … as we’ve been talking today. But that is the mechanism that God can use. It’s that moment when you say you’re no longer responsible for me.

Dr. Cloud: Right.

Jim: I’m gonna be responsible for me.

Dr. Cloud: And a good way to describe that I think is the word under. And that’s the one the Bible uses. If you go to Galatians 4, Paul says, “When we were children, we were under guardians and managers until the date set forth by the father.” And that’s kind of the bar mitzvah, you know, where you’re launched, or the bat mitzvah. And leaving and cleaving is… It’s a lot of things. But part of it is that day, Jim, you said, “You know what? I’m not gonna be under this behavior anymore. I’m choosing a different place to go.” And when you say you became a man, it was the under relationship. And so when a married couple is under the family of origin parents, that’s God’s created order out of whack.

Jim: Hmm.

Dr. Townsend: The other part of that, I mean I’m so… I’m still kind of struck by the emotion of what you had to go through it at that age is, um, when you look at the passage, we’ve been talking about all this time in Genesis 2 where it says, “Leave and cleave,” the word in the Hebrew to leave actually means to abandon or make desolate. So there’s this ripping apart. And you were having to face that at a probably too young an age to do that. But it was ripping him apart, you part too. That’s why as good parents we’re supposed to help our kids do that in a ways that don’t damage anybody.

Jim: But it, it can sound like such a contradiction a healthy ripping apart.

Dr. Townsend: (laughs)

Jim: I mean-

Dr. Townsend: Well-

Jim: … but it is what we’re trying to do.

Dr. Townsend: Well, but, but let’s put it into the total picture. What are you ripping apart in the healthy scenario? You’re not ripping apart the relationship. What you’re ripping apart is the old structure of the relationship. So it’s mom and dad, I’m gonna still love you and honor you and be with you and value you. We’re gonna rip apart the old contract and have a new covenant with each other. That’s different. So we’re gonna rip apart where you are the governing force in my life. And I’m gonna have to take that responsibility, but we’re not gonna rip apart having a relationship.

Dr. Cloud: There’s no less love.

Jim: When you look at the culture today though, there’s so much dysfunction in family relationships. Um, my story is a more common story today than it was when I was a kid. And it really does set up an environment where it makes it even more difficult to do these things in a healthy biblical way. And I guess my question would be how when we come to Christ, and we come into that relationship, and we have all this garbage that we have been brought up with. How do we shake those scales from our eyes to see truth, to see reality, to engage it, and to do it in a healthy way? That’s a big question. But so many young people are saying, “I don’t trust my parents. They divorced when I was young. I don’t even trust the idea that I can have a marriage that’ll work.

John: Mm-hmm.

Jim: I, I don’t believe I could have a good relationship with my in-laws.” They’re coming from such a deficit of unhealthiness that they don’t see how it could be healthy.

Dr. Townsend: Well, the scales get ripped when you understand that the Bible teaches that there are two families really. There’s the family of origin where it’s the biological place or the family place where we all came from that did lots of good things and probably some dysfunction too. But the second and the greater family is the family of God where the Bible says that we are a family with each other. And it says in Ephesians that the body grows itself up in love. And so, when you see that you’ve had these problems, you wonder if you’re ready for marriage or not ready for marriage or whatever. You’re in a marriage and you don’t have enough, whatever, love or maturity or structure. You’ve got to reach out to God’s solution which is the second family. Find a healthy church, healthy believers, healthy small groups, a healthy therapist. And get all the antibodies and supplements you didn’t get the first time around because the family of God fixes and repairs and supplements what the family of origin did do the first time around.

John: Uh, speak to that uh, that individual who is… has had some good modeling and is trying, but it’s not being well received, I’m thinking of, of someone I know who has tried desperately to reach out to those in-laws. And, um, and every good effort is failing. And there’s a sense of I’ll never be accepted here. I mean they know what to do, and they’re actually doing everything they can to reach out and have a good relationship. But it’s kind of falling on deaf ears.

Dr. Townsend: I think the first thing that they have to do is to make sure that even though it’s something they desire, it’s not something that they need and that they’re, they’re getting those, those real needs met by the family of God.

Dr. Cloud: As John was just saying.

