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In-Law Tug-of-War

Caught in the middle? Here are ways to create some independence while staying close to the families you love

"Take my mother-in-law, please!"

The jokes abound, and not only are they unhelpful, they're not even funny. There's little to laugh about when it comes to the push and pull of competing family loyalties.

But why is it so difficult to find a comfortable arrangement with parents, in-laws and other members of your extended family? The idea of leaving your childhood family to unite with your spouse sounds perfectly reasonable. And you'd think making a fresh start free from outside interference would be a joyful adventure. In practice, though, this process often seems more like you're forming a new mega-family that includes parents, in-laws and, come to think of it, your spouse, too.

Before spouses can form their own independent family, they have to renegotiate relationships with parents and extended family. And since those bonds took years to form, the process of breaking away to create a new family isn't complete after the first year, or the fifth. It's an ongoing task.

The Early Years One + One = One

The first few years of marriage bring adjustments that neither spouse anticipated. And one of the thorniest is also one of the least expected: the multiple influences of the families in which each partner was raised. Mary and Steve were blindsided by this clash of cultures just a few weeks after their wedding. Mary's family had always enjoyed lively debates over dinner, so she was never hesitant to challenge opinions voiced by others. Despite the sometimes noisy banter, her family was confident of their love for one another.

She assumed all families enjoyed their own brand of animated dialogue. So at dinner with Steve's parents one evening, Mary objected to something her father-in-law said. But far from leading to a lively discussion, her comment was met instead with an uncomfortable silence. Mary was embarrassed and confused, wondering what she had done wrong. Steve told her later that his family wasn't used to debating at mealtime.

The next time Mary and Steve visited her in-laws, she was careful to observe how they operated. That's when she realized a governing rule in her husband's family: Dinner is not a time to disagree. If you have differing opinions, keep them to yourself.

Until then, Mary had thought she would easily fit into Steve's family. But like any newly married person, she needed time to get to know her in-laws. Eventually, she realized her father-in-law wasn't a defensive, insecure tyrant but rather a man who was uncomfortable with conflict. While Mary's parents and siblings thrived on the intellectual challenge of spirited debate, Steve's parents valued calmness and congeniality. After she understood the unspoken rules of Steve's family, she no longer felt uncomfortable around his parents.

While it's essential to recognize your in-laws' customs, it's even more important to determine how your own family will function. The act of leaving parents to unite with your mate, described in Genesis 2:24, implies that newlyweds are no longer bound by old family rules and expectations. Your first loyalty, under God, is to your partner. Since it's impossible to please every parent and every in-law every time, it makes sense to base decisions on what you believe to be fair and appropriate as a couple.

A typical beginning point is the question of holiday visits. Often, there is blind defensive loyalty to one's own family. For that reason, a new spouse can be seen as a critical intruder. So begin by frankly acknowledging each family's traditions and desires. One family might view Christmas as a major reunion that lasts several days—and nights. A spouse who is accustomed to a different style of celebration might prefer instead to split up the time between the two families. It would be easy to read a new son- or daughter-in-law's departure from the "norm" as a rejection of the time-honored tradition. So it's crucial that you prepare your family for some changes and offer an explanation so your spouse won't come across as the "bad guy."

To limit confusion and minimize conflicts, it works best if each of you is the primary spokesperson to your own parents when it comes to working out differences. Also remember to keep your relationship with each set of parents separate and positive. Avoid making comparisons. One set of parents does not need to know everything the other is doing, such as how much time you spend with them or what they buy for you.

Finally, try to be your spouse's biggest fan. It's not uncommon for parents to view an in-law as someone who has taken their "baby" away from them. If they hear about your mate's every little failure, it's only natural for them to want to take your side. However, don't hesitate to turn to parents for help if serious problems arise such as drug, alcohol or physical abuse.

Ultimately, it is your responsibility to accept your in-laws for who they are. They may be very different from your parents, but different isn't the same as wrong. And each time you and your mate work together to resolve a family conflict, you establish yourself as a respected adult in the eyes of your parents and in-laws.

The Middle Years Two + One = Grandparents

The ground work you do in establishing mature in-law relationships before your children are born will pay off as you work to redefine those relationships when your in-laws become grandparents. While you remain somewhat of an outsider, your children and their grandparents share the same heritage and feel the bond of a genetic link. This is healthy and necessary, but it also exposes a number of previously unspoken expectations.

The fact that Megan's family was Irish and Lars's was Swedish was a minor issue when they got married. However, with the birth of their first son, family traditions suddenly became hotly debated topics. Lars's family expected their grandson to be raised in the denomination Lars had grown up in. Megan couldn't understand why her in-laws didn't accept the church she and Lars had chosen. And she was saddened to see a once peaceful relationship break down.

