Best-selling author Gary Chapman outlines seven principles that can help improve and strengthen your relationships with your spouse's parents and siblings. (Part 1 of 2)
Jim Daly: Dr. Chapman, what’s one thing someone can do today to start working toward a better relationship with their in-laws?
Dr. Gary Chapman: Whoa! (Laughter)
Jim: That’s such a general question, but it’s a good one.
Gary: I would say ask questions, rather than make comments. That is, ask your in-laws questions about their history, their childhood, their marriage, the parenting season of their life. Get to know as much as you can about your in-laws.
John Fuller: Well, some good advice from Dr. Gary Chapman. It is possible to get along with and enjoy your in-laws. We’ll tell you how on today’s “Focus on the Family” with Focus president and author, Jim Daly.
Jim: John, I’m not starting with an in-law joke. I mean (Laughing), so many people will go, okay, what’s the best in-law joke you’ve got? That kind of points to the problem, doesn’t it?
John: There is a real stereotype, isn’t there?
Jim: There is and we want to talk today about how, as a Christian, build up that relationship with your in-laws. It’s so easy to tear down and we make fun of it, but we want to give you some practical advice today, things you can put into action to make that relationship, which by the way, is a very important relationship in your life, make it healthier and better and to do that, we’re gonna talk with Dr. Gary Chapman.
John: And you heard just a little bit of his wisdom right there and we’ve got a whole program for you with Dr. Chapman. He’s perhaps best-known for his book, The Five Love Languages. Jim, that’s one of the books I always recommend to younger couples and we’ll be referring to another great book he wrote called Happily Ever After: Six Secrets to Successful Marriage and one of the sections deals with having a better relationship with your in-laws.
Jim: Gary, it’s great to have you back at Focus on the Family.
Gary: Well, thank you, good to be back.
Jim: This area of in-laws can be such humorous activity, but also debilitating.
Gary: Yes and you don’t often anticipate it. You assume that the in-law relationships are gonna be positive and good, unless you’ve had a big blowout somewhere along the line. You just assume that they’re gonna treat us kindly and we’re gonna treat them kindly and everything’s gonna be good.
And when you get married, the in-laws start doing things, saying things that you never anticipated they would do and they begin to irritate you and so, you get into an adversarial relationship.
Jim: Well, and I need to, you know, let everybody know. I don’t have a great deal of experience here with in-law battles, because Jean, of course, with my parents being gone, Jean’s never had to really deal with an in-law problem, because we lost my mom and dad at such a young age.
But even with her mom and dad, they weren’t close to us geographically and they were always loving and kind, but you know, it was Christmas. They never over-engaged in our family dynamics. So, we had a real easy experience with in-laws and so, I’ll be intrigued today to hear some of the stories (Laughing) about what causes that pain. John, how about you?
John: Well, that’s putting me on the spot, but I will say (Laughter) I’ve really been fortunate to marry into a great family and Dena’s dad passed away a few years back, but I really appreciated him and love her mom and for some reason, her parents have loved me and so, I’ve felt (Laughter) very accepted.
Jim: Well, you’re lovable.
John: Yeah, well, yeah, so the stereotypes don’t seem to fit for our experience either.
Jim: But you know, Gary, what’s so interesting is how much tension is around this area. For those that counsel people and couples, this is an area when you get beyond money and intimacy, the next one up to bat will be difficulty with in-laws. Why is there so much tension in these relationships?
Gary: Most of it centers around in-law interference. That is, the in-laws do things or say things. I remember the wife who said to me, “You know, every year for our vacation, we only have one week of vacation and every year we have to spend it with his parents.” She said, “I would just like for us to be able to do something on our own.” See, that’s interference, the parents’ expectations of how the couple’s gonna respond to them and that’s the area where we have most of the conflict.
Jim: You know, so often we’re talking on the broadcast about communication in marriage. You’ve been one of the foremost authorities in that regard, but that communication has to be almost equally as effective in the in-law relationship, doesn’t it?
Gary: And often it is not.
