Can you help me gain a clearer understanding of what my relationship with my wife's parents and siblings should look like? I got married because I was in love with my spouse. I wasn't figuring on her the rest of her family becoming a major part of my life as well. What are my relational obligations to my in-laws?
It doesn't sound like you have a very warm or relaxed relationship with your in-laws. As a matter of fact, you seem to regard them as a burden. Perhaps you feel caught between trying to please them (or avoiding offense) on the one hand, and just wanting to be yourself and have your own "space" on the other. Whatever the specifics of your situation, we think it's unfortunate that you feel this way. But we're also aware that your experience is fairly common.
So what's your obligation to your in-laws? If you're a Christian, you owe them behavior that's consistently Christian in character. You may not like them, but you need to choose to act in a loving manner toward them. They may be difficult people. On the other hand, it's important to realize that they may be controlling and manipulative, emotionally dysfunctional, or hostile to your faith. That they're connected to your spouse through genetics, history, and a complex set of psychological dynamics.
Like it or not, they're also connected to you. When you married, you also became part of another family with its own set of values, traditions, and expectations. If you love your spouse, you need to recognize and respect those expectations – within limits, of course.
In certain instances – for example, if you feel your in-laws are intruding into your married life – the old saying, "Good fences make good neighbors," may apply. If this is your situation, you and your spouse need to agree upon and establish some reasonable boundaries. Once those boundaries have been communicated clearly, it's essential that you stand together in enforcing them. It would be a big mistake to let your in-laws come between you.
What are some of the limits you can set to protect your marriage from negative interference from members of your extended families? Here are three things that "honoring" your in-laws does not mean:
- It doesn't require that you submerge all your own feelings, desires, preferences, and needs in order to "do things their way."
- It doesn't mean that you must permit them to disrespect, control, or manipulate you for their own selfish ends.
- It doesn't entail "obeying" all their "parental" requests or requirements – which, in some instances and with some in-laws, may get pretty crazy.
In-law conflicts grow more complicated when a spouse seems to side with his or her parents against their mate. This isn't so much an in-law problem as a marital problem. If one spouse remains too dependent upon their parents, that needs to be addressed in a straightforward way. If one spouse is blaming the in-laws for a disagreement the couple is experiencing, that should be dealt with, too.
If you've become engaged in a quiet (or not so quiet) war with your in-laws – and possibly also with your spouse – don't let it erode your marriage any further. Do the healthy thing and seek out a Christian marriage counselor. Focus on the Family's Counseling staff can recommend qualified therapists in your area who are in a position to work with you on a long-term basis. Our counselors are also available to discuss your situation with you over the phone. Don't hesitate to call us.