Jenny* says: Ryan’s mother wasn’t shy about expressing her disapproval of me. But then it wasn’t much better for Ryan when it came to my parents. In fact, I had never seen them act so rudely to anyone! Visiting parents on either side of the family came to be a stressful ordeal for both of us.
Ryan says: My mother never thought anyone was good enough for her children, so she found fault with Jenny right from the start. And Jenny’s parents were the same with me—they constantly put me down. The problem is, after such incidents Jenny and I would defend our own parents and criticize each other.
CONFLICT with in-laws may be grist for the mill for comedians, but in real life it is no laughing matter. “For years, my mother-in-law interfered in our marriage,” says Reena, a wife in India. “Often, I vented my anger on my husband because I could not do that to his mother. It seemed as if he constantly had to choose between being a good husband and being a good son.”
Why do some in-laws interfere in the lives of their married children? Jenny, quoted at the outset, suggests one possibility. “It may be difficult for them to see someone young and inexperienced become responsible for taking care of their son or daughter,” she says. Dilip, Reena’s husband, takes it a step further. “Parents who have sacrificed for and nurtured their child may feel that they are being sidelined,” he says. “They could also be genuinely worried that their son or daughter lacks the wisdom to make the marriage a success.”
To be fair, sometimes the in-laws are invited to interfere. For example, consider Michael and Leanne, a married couple in Australia. “Leanne came from a close-knit family where everyone discussed things openly,” Michael says. “So after we got married, she would consult her father on decisions that she and I really needed to make. Her father had much wisdom to share, but I was hurt that she would go to him instead of to me!”
Clearly, issues with in-laws can put stress on a marriage. Is that true in your case? How do you get along with your spouse’s parents, and how does your spouse get along with yours? Consider two challenges that could arise and what you can do about them.
Your spouse seems overly attached to his or her parents. “My wife felt that if we didn’t live near her parents, she would be disloyal to them,” says a husband in Spain named Luis. “On the other hand,” he adds, “when our son was born, my parents came to visit almost every day, leaving my wife stressed. This caused a number of conflicts between us.”
Describing the marriage arrangement, the Bible says that in time “a man will leave his father and his mother and he must stick to his wife and they must become one flesh.” (Genesis 2:24) Being “one flesh” implies more than merely living together. Really, it means that a husband and wife form a new family—one that takes priority over their families of origin. (1 Corinthians 11:3) Of course, both husband and wife still need to honor their parents, and often that entails giving them attention. (Ephesians 6:2) What if the way your spouse handles that responsibility leaves you feeling ignored or neglected?
What you can do:
Look at the situation objectively. Is your spouse really too attached, or could it be that you simply do not have the same type of relationship with your parents? If that is the case, what bearing might your family background have on your view of the situation? Could a measure of jealousy on your part be involved?—Proverbs 14:30; 1 Corinthians 13:4; Galatians 5:26.
It takes honest self-examination to answer such questions. But it is important that you do so. After all, if in-law issues are a constant source of contention between you and your spouse, then what you really have is a marriage problem—not an in-law problem.
Many marriage problems arise because no two partners share precisely the same view of a matter. Can you try to see things from your mate’s perspective? (Philippians 2:4; 4:5) That is what a husband in Mexico named Adrián did. “My wife was raised in a negative family environment,” he says, “so I avoided close association with my in-laws. Eventually I refused to have any association with them at all—for years. This caused conflict within our marriage because my wife still wanted to be close to her family, especially her mother.”
In time, Adrián took a balanced position on the matter. “Although I know that too much contact with her parents has a negative effect on my wife emotionally, no contact at all can also lead to problems,” he says. “To the extent possible, I have tried to restore and maintain a good relationship with my in-laws.”*
TRY THIS: You and your spouse write down what you believe is the primary concern regarding in-laws. If possible, start with “I feel that . . .” Then exchange papers. Together, in a spirit of teamwork, brainstorm ways that you can address each other’s concerns.
Your in-laws constantly interfere in your marriage, giving unsolicited advice. “The first seven years of our marriage were spent with my husband’s family,” says a wife in Kazakhstan named Nelya. “Conflicts continually arose over how we raised our children as well as over such issues as my cooking and cleaning. I talked to my husband and my mother-in-law about it, but this only led to more conflict!”
When you marry, you are no longer under the authority of your parents. Instead, the Bible states that “the head of every man is the Christ; in turn the head of a woman is the man”—that is, her husband. (1 Corinthians 11:3) Nevertheless, as mentioned earlier, both husband and wife should honor their parents. In fact, Proverbs 23:22 tells us: “Listen to your father who caused your birth, and do not despise your mother just because she has grown old.” But what if your parents—or your mate’s parents—cross the line and try to impose their views?
What you can do:
In a spirit of empathy, try to discern the motive behind the seeming intrusion. “In some cases parents need to know that they are still important in the lives of their children,” says Ryan, quoted at the outset. Such interference may not be deliberate and can probably be handled by applying the Bible’s admonition to “continue putting up with one another and forgiving one another freely if anyone has a cause for complaint against another.” (Colossians 3:13) But what if interference from your in-laws has become serious enough to cause conflict between you and your spouse?
Some married couples have learned to establish appropriate boundaries with their parents. This does not mean that you have to lay down the law to them.* Often, it is just a matter of making it clear by your actions that your mate comes first in your life. For example, a husband in Japan named Masayuki says: “Even if parents express their views, don’t just agree right away. Remember, you are building a new family unit. So first find out how your mate feels about the advice.”
TRY THIS: Discuss with your spouse in what specific ways parental interference is causing conflict in your marriage. Together, write down what boundaries you can set and how you will protect them while still showing honor for your parents.
Many conflicts with in-laws can be alleviated by discerning their motives and by refusing to allow these conflicts to cause contention between you and your spouse. In this regard, Jenny admits: “Sometimes the discussions between my husband and me about our parents were fairly emotional, and it was readily apparent that a great deal of pain could be inflicted by talking about the imperfections of the parents on both sides. Eventually, though, we learned to stop using the imperfections of our in-laws as a club but to deal with the problem at hand. As a result, we have become much closer as husband and wife.”
Names have been changed.
Admittedly, if parents engage in serious misconduct—especially in an ongoing, unrepentant way—family relationships may be severely strained and understandably limited.—1 Corinthians 5:11.
What good qualities do my in-laws possess?
How can I honor my parents while not neglecting my spouse?