Gary: We don’t know how to respond. We have this anger. We have this hurt. We feel like they should stay out of our lives or not be so involved in our lives, but we don’t know how to say it and we share it with our spouse and we’re talking about their mother and father.
Jim: (Chuckling) Right.
Gary: And so, now the two of us get into it, because they feel like, well, they’re not being that overbearing. I mean, why do you, you know, da, da, da. And so, we get into it over the in-laws and normally and many times, it’s two or three years down the road before we ever get around to sharing it with the in-laws and begin to work out the problem.
Jim: In fact, in your book, you talk about marriages, the need for them to run on parallel tracks of separation from parents and devotion to parents.
Jim: And that can collide, can’t it?
Gary: It can, but that’s the biblical pattern. You know, in Genesis chapter 2 and Ephesians chapter 5, both say the same thing. A young man shall leave his father and mother when he gets married, cleave to his wife. But then you have the biblical admonition, we’re to honor our parents and that’s never rescinded. When they gave us life, maybe they’re not honorable in their lifestyle, but they gave us life and we’re to honor our parents.
Jim: Let me ask you this though in that context of the example you just gave. So, you have the couple and every vacation that they get, their parents, one set of those in-laws are [sic] expecting them to spend time with them. How do you leave and leave and say, “Honey, we’re gonna do it just as a nuclear family, you and me and the kids; we’re not gonna include my parents” and yet, honor your parents who have that expectation? The way they feel honored is by you going and spending your vacation with them.
Gary: Yeah and this is where negotiation comes in and if you think in terms of negotiation, whether it’s a couple who are negotiating a difference between the two of them or you’re negotiating a difference between the in-laws. And by negotiation I mean, you try to find a compromise and you throw out an idea, first of all to each other.
“Honey, what if at least initially, we have vacation with them this year, with the understanding that next year, we’re gonna do our own thing? Can we start off that way?” If the two of you can agree on it, then you can pose that to the in-laws. You know, “Mom and Dad, we enjoy being with you. We appreciate you inviting us to the vacation,” ‘cause typically the parents are paying the whole thing when they go on the vacation.
Gary: “We appreciate it, but we also want to have some time to ourselves and we only have one week off and so, if it’s okay with you, we’d like to propose this year, we have vacation with you and next year, we’re gonna do our own vacation.”
Jim: How do you set the environment for that? I mean, I’m thinking of this busy home and you got two or three little ones runnin’ around and a mother-in-law comes over to have a cup of tea with you as the daughter-in-law and you’re into this discussion and in the midst of that chaos, you’re saying, “Oh, by the way, mom, you know, next year we really don’t think we can get out and do the vacation with you.” How do you pick and choose the opportunity and the moment to have that discussion?
Gary: I think you want to choose a time typically when it’s just the two of you and it’s best for the child to speak to their own parents, rather than to speak to your in-laws about one—
Gary: --of these issues.
Jim: --let me ask you about that. So, if it’s your husband’s parents, would you then suggest that the husband feed that information to the parents—
Jim: --rather than the daughter-in-law?
Gary: Yes, yes, he speaks to his own mother and father and he says, “You know, Mary and I have been talking and thinking and we’re having little struggle, but we’ve come to an agreement ourselves and I want to just propose it to you. First of all, I want to say how much I appreciate the fact that you always invite us to go to the beach with you every summer. We love it, but also as a new couple, we’d like to do some things on our own. So, I’d like to propose that we go to the beach with you this summer and then next summer, we’ll take our own vacation. Then the next summer, we’ll come back with you. Do you think that’ll be okay? So, he’s talkin’ to his own mother and dad, so he’s got that relationship.
Gary: And they, if they’re wise, will understand what he’s saying and they will agree to that. And if not, then there comes a place, you know, if the parents don’t agree with that, “Well, what would you propose, mom and dad?”
Jim: Put it on them—
Gary: Yeah, yeah.
Jim: --to make that—
Gary: Let them—
Gary: --make a proposal.
