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When Your In-laws Are Too Involved

Advice on boundaries and establishing a healthy relationship

“I fell in love with him, not with his family!” Jacci ranted as she described what she perceived as her controlling and manipulative mother-in-law. “She wants a say in everything we do—how many kids we have, where we vacation, and how we decorate our house. My husband doesn’t see it. He does whatever she says just to keep her happy.”

Rarely is there a marriage that doesn’t experience some stress around the topic of parents. Hollywood has created a handful of hilarious comedies and sitcoms that play off of some of the common stresses of adjusting to in-law relationships. Among my favorite is Father of the Bride. Steve Martin plays a loving, controlling father who struggles to accept that his little girl is getting married. In one scene, he still mentally sees her as a child with pigtails.

The in-law dance is a difficult one for both adult children and the parents. Both are learning what these new roles look like. A wedding ceremony doesn’t magically break the strong ties and protective instincts that parents feel for their son or daughter. To make this dance more difficult, there are no set standards on where to draw the boundaries. As vividly portrayed in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, the expectations are often influenced by cultural traditions and unspoken family dynamics. Even before the newlyweds say, “I do,” they have to begin navigating how much power and influence parents should have in their decisions.

Establishing a healthy relationship with your parents and your in-laws ultimately comes down to balancing two clear biblical teachings: leaving and cleaving, and honoring your mother and father.

You Can’t Cleave Until You Leave

How interesting that even though Adam and Eve did not have parents, this pronouncement was made about the first “wedding ceremony” in the Garden of Eden: “This explains why a man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one” (Genesis 2:24).

This concept is so central to the marriage that both Jesus and Paul repeated it as recorded in the New Testament. You may have noticed that it is the man who is instructed to leave his mother and father. Why doesn’t it say the woman should as well?

We can see throughout Scripture and tradition that a woman “leaves” her family in profound ways. The Old Testament culture assumed that a woman identity would be tied with her new husband, even to the point of becoming his property. Old Testament stories like Isaac and Rebecca, Abraham and Sarah, and Moses and Zipporah demonstrate that a wife left her home (sometimes to never see her relatives again) and became united with her husband’s future.

Thankfully, we no longer think of ourselves as a husband’s property, but the principle of leaving and cleaving still exists for both husband and wife. The idea is that we leave our former identity and become one through the covenant of marriage.

Here is the key principle: there is no cleaving without leaving. If you have a close relationship with one or both of your parents, it might feel unnatural not to ask their advice (or even their permission) before making a big decision. After all, you’ve known them far longer than you’ve known your husband.

Leaving doesn’t mean that you cut off a relationship with your parents (or your husband with his). They may still be involved in your life. However, you make daily decisions that clearly indicate that your marriage comes first. If parents become manipulative, controlling, or critical of your spouse, you set a firm boundary of where your allegiance lies, even to the point of moving or not accepting financial help if there are strings attached.

Honor Your Mother and Father

The Bible tells children to “obey their parents” but instructs adult children to show honor instead. Honor can seem like a nebulous term. Honor is not the same as obedience. Here are some thoughts about how to show honor to your parents and in-laws:

  • You honor by giving the benefit of the doubt. Your parents and in-laws are not perfect, in case you haven’t figured that out! They have blind spots, fears, and are capable of saying impulsive or hurtful things. The same is true of you. Paul’s instruction to “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience” can go a long way in paving the way for a healthy relationship in the long run (Colossians 3:12).
  • You honor by being thankful. I had no idea until I had my own children—no idea of the amount of sleep lost, the cost of braces, the pain of seeing your children go through hardship, or the extent to which your heart is tied into theirs. Even if they have huge flaws and made terrible choices, there are many ways your parents and in-laws have given. Have you expressed your gratitude to them?
  • You honor by being a blessing. The Bible says that Christians who don’t care for their own families are worse than pagans (1 Timothy 5:8). As our parents age, they can’t provide for themselves the way they used to be able to—not just financially, but also emotionally. Honoring your parents means taking care of them as they age. Bless them with time with you and their grandchildren. As they face physical, financial, and emotional losses, be a source of comfort and support.
  • You honor by respecting their heritage. Before there was Facebook and television, people told stories. They passed down their heritage from one generation to the next. If you’ve read the Old Testament, you will notice the repetitive nature of oral traditions that were passed down. Honor your parents and in-laws by asking about their heritage and listening, even if you’ve heard the story many times before. Their legacy ends with death if you don’t pass it on.

A few months ago, I was driving in the middle of a Colorado blizzard. The roads were icy and I couldn’t see more than a few yards ahead of me. I was terrified, and I probably wasn’t the only one. Spontaneously, everyone on the road changed their driving habits. We gave each other plenty of margin for error—no tailgating or impulsive lane changes—knowing how quickly we could do damage to each other.

There are seasons in relationships that are like blizzards. You don’t have wisdom, you can’t see clearly, and each party is prone to make big mistakes. In those seasons, give each other a wide margin of grace.

Eventually, the ice will thaw and the visibility will improve as you navigate the challenges of in-law relationships. Your parents and in-laws are not going away. God has placed them in your life for a reason. As him for the wisdom to both leave and cleave while also showing them honor.

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

Juli Slattery

Juli Slattery is a TCW regular contributor and blogger. A widely known clinical psychologist, author, speaker, and broadcast media professional, she co-founded Authentic Intimacy and is the co-author of Passion Pursuit: What Kind of Love Are You Making?

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