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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