Gary: And so, you kinda work back and forth. There is a place, however, when if the two of you really feel that something needs to be done differently and the parents, after negotiation can’t agree, you say and again, you speak to your own parents. You say, “You know, mom and dad, I really appreciate and what you’re saying makes a whole lot of sense, but we have to make our own decisions and I don’t want to hurt you, but we’re going to” and you tell them what you’re going to do.
Jim: Yeah, you know, Gary, so often as parents, and I’m talking about the grandparents or the older parents in this case, we’ve had a life of control—
Jim: --in this relationship. We raise these children. They’re now grown adults. They’re married, but we still and I think for moms particularly, the older mom of a[n] adult child, it’s hard to let go and to say, “Okay, do your own thing,” because you know, so much of your identity is wrapped up in your children, even still—
Jim: --and certainly the grandchildren and you want to spend time with them and all those good things. How does an older mom and grandmother realize that, ooh, okay, I’m over the line. I am trying to control—
Jim: --my daughter or my son and I’ve gotta back off?
Gary: I think you recognize it probably when they give you feedback, when you see them bristling or drawing back from something or your son or daughter tells you, “You know, mom, my wife’s havin’ a hard time with this and” da, da, da and so, you start talking with them. Sometimes that’s the first time they recognize it, ‘cause let’s face it; much of what in-laws do is out of a good motive.
Gary: I remember the young wife who said, “You know, Dr. Chapman, we were gone for three days and I came home and my mother-in-law had come into our apartment and had put up window treatments on all of our windows.
Gary: And she said, “I didn’t want window treatments. I just wanted blinds and I don’t know how to say it to her, ‘cause she spent a lot of money on that”--
Jim: That’s expensive.
Gary:--you know. So, the intention was good, but it irritated the in-law. And what I say to parents is, “If you want to do something for your child that you think would be good for them, ask them before you do it. Say, “Would it be helpful to you if I got window treatments for your windows?” And then she’s gonna say, “No, really, I like just the plain blinds. That’s who I am and that’s what I like.” So, don’t do it until you ask them, “Would it be helpful to you if I did this?”
John: Well, I can just imagine that some of those conversations aren’t questions; they’re more like statements like, “You need window treatments (Laughter) on those windows.”
Jim: Sounds like a parent to a child.
John: It kinda leads to a not very good conversation.
Gary: You know, and that’s why again, we should always speak for ourselves rather than for the other person. You know, “I think they would look nice in here if you had window treatments,” rather than “You need window treatments.” (Laughter) Use the word “I” rather than the word “you” and the same thing true the other way around. If a daughter-in-law is saying to the mother-in-law, “You know, you mentioned the other day the possibility of putting window treatments in our apartment for us and I really appreciate that idea and I know that you’d be doin’ a lot for us, but I have to be honest with you. I really appreciate just the blinds and that’s really, I would actually prefer to have the blinds. So, if you can help us some other way, that’d be good, but I prefer the blinds.”
Jim: And it’s always good to think about how you’re approaching each other.
Jim: And that’s a good thing. It’s hard to let go and I get that. I talked to a grandfather the other day and his issue was a little different than all of this and what we’re talkin’ about. He is the father of two sons and I certainly go out, because I’m the father of two sons. But his two sons married and the thing that he struggles with is, that most holidays—Christmas and Thanksgiving and those times—they’re goin’ to the daughters’ parents’ house, ‘cause it’s the son and the son is acquiescing and he just says, “I don’t get enough time to see ‘em. We’re the 10 percent grandparents, not the 90 percent.” And in fact, he said, “What’s worse is the other set of grandparents are kinda demanding that they spend time with them.”
Jim: So, they’re the outside grandparent couple. Talk about that dynamic—
Jim: --between the two sets—
Jim: --of grandparents.
Gary: Well, one of the things I say to the young couples is this. You honor your parents by seeking to treat each of them with equality as much as possible. Now obviously, if one set lives in California and one set lives two blocks away from you, then you’re gonna spend more time with the one that’s two blocks away from you.
