I have a confession to make—I like my in-laws. Since that disqualifies me from ever starring in a television sitcom based on my marriage, I'll make another startling revelation: my husband likes his in-laws too. Call us weird, but Mark and I don't suffer from the Dueling Mother-in-Law Syndrome that has fueled decades of prime-time comedies. In fact, the relationship we share with our in-laws actually enriches our marriage.
One of my favorite memories from our 18-year partnership is the week we spent camping with Mark's dad and stepmom, Paul and Kathy, in the Rocky Mountains. Mark and I were barely more than newlyweds when we packed sleeping bags and other camping gear and set out on an intergenerational adventure. All four of us bunked together in a six-man tent, the kind of arrangement that comedy writers dream about.
The first day, Mark and Paul spent hours setting up the tent. After the first thunderstorm, Kathy and I spent hours at the laundromat, drying our soggy sleeping bags. We were drenched by another downpour at a golf course a few days later. (This time our sleeping bags were safe, thanks to the canyon-sized trench we had dug around the tent.)
Later in the week, we picked a sunny afternoon and set off on a leisurely three-mile hike. The outing turned into an 11-mile endurance test thanks to Paul's mistaken conviction that our intended destination was "just around the next bend." Through all our misadventures, we laughed, shared long talks, and laid the foundation for a lasting friendship.
My fond memories of that trip may have something to do with the fact that Kathy is a marvelous cook. Mark and I ate better for those five days than we had since we'd been married. But home-fried chicken and marinated cucumber salad aside, Paul and Kathy's relationship is a great model of marriage for us. And unless their invitation for camping was a cover to make sure I wasn't starving their son, they seemed to approve of us too.
My in-laws' affirmation during those early years was important. It convinced me that I was doing okay as a wife and that Mark and I were going to make it. But over the years, the most precious part of knowing my husband's family has been the deeper way it has allowed me to know him.
When we were dating, my love for Mark expressed itself through an overwhelming desire to learn everything about him, from the time he was a child until the day we met. A couple's love for each other, like God's love for us, his children, always seeks to know deeply, irrevocably (Matt. 10:29-31; 1 Kings 8:38-39). I want to know my husband fully, with the intimate familiarity of "oneness" (Gen. 2:24).
But gaining such knowledge of another person isn't easy. Our backgrounds bear few similarities. Mark's father and mother divorced when he was small. While his mother finished her master's degree in social work, she and her four children moved often. Mark once attended four different schools in the same year. The high school he graduated from had an enrollment larger than the population of my hometown.
I grew up on the family farm where my grandfather lived. I attended the same school for 12 years, graduating in a class of 32 students. To this day, my mother sleeps in the room she was born in.
When Mark and I were married, I didn't fully appreciate the way our separate pasts would affect our combined future. As we worked through our early adjustments, getting to know Mark's family helped me see our relationship in more than just two dimensions—his side and mine. Slowly, over those first few years, our relationships with our in-laws helped us recognize there was a third dimension to our marriage— the family experiences that had shaped each of our contrasting styles.
Mark had left home at 17, and he had lived alone for many years after that. Time to himself was a natural coping mechanism when tensions ran high. Later, after separating himself from a tense situation, he could talk things through more objectively.
Whenever we fought, Mark needed time and space to sort through his feelings. But I was insistent. My personality pressed for an immediate resolution. Mark felt trapped and pressured by my style. I felt abandoned and offended by his.
I didn't like "agreeing to disagree" then talking things out later. I hated being at odds with anyone I was close to, and I wasn't used to solitary time. My identity was firmly entrenched in my place within a close-knit family.
Over the years, we've blended our two styles, thanks to our gradual understanding that those styles had an origin outside our marriage. Mark and I weren't fatally incompatible, just two different people whose personalities had been shaped by different experiences.
Growing to know and understand each other's families became an important key to unlocking that puzzle. I now share a part in Mark's family history, as he does in mine. And all the family stories, both tragic and happy, open a new window into the growing-up years of the man I love.
As I observe the integrity and dedication Mark brings to his career in law enforcement, I can trace the thread of character that leads to his mother, Phyllis. As a social worker, she often put herself in harm's way to protect abused children.When I cheer for Mark as he finishes a marathon, I think of how God used running to bring self-discipline and fulfillment to my goal-oriented husband during the chaotic years of his late teens. When disappointments get me down and Mark reassures me that things will look better tomorrow, I hear his grandmother joking about the day this eternal optimist spilled his milk at breakfast, then joyously pronounced that no one needed to worry—a few drops were still in the glass.
Phyllis lost her battle with cancer 15 years ago, but she will be a part of our marriage forever. That's the way it is with in-laws. When we marry, God gives us a whole new family to love and to learn from. After all, the vows do not say, "To love, honor and endure my in-laws, till death do us part."
The marriage vows join us with a person, and that person is already joined to a family. These small glimpses of Mark's early life, these family stories in which he plays a part, may not seem like much to a lot of people. But because I love Mark, they are precious to me.
Getting to know, and growing to love, my husband's family has made me a better person and a better wife. I want to know the people who are important to Mark. I want to search out his character and come to appreciate him with the intimacy that love demands. And I rejoice in knowing that that journey will last a lifetime.
Renae Bottom is a writer, teacher and volleyball coach. She and her husband, Mark, live in Grant, Nebraska, with their two children.
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