When we get married, we aren’t just marrying our spouse. That’s because our spouse usually has a family of their own—parents, siblings, grandparents, and cousins. When we get married, we become a part of that family.
In-laws get a pretty bad rap in our culture. And no doubt, our relationship with our in-laws can be a tricky one. But we don’t have to assume that it will be toxic. Actually, it can be a great thing when handled well.
Sometimes in-laws can be too intrusive. Some in-laws can be too distant. It can be difficult to know the right balance to strike. Do you set boundaries? Or just let go of the things that bother you?
Remember that it can be tough on them, too. They’ve loved your spouse as a child for longer than you have. Now, they don’t know exactly where they fit.
Families are Like a Baby Mobile
Think of a family like a baby mobile. To work properly, it has to be in balance. And your spouse’s family was in balance for a while. Everyone knew their roles and where their relationships stood.
Then, you came along. This is like adding another weight to the mobile—it throws it out of balance. It takes time and adjustment to get everything back in alignment and running smoothly. Before this can happen, you’ve got to be willing to change your own perspective and role. Remember that you’re entering their family dynamic as much as they’re entering yours.
The tension between radically loving your in-laws and setting clear boundaries can be tough to manage. The tough part about in-laws for believers is balancing this radical call to love people unselfishly with the command to leave and cleave.
So what do we do?
Truth and Love
“We will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.” —Ephesians 4:9-16
I really love these verses when it comes to in-laws. P
aul talks about God giving us the Holy Spirit, to guide us in situations, even in-laws. (Of course, Paul wasn’t married, so he didn’t have in-laws. Just saying.)
This passages starts with God giving us the wisdom to be the loving, solid, consistent, adults he has called us to be. With his help we no longer have to act or behave like children. We can be adults and learn to love our in-laws in both truth and love.
So if your in-laws are too intrusive, have an honest conversation with them about how much time is the right amount of time to spend with them. And set expectations for when that’s appropriate. If they’re too distant, let them know that you want them to be a bigger part of your lives.
Approach these conversations with truth and love. The rest will take care of itself.
More Specific Advice
That advice may be a little general. So here are a few more specific things that I’ve learned about dealing with in-laws over the years.
- Don’t blame your spouse for their parent’s behavior.
- Love and lean into their wisdom.
- Give them a purpose/role in your life. Eg. baby sitting or helping around the house.
- Keep your expectations of your in-laws reasonable.
- Get really clear on how and when you will spend time together.
- Try to the best of your ability to take the high ground.
- Give your in-laws the most generous explanation for their behavior. Is this really happening or just my perception? A introverted husband may see his father-in-law as intrusive. He may just be outgoing. Find a friend to give you honest insight.
- Keep in mind that you may be lucky to have in-laws once you allow yourself to discover what brings out the best in them. Your children, too, may benefit from having even more adults in their lives who care about them.
- Take an interest in the activities that your in-laws enjoy. Do things that are fun for everybody
One Simple Thing
Want to have a better relationship with your in-laws? Take the initiative to get it started. This week, do one loving thing for your in-laws.
This could be planning a meal together, asking them for help with a project, or for their advice on a decision. Send them a note or email letting them know how thankful you are for them.
Odds are, they’ll appreciate it—and so will your spouse.
What’s one kind thing you can do for your in-laws this week?
Ted Lowe is an author, speaker, and the director of MarriedPeople—the marriage division at Orange. Ted is the author of two books—one for marriage ministry leaders (Married People: How Your Church Can Build Marriages That Last) and one for married couples (Your Best US: Marriage Is Easier Than You Think). He served for almost 10 years as the director of MarriedLife at North Point Community Church. He lives near Atlanta, Georgia, with his four favorite people: his wife, Nancie, and their three children.
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Need advice: My husband invited his parents to stay with us when he knew that I was already overwhelmed and wrapping up stuff with work and managing our four active teenage children. He then told me that his parents wanted to come stay with us two nights. I reluctantly told him yes to just Sunday night and said school nights are too hard. He blew up and we fought for at least a week before they came. I finally said that I thought it was too much to ask for two nights, but that I didn’t want to fight. His parents came and did not abide to my wishes and ignored my texts and requests. One morning I was late to a work parent meeting because I was blocked in the driveway. They refuse to park in our culdesac which is a dead end. They eat and drink whatever and wherever they want including eating the leftovers that I had planned to use for dinner. My in-laws also decided to stay an extra day without asking me. They told my husband and didn’t tell me until the night before I thought they were leaving. My husband knew for 5+ hours before I was told by my mother-in-law. I was crushed. My husband couldn’t say no to his parents or even say that we had plans. I was crushed. This also comes at a bad time. I have been struggling physically and the doctors have me on several medications. I am on prescription vitamin D because my levels are half what the lowest range is. When I have tried to talk to my husband about how I feel that he has chosen his parents over my needs, he blows up and tells me that I am sinning for not being hospitable, that everyone loves him, that I must not be a Christian and that my job is to submit to him and that everything will be as it should if I will just do that. We already go to the church where he wants to go, he picked our home and where he wanted to live, he picked our mattress that I didn’t like and I haven’t gotten good sleep for 2.5 years, and I just have no hope of our marriage working anymore. I feel tired, neglected, abused, and unloved. I don’t want to be in this marriage anymore. He told me he can invite anyone, anytime to our house with no regards to me. We went to a group marriage counseling last night. He got rebuked in the first meeting for divulging unkind information about me to the group.
I have stayed by his side for many transgressions: by himself, he has eaten out lunch with many women work colleagues over the years even though I pleaded with him not to, I went to a party with him for a work colleague, a woman co-worker placed her hand on his thigh for about 5 minutes with him not saying a word to her as if it was normal (she still sends him cards), he invited a coworker and her son to dinner, he took her home by himself and picked up her son and they teased her son that they were dating until they got to our house (I don’t think that is very funny at all), he went bon many work trips including planning one on my 40th birthday when he asked if I cared and I said yes, he went anyway. Why does he ask if he is going to do what he wants? I threw him an amazing surprise 40th birthday party the month before. I received no party and no gift. He wanted to join a gym. I agreed but only if we went together. I always went when he asked not turning him down once. He told me that he wanted to go by his work and I said that wasn’t part of the deal after we argued about it. He secretly went. He broke 2 ribs weight lifting and kept it from me. I found a bag with goggles and a wet swimsuit about 6 months later. A friend saw him at the gym and said something to me. I was shocked and devastated. My dad physically abused me and my sisters growing up and cheated on my mom several times. I have a very difficult time with trust. When I get depressed my husband takes no ownership of lack of care but tells me if I lose weight I will feel better about myself.
I don’t want to be married anymore to him. I have caught him looking at other women and watching movies with naked women.
Please help, I want out