But the principle should be equality. If we’re gonna spend Christmas here this year, we’ll go spend Christmas over here with the other in-laws next year and then we’ll have a Christmas by ourselves. So, it’s a matter of trying to treat both of them with equality, because if you don’t, then this grandfather’s experience is gonna be the norm. The one that feels like they’re 90 percent with the others and 10 percent with us, they’re gonna be hurt--
Gary: --and they’re gonna feel dishonored by you. So, I think the couple needs to discuss this early on in the relationship and let’s face it, sometimes one set of in-laws are much more pleasant to be around—
Jim: Right. (Laughing)—
Gary: --than the other set of in-laws and we will be tempted to spend more time with them than we will the ones that are more difficult.
Jim: Well, and I would think that sometimes that’s the opposite though, that the other set of in-laws can be very controlling and the daughter or the son, whichever the case may be, doesn’t know how to break that pattern and they’re uncomfortable dealing with it, so they just go with the flow, rather than create problems and that can really create some friction.
Gary: Yeah, real friction between the couple themselves--
Gary: --because the one feels like, well, this is my mom and dad. We’ve always done it this way, you know and when your parents don’t care. I mean, in fact, they don’t like us anyway. (Laughter)
Jim: That would be an interesting conversation (Laughter).
John: Probably a recipe for a disaster I would guess.
Gary: 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. Let them be independent and I don’t mean that you don’t help them. If you’re able to help them and they want your help, then that can be find and good, but don’t continue to hover over them and feel like you’ve gotta make every decision for them.
John: Some great wisdom from Gary Chapman on today’s “Focus on the Family” with Jim Daly. I’m John Fuller and you can find out more about Dr. Chapman’s book, Happily Ever After, which includes a section devoted to the in-law relationship, both for you as the younger couple and perhaps you as the older couple, the parents in that equation. Get details about the book and a CD or download and our mobile app at www.focusonthefamily.com/radio.
Jim: Those kinds of examples, Gary are so, so practical. The other one that is really sensitive is the parenting of the grandchildren. I mean, this is big. Everybody just leaned into the radio now, but I mean, there’s where you have a lot of friction, too, because the younger adult children that are raising the little ones, they don’t like them having as much sugar as your mom and dad would like to give them and I’m tired of taking them home and they[‘ve] got their sugar high and it’s ‘cause your mom keeps givin’ ‘em an overdose of sugar. So, you gotta tell them to knock it off.
Jim: I mean, everybody (Laughter), y’all hearin’ that one? (Laughter) So, I mean, how do you negotiate those things when it’s discipline, how we discipline our kids and it’s different, mom and dad from how you disciplined us; how we watch their diet maybe different than how you did it, how we watch what they do with videogames, what toys they play with. I’m goin’ through the—
Gary: Oh, yeah, oh, yeah.
Jim: --the hot-button list here.
Gary: Oh, yeah.
Jim: But what movies you might take ‘em to, talk about that, how you set down the parameters for what’s doable and what’s over the top?
Gary: Well, these are common issues and this is why there are so many jokes about mother-in-laws and father-in-laws and so forth, because this is very real. These are conflict areas. I think to the young couple I would say, recognize first of all, you have the responsibility to raise your children—the primary responsibility.
Now grandparents can be a great help or they can also be a detriment in raising your children, but you have the responsibility and your primary loyalty as a husband and wife is to each other. See, the tendency is, that the husband or a wife sometimes, doesn’t break the apron strings. They don’t leave the parents and they’re so tied to the parents and sometimes those emotional ties are very twisted, that they are unwilling to confront the parent with what’s going on.
Like just take the sugar deal for example. Maybe the guy is saying, “Oh, it’s not so bad. I mean, they’re only over there twice, you know, once a month and a little sugar’s not gonna hurt them.” And so, you know, we’ve got our own conflict about this.