Dr. Townsend: As John was just saying. And that way, if they’re not in a dependent role in relation to them, then, they’re, they’re not gonna be as hurt and they’re not gonna be as frustrated. And then, I think you flip it. And it’s exactly like the Bible says where it says in as much as it depends on you, be at peace with, you know, with everybody else. And, and I think you’ve got to figure out what’s the level of relationship that they can have and have that level of relationship. Now, having said that I think that there’s an aspirational goal here as well. And the goal would be if you really have tried and it’s being rebuffed to call them and say, “Can we get together and talk about something?” And you sit down you say, “You know what? I, I love you guys. Um, I wanna have a good relationship with you. I’m really doing what I know to do. I’ve invited you here in different places. And, and for some reason, it doesn’t feel like to me that you desire that or I’m doing it in some way that is hurtful. Can you just help me know why this isn’t working?” And have the conversation. You know so many times, we’re talking about how to fix things or how to deal with things that, that really haven’t even ever been talked about. And we don’t know sometimes where somebody can go in solving a problem until we get proactive in speaking the truth in love and trying to fix it.

John: Mm-hmm.

Jim: That’s been the key to the whole discussion here. I mean that’s the theme that keeps coming back over and over again, is have appropriate openness within the family structure so you can resolve these conflicts as best as you can.

Dr. Townsend: And Jim, you know, the Bible puts us in a sandwich in that regard. It says if somebody has a problem with us, you know, if your brother has odd against you, it says, then, put down your offering and go speak to them. So if they’re bugged with us, we’ve got to take the first step. And then, on the other side, it says, “If you’re bugged to somebody else, you got to take the first step.” So what, what-

Dr. Cloud: No free pass.

Dr. Townsend: There’s no free pass in being passive about trying to make a relationship work. And the onus of responsibility always falls 100% on each individual to do what they can do.

Jim: And in that context, if it doesn’t go well, if they don’t listen and you’ve done it in the appropriate way, I guess the additional scripture of kicking the dust off your feet, you can only do what you can do.

Dr. Townsend: Well, there’s a few in between. But yeah. People go from nothing to nuclear-

Jim: Right.

Dr. Townsend: because they’re conflict avoided and afraid of having the tough talk, don’t have the skills and all this. And they go from just not doing anything and feeling hurt or resentful or empty to. Well, we’re cutting it all off. There’s a lot of steps in between. Yeah.

Jim: That’s a good point. You wanna make sure you’re taking adequate steps, even redundantly-

Dr. Townsend: Having several conversations.

Jim: Right. So you give it a fair chance. There are people-

Dr. Townsend: And bring in third parties.

Jim: And… Right.

Dr. Townsend: That’s-

Jim: That’s a good objective way to do it.

Dr. Townsend: That, you know, bring in your pastor or, or bring in a counselor and have somebody that can sit down and try to find the meeting ground of what both sides need.

Jim: Mm-hmm.

John: Yeah. What I’ve heard here, Jim, too is that I think Henry used the word aspirational. I think all of us would wanna have really good relationships uh, between not just our spouses but also with our in-laws. And, and as parents, of course, we wanna have good relationships with whoever marries our children. So there’s a heart here that says we all want the same thing. It may look differently to you. We may have to figure out a way to get there. But uh, I’ve been encouraged by that observation that you’ve got that most all of us wanna have good relationships with those in-laws.

Jim: That’s such a good word, John, to close out this two-day conversation with our guests, Doctors Henry Cloud and John Townsend. As Henry shared just a few moments ago, Romans 12:18 says, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” And I’m certain those words apply in this context for the extended family of your spouse. Uh, it’s such a challenge at times, but try to find the bright spots. And know that these relationships are formed for a purpose. Uh, I think, you know, for Jean and I, we’re always looking at, um, especially those within the family that don’t know the Lord. What do we need to say? What do we need to do? So here at Focus, we want to help you experience God’s peace and grace in your marriage and family and in those extended relationships. And that’s why we’re telling you about resources like uh, John and Henry’s book, Boundaries: When to Say Yes, When to Say No to Take Control of Your Life. The title really says it, doesn’t it? And if you can make a monthly pledge of any amount to Focus on the Family today, we’ll send you the book as our way of saying thank you for supporting the ministry. And if you need to speak to a counselor, we can facilitate that. Uh, we have a team of caring Christian counselors who can pray with you and give you additional resources to help you move forward in a healthy direction.

John: Yeah. We wanna help and equip your family in any way we can. And so, please donate uh, as you’re able. Get the book, Boundaries, by our guests and connect with a counselor if that would be of benefit to you. Our toll-free number is 800-232-6459. 800, the letter A, and the word FAMILY or stop by And if a monthly pledge is more than you can commit to at this time, uh, we’d still love to hear from you. A one-time gift will be really appreciated, and we can still send John and Henry’s book right out to you. And coming up next time, some encouragement from humorist, Phil Callaway, about the bright side of life.


Phil Callaway: Where is your focus? Where is it? Are you feeding on the wrong stuff, bad news and gloom and doom, or the whatsoever things of scripture, things that are pure and lovely and of good report, excellent, praiseworthy? Are we thinking on those things?

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Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life

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