“My husband’s mother wants to tell me how to cook. I cooked my own meals for five years before we married. I don’t need her help.”
“My wife’s parents give her money to buy things we can’t afford. I resent that. I wish they would let us run our own lives.”
“My husband’s parents just ‘drop in’ unannounced. Sometimes I’m in the middle of a project I need to complete. I wish they would respect our schedules.”
For 30 years, people have sat in my counseling office and said things like this. In-law problems are common and often include such issues as control, interference, inconvenience and the clashing of values and traditions.
Separating from parents
Scriptures indicate two parallel guidelines for relating to parents after you are married. First, we are to separate from our parents. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). God’s pattern for marriage involves “leaving” parents and “holding fast” to a husband or wife. Thus, marriage brings a change of allegiance. Before marriage, one’s allegiance is to parents; after marriage, allegiance shifts to one’s mate.
For example, if there is a conflict of interest between a man’s wife and his mother, the husband is to stand with his wife. This does not mean that the mother is to be treated unkindly. It means that she is no longer the dominant female in his life. No couple will reach their full potential in marriage without this psychological break from parents.
This principle of separation is perhaps most important in decision-making. Your parents and in-laws may have suggestions about many aspects of your married life. These should be taken into consideration. However, you must make your own decisions as a couple. It’s important that you not allow parents to manipulate you into making a decision on which the two of you do not agree.
The second fundamental principle of marriage is that we are to honor our parents (Exodus 20:12). This command does not cease when we are married.
The word honor means to show respect. It involves treating others with kindness and dignity. One wife said, “My parents do not live respectable lives. How can I respect them when I don’t agree with what they are doing?” Not all parents live honorable lives. Their actions may not be worthy of respect, but because of the special God-given role they’ve played in our lives, it is always right to honor our parents and the parents of our spouse.
How do we express honor to our parents in daily life? By keeping the lines of communication open — visiting, telephoning and sending emails. Such communication conveys the message “I still love you and want you to be a part of my life.” Failure to communicate says in effect, “I no longer care.”
Building mutual respect
Leaving and honoring sets the stage for a relationship of mutual respect with parents and in-laws. Even so, this kind of relationship doesn’t always come easily. Let me suggest four areas that may require extra diligence as you seek to establish respect:
Holiday traditions. Christmas is the biggie. His parents and your parents both want you at their house on Christmas Day. Unless they live beside each other, that will likely be impossible. So you must negotiate a settlement that will be fair and shows respect to both parents. That may mean Christmas with his parents and Thanksgiving with her parents, with the understanding that next year you will switch the order. Or it may mean that the two of you decide to establish your own Christmas traditions and not visit either set of parents. However, this second choice will likely be taken as a symbol of disrespect — at least until you have children.
Religious differences. Seldom do two individuals come to marriage with the same spiritual background. They may both be Christians but come from different doctrinal traditions. Parents can have strong beliefs that may differ from yours or those of your spouse. Not all religious beliefs could possibly be true — they may even contradict each other. But we must show respect and give each other the same freedom that God grants us. When you show respect for religious differences, you create a positive relationship in which you can discuss religious issues openly. You may even learn something from one another.
Privacy. A young husband said, “We really need help with my mom and dad. We don’t want to hurt them, but we have got to do something. We never know when they will drop by for a visit, and sometimes it’s really inconvenient.
“In fact, last week my wife and I had agreed that we would get the children to bed early and we would have an extended time together for making love. By 8 o’clock the children were asleep, when suddenly the doorbell rang and there were my mother and father. As you can imagine, it destroyed our dreams of a romantic evening.”
I told the young husband that his folks were not respecting his privacy.
“I know,” he said, “but we don’t know what to do about it.”
“Let me suggest that you talk with your father privately and tell him what happened last week,” I said. “If you share what happened, chances are, he will explain it to your mother, and they will begin to call before they come over.”
I saw the couple a few months later and the wife said, “Dr. Chapman, thanks so much. His mother got upset for about three weeks and didn’t come to visit at all. Then we talked about it and assured them that they were always welcome but explained that it was helpful if they would call and ask if it was a convenient time. We haven’t had any problems since then.”
Many couples wait until they are so frustrated with their in-laws that they lash out with harsh and condemning words and fracture the relationship. But when we speak with respect, we are likely to get respect.
Differing opinions and ideas. Scripture indicates that we ought to seek the counsel of others to make wise decisions (Proverbs 11:14; 19:20). Your in-laws may have more experience and wisdom than you — at least in certain areas of life. So, ask for their advice. Then make the decision that you and your spouse think is wise.
Our political, religious and philosophical ideas are often different from those held by our in-laws, so don’t think you must always agree with their ideas. But we can enrich one another’s lives when we share our thoughts and reflect on what the other person is sharing. We can respect his or her ideas even though we may not agree with them: “I hear what you’re saying, and I think it makes sense from one perspective. But let me share my perspective.” Because you have listened, he or she will more likely listen to your idea. Then each of you can evaluate what was said. A different perspective can help us refine our own ideas into a more meaningful approach to life, and respect for each other can be foundational to a healthy in-law relationship.
Solving In-Law Conflicts
Make requests, not demands: “Would it be possible for you to . . .” Rather than, “If you don’t . . . , then we . . .”
Speak only for yourself: “I feel . . . when I hear you say . . .” Rather than, “You are being unfair to us.”
Seek to negotiate. Start with a proposal: “Would this work for you?” If not, then, “What would you suggest?” Be willing to find a middle ground.
Express appreciation for their ideas: “I really appreciate your sharing that with me. I think I understand you better, and what you are saying makes a lot of sense. Let me share my perspective.” Because you listen and affirm their ideas, they are more likely to hear you.
Ask questions to clarify meaning: “Is this what you are saying?”
Be open to change: “This is what we prefer, but if it means that much to you, we are willing to change because we love you.”
A Word to Parents of Married Children
You have been training your children for independence since their birth. You have taught them how to cook, wash dishes, make beds and make responsible decisions. Now they are married, and it is time to celebrate their independence. You must respect them as equals.
This does not mean that you will no longer help your married children. But it does mean that you will first ask if they want your help. An unwanted gift is not a gift but a burden. Neither should you use gifts to influence a married child. “We will buy you a new car if you will . . . ” is not a gift but an attempt to manipulate.
A good rule for parents wanting to advise their married children is that parents should give advice only when it’s requested. If your children have not requested your wisdom and you want to share it, at least ask permission. A good question is, “Would you like for me to share my perspective on that?” Giving unsolicited advice to your married children does not build a positive relationship.
Your married children need the emotional warmth that comes from a wholesome relationship with both sets of parents. And parents need the emotional warmth that comes from relationship with their married children. Life is too short to live with broken relationships. We will not always agree with our married children, but we can offer respect and give them the freedom to make their own decisions.