So, the two of you have got to get together first, because you can’t take a convoluted, you know, proposal to them. You’ve gotta get together on it first and one of you is gonna have to give. I mean, you know, there’s basically three ways to solve your conflict. One is, you go to the other’s position or you find a meeting place in the middle or you agree we hadn’t decided this yet, so let’s not stay up after midnight. We’ll work on it tomorrow, but you’ve gotta resolve that yourself.
And so, again, you negotiate with your parents, but you can’t just sit back and hope that they’re gonna change. They won’t unless you verbalize it. You’ve gotta talk to them about it.
Jim: Gary, we’ve talked a lot about that negotiation strategy and making your desires known each direction to the in-laws and to the married younger couple. But what happens when you think you got a deal, you struck the deal. It may not be a written contract. Let’s say, grandma just keeps feedin’ ‘em those great molasses cookies.
Jim: And they keep comin’ home talkin’ about how many they ate.
Jim: Man, Grandma gave me four dozen cookies. (Laughter) We love grandma, Dad. We love grandma. But what if it breaks down and even thought you’ve done it and had the discussion, they continue with the same behavior?
Gary: I think that’s when the son has to say to the mother, “You remember what we talked about last month? And I know we agreed on it, but I noticed it hasn’t changed. So, we’re not gonna let the kids come over next weekend.”
Jim: So you’d really go hard on the boundaries.
Gary: You go hard on it and just one weekend. You’re not gonna let them come over next weekend and I want you to think about it, mom. I want ‘em to be with you, but this is serious to us. She’ll get it.
Jim: It’s almost, that sounds like you’re parenting the parent.
Gary: You are; yeah, you are.
John: Okay and (Laughter) now coach the child who says, “I had the conversation. She didn’t get it and so, do I go another weekend, two weekends--
Gary: Yeah, I—
John: --where she can’t see--
Gary: --yeah, I—
John: --the kids?
Gary: --I think there has to be consequences when in-laws are not open to negotiation with things that are important to the parents of the child, then there does come a place in which we have to make the decision and say to the parents, you know, this is what’s going to happen.
Jim: Gary, let me ask you about another difficult one and in fact, I think this is an example from your book. You use the name Eric and Jane and you’ve noted that they grew up in a well-known denomination, but when they married, they chose a different church, a community church. The parents were pretty upset about it and that selection, if you’re living in the same community, for example, if you marry somebody and you choose and agree as a couple that you’re gonna go to his church or her church and not your parents’ church, that can create some friction.
Gary: It can and I just say to those parents, recognize that they are not a couple and the Bible says they’re to leave you and to cleave to each other. Their allegiance has now changed. Their allegiance is not to you now; it’s to each other. And if they’ve made the decision to go to a different church, you need to honor that decision and you will simply hurt the relationship if you make an issue of this.
Now it’s okay. You can say what you want to say. You know, you can say, “Honey, we would prefer that you continue at our church, but we understand. You’re married now and you all have to make your own decisions and whatever you decide, we want you to know, we love you and we’re with you.
Jim: Gary, let me throw another monkey wrench at you. This is fun actually, all these different scenarios are poppin’ into my head, but you’ve got couples and I think this is wonderful when a couple can have either their mom or dad come back and live with them. You know, I studied in Japan. It’s very ingrained in the Asian culture and it’s a beautiful thing typically. They don’t believe in sending people off to the old person’s home. Families take care of their moms and dads in Asia’ it’s just what is expected.
And so, I applaud that. I think it’s a wonderful thing to do. Not everybody’s in the right place to do that and our culture tends to be more self-centered, to be blunt. But talk about that environment where, you know, his parents or maybe his mom who is a widow now, is coming to live with them. It’s close quarters. It’s hand-to-hand spiritual battle (Laughter) sometimes. How do you manage that environment, which might be a little different than them being two blocks or two states away?
Gary: Yeah, yeah. Well, you know, I think in the early stage of the marriage, I encourage couples to live alone, separate from parents. Now sometimes they will live with parents for a while.
Jim: What’s a rule of thumb, an amount of time?