Was their choice of a church home more important than a harmonious relationship with the grandparents? Lars and Megan decided it was. But they were careful to explain to his parents why they believed their new church was the best place for their son. By establishing their own identity as a couple and sticking with it, Lars and Megan eventually won her in-laws' support. Part of being an adult is taking responsibility for your own life. And in some cases, peace only comes as the result of persistent effort.

Lori grew up in a small midwestern town and never gave much thought to the idea of mixed-race marriages. But when she met Mark in college she knew he was the man she would marry.

It's essential to understand your in-laws customs, but it's even more important to determine how your own family will function.

They had major adjustments to make early in their marriage, and when they started their family Lori wanted to do everything she could to help her children learn about their African-American father's heritage. Mark also wanted their kids to identify with Lori's white Germanic traditions. On car trips to visit each other's extended family, they spent a lot of time discussing the similarities and differences. Lori put together a history book filled with pictures, recipes and anecdotes from each family. Because of their mutual respect and support of each other's values, beliefs and heritage, they succeeded in establishing a solid family unit that connects the generations.

Children need the love and attention of involved grandparents. Grandparents need the sense of life's ongoing treasure that is found in their grandchildren. And parents need help with the stresses of raising children. Yet it's important to remember some key principles to keep these bonds healthy. You and your spouse have to maintain the role of authority over your children. Don't surrender it in deference to your parents.

If a grandparent becomes intrusive in demanding a child's allegiance, you may need to intervene. Possibly the hardest circumstance to navigate would involve having to step in to protect your children from dysfunctional family members—a grandfather who is foul-mouthed, a racist brother-in-law or an alcoholic grandmother. Your primary concern has to be your child's welfare, not the fear that you will hurt someone's feelings.

God simply asks this: "If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone" (Rom. 12:18).

It helps to remember that before God you are responsible for how you talk to and behave toward your in-laws. You are not responsible for how they talk to or treat you.

The Later Years Three - One = Two

Julie and Dave will be sending their first son off to college in a year, but he is being displaced from his bedroom sooner than expected. Dave's mom needs the first-floor bedroom while she recovers from hip surgery. Julie was looking forward to visiting college campuses with her son, but instead she's busy investigating nursing homes for her mother-in-law. Dave finds himself pulled in too many directions. In between the younger kids' soccer games, he is driving his mother to doctor appointments and trying to help Julie with the extra housework.

As life comes full circle, old resentments and hard-fought-for boundaries seem to fade as parents and in-laws become dependent on their children. Dave and Julie maintained their sanity through frank talks, humor and a supportive church. During the six months Dave's mother lived with them, they got away every Saturday night for coffee and pie at a local restaurant. They also relied heavily on their Bible study group for prayer, advice and help with their kids. And the hilarious stories from their friends about trials with their own parents proved to be a great stress reducer.

For some couples, however, the stresses of this stage of in-law relationships drive spouses apart. Rita and Ben, in their fifties, still struggled with Rita's domineering father. She was easily controlled by his every request and cowed by his frequent, sharp criticism. Ben could have been more supportive, but since he never was accepted by Rita's parents, he resigned himself to the role of family outsider.

Since it's impossible to please every parent and every in-law every time, it makes sense to base decisions on what you believe to be fair.

Discouraged and depressed, Rita began attending a nearby church at the urging of a friend. There she was reminded of Christ's power to turn lives around. As Rita's bitterness toward both her father and her husband dissipated, Ben couldn't help but notice. He soon found himself in a church pew beside his wife.

As Ben became more involved in the life of the church, he talked to the pastor about Rita's unhealthy dependence on her father. The pastor referred her to Christian counseling, and Rita discovered it wasn't too late to establish an adult-to-adult relationship with her father. She took the difficult step of setting and enforcing some long-overdue boundaries. Her father wasn't pleased with Rita's new assertiveness, but once he was convinced that she wouldn't give in, he started treating his daughter like an adult rather than a child.

The Future Begins Today

The covenant of marriage involves a lifelong commitment to your spouse and to his or her family. Sometimes it's easy and comfortable, other times it's more like loving your enemy. But Christian faith is acted out in how we love others.

In the early years, you establish the pattern for your new family by setting boundaries, making clear your allegiance to your spouse, and doing what you can to initiate an adult-to-adult relationship with your parents and in-laws.

The middle years give you a chance to build on what you establish early in your marriage. When you have children, grandparents get more involved in your life. That's the time to redefine the boundaries with parents and in-laws.

The later years of marriage benefit from the values you have chosen to uphold. By continuing to live according to your shared priorities, you will find appropriate ways to care for your parents and in-laws as they grow old and need more of your assistance.

Your mate is the only family member you can actually choose, but your mate's family comes as part of the deal. Living in peace with your in-laws is no joke, but it can be one of the most rewarding relationships you'll ever invest in.

Ingrid Lawrenz, M.S.W., is a therapist at New Life Resources, Inc., a Christian counseling clinic. She lives in Waukesha, Wisconsin, with her husband and their two children.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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