Gary: The rule of thumb, I would say, I would say, as soon as you can get your own place, you oughta have your own place, because you’re establishing a new relationship in those early years and that’s important. So, if you leave the parents and yet honor the parents through the process, when you get to that stage where one of them has to move in with you or you choose to move them in with you, because the relationship has been a positive relationship, it won’t be that difficult--
Gary: --because you will have known each other and interfaced with each other and I have many people say to me, you know, my dad has lived with us now for seven years and things could not have been better. It’s just that he respects us; we respect him. He has his space. We have our space and the relationship is good. There you’re back to just human relationships. A couple living in close proximity have to learn how to give and take with each other and have to learn how to process life with each other and that means communication, because if you resent the person’s behavior that’s now living with you and don’t share it with them, then you’re gonna go on resenting; it’s gonna get worse and worse, but if you talk about it early on and the earlier you talk about the conflict areas and get them resolved, the better and then you can have a good life together.
Jim: Gary, that is so good to remind us that healthy communication is where it all flows.
Jim: And we talked about those more difficult situations sometimes with a little chuckle in our voice, but there are many, many good grandparents and older parents that are managing this well. I’m hoping it’s the 80-20 rule and that 80 percent are doing it well and people feel good about all the interfamily interaction. Hopefully, it’s the 20, 30 percent that we’re addressing today, how to give them a tool to do it a little better and to release some of that pressure that exists in those relationships.
In fact, in your book, you talked about the seven principles that can radically change that in-law relationship. We talked about a couple of them today—listen before you speak and then the learning the art of showing respect. That’s kind of what you’re touching on here. Let’s come back next time and flesh out a few more of those good principles that you mention in your book. Can we do that?
Gary: Good, I’d be happy to.
Jim: All right, let’s do it.
Jim: Before we close out today, I wanted to remind you why we do programs like this one. We're talkin' about in-laws and there's lots of funny stories like the ones you've heard. But we're doing that to bring peace to your family, to apply those biblical principles that help you not just with your in-laws, but in your marriage, in your parenting. And at the core, hopefully, for those that don't have a relationship with Jesus Christ, that we can help introduce you to Him as your Lord and Savior. These are the things that our heart beats for to help you and this ministry is here for that purpose. I hope you can help support it.
For $40 you can impact two marriages. That amount allows us to continue producing the daily broadcast and programs, online resources, counseling, books and other tools like our National Institute of Marriage. I mean, that I hope is worthy of consideration--$40 a month is a great way to go and it helps us reach out to those who are hurting. God is using this ministry in that way. We do research every year and it shows that last year alone, Focus and our friends like you helped to strengthen or save more than 970,000 marriages--970,000! I mean, that is an incredible number that we have helped or saved through God's grace and strength and wisdom and everything that we're doin' here.
But you know what? There's so much more we could do and it takes you as a partner to get it done. And we have some friends that believe so passionately in this ministry that they're willing to match your gift dollar for dollar and I am so grateful to these friends. They're saying, hey, we believe in Focus's donors to Focus. If you give $20, we'll make it 40. If you give 50, we'll make it 100. That is so very generous of them. When you donate today, as our way of saying thank you, we'll send you a copy of Dr. Chapman's book, Happily Ever After. I don't know how to say it any stronger. Please join us today. Take advantage of these friends matching your gift and helping to save marriages.
John: And you can donate at www.focusonthefamily.com/radio or when you call 800-232-6459; 800, the letter A and the word FAMILY. Dr. Chapman's book, Happily Ever After is a great resource for any season of marriage and it covers six secrets to a successful marriage, including healthy conflicts and communication and finance, intimacy and you'll get the benefit of Dr. Chapman's 30-plus years of counseling experience and have his wisdom at your fingertips when you get this book. It'll also make a great gift for a newlywed couple that you know. And once again, as Jim said, we'll send a copy of that to you when you donate a gift of any amount to the ministry of Focus on the Family. Again, our number, 800, the letter A and the word FAMILY.
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 tomorrow. We'll continue this conversation with Dr. Gary Chapman and 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.