Our in-law relationship is a significant one, yet for many married couples, it can be stressful and a source of conflict. In this article, Maria Dyck shares how we can avoid conflict with in laws, and instead navigate this complicated relationship with grace and boundaries, as we seek to appropriately honor the family members God has placed in our lives—even when we disagree.
When you marry someone, you also marry their family.” Perhaps you are familiar with this expression, or perhaps it was said to you when you married your husband. Maybe you even anticipated embracing your new family as a young bride and envisioned a lifetime of mutual love and support.
But for many couples, conflict with in laws is a major stressor.
Obviously, our in-law relationship is significant in our life as a married couple. So how do we navigate these complicated relationships? Where do we extend grace? How do we draw boundaries? How do we honor our families while making choices that may be contrary to their expectations?
UNDERSTANDING OUR FAMILY OF ORIGIN
Marriage is not just the union of two souls who become one. It is blending two completely different family personalities and styles. What may be normal to you may be foreign to your husband. Each of us enters marriage with different ideas on how to celebrate holidays, spend money, raise children, and a hundred other life choices. These differences originate in our own families. So it’s helpful to examine the differences in our childhood to help understand the ideas and values which formed us.
I grew up in a family where I was encouraged to be independent and self-sufficient. While I was close to my sisters, I didn’t have a particularly close relationship with my parents. I learned to do things on my own. Asking for help was never an option.
Understanding our Differences
No wonder I struggled to fit in with my husband’s family. They did everything together! They farmed together, made meals together, butchered chickens together, went on holidays together, and would sit at the table after a meal to talk for hours! All this togetherness was uncomfortable for me. I didn’t know how to ask or receive help. And I struggled to balance my independence with the way they lived in community. Sometimes I felt overwhelmed—and to be honest, slightly smothered—by the constant togetherness.
It took years for me to recognize how my childhood had shaped me and how these ideas impacted how I interacted with my extended family. Often, the very attributes which attract us to our spouse and his family are the ones we struggle to embrace on a day-to-day basis. If we desire a healthy relationship with our in-laws, we need to have an open mind and an open heart. If we are willing to embrace new ideas, new traditions, new ways of making buns, or celebrating Christmas, we will find our world becoming richer, more varied, and with a greater appreciation of the diversity within the body of Christ.
INTEGRATE THE GOOD, LEAVE THE BAD
When my husband and I went through premarital counseling, we were encouraged to consider how our families had impacted us. We were told to pick through the good and bad experiences, integrating the good while leaving behind the bad. I was aware of many areas in which my family wasn’t healthy and made a mental note of several things I wanted to change. But my husband sat there for a moment and said, “Well, I can’t think of anything.” Which was odd because I had already picked up on several issues which I knew would be problematic going forward!
We may not have answered this question in one counseling session. But over the years, we returned to this discussion in deciding how we wanted to grow as a couple. What was important to us? Where were we going to spend our time and energy? What values were we going to keep?
Sometimes the discussion was more difficult when we realized the negative lessons we had absorbed as children. It wasn’t always what was taught which impacted us as much as what was caught. Were we allowed to talk about our feelings and show emotions? Were we valued based on our performance? Was love given unconditionally? Was generosity encouraged?
Learning to Change
Over time, we had to go back to our original conversation and say, “This is what I was taught in my home. But I can see that we need to change how we move forward.”
As we grew in this area, we began to see how each of our families’ unique traits added value to our marriage. My husband’s family taught us the gift of community, a love for adventure, and the value of hard work. My family taught us how to be hospitable, to give generously, and to always make time for music. Together, our children have benefited from combining the best of these traits.
Sifting through the good and bad of our families allows us the opportunity to choose differently for our future. It takes courage to self-reflect and hold our family’s imperfections to the light. It takes a willingness to see the truth even when it’s not flattering. We may not have known our family was toxic or unhealthy because we thought all families were like ours. Marriage often exposes our family’s habits and secrets. And while that may be painful, it also gives us an opportunity to make changes for the next generation.
Conflict with In laws: CREATING BOUNDARIES
Creating boundaries in our marriage and family is important for building healthy relationships. After God made Eve from Adam’s rib we read, “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24, NIV). Leaving and cleaving is an essential part of growing as a couple. But without boundaries, it becomes impossible.
Leaving our parents doesn’t necessarily mean we move across the country. Though in some cases, it is wise for a young couple to move if in-laws are toxic, unhealthy, or we need space to grow our own family. Rather it means that as a newly married woman, I learn to shift my emotional and spiritual support from my parents to my new husband. For some women, this is a quick and painless process. But for those who have close emotional ties with their mother or father, it’s much more difficult. The text implies this is not just an issue for young women, but also for young men who need to mature and learn to rely on the gift God has given them in their wives. This mutual interdependence is the hallmark of a healthy and vibrant marriage!
Creating boundaries is not just for those who come from unhealthy or abusive homes. In fact, it is just as important to create boundaries with parents who are loving and supportive! It may feel unnatural and even traitorous to draw boundaries with the parents who have loved us well throughout the years. But they are essential.
How To Create Boundaries
When creating boundaries, we need to be aware they should never be used to punish or control. Rather they should give both sides clear guidelines for how the relationship can proceed. A good boundary serves both sides well. A boundary which serves only ourselves is more like a wall and not rooted in grace.
Our families may not appreciate our boundaries initially. But if we articulate our boundaries with kindness and love, we set the stage for them to gradually come to terms with our requests. Whether or not someone accepts our boundaries is an indication of whether or not they desire to be in our lives. If setting boundaries causes a wave of outrage and anger, it’s a good sign they were needed and necessary.
I look back on my newly married days and see a bride who wanted to be loved but knew only walls. It took years of miscommunication, mistakes, forgiveness, and grace to find a balance of boundaries in which our marriage could thrive. As I’ve grown and matured, I’ve come to realize that boundaries are vital in our in-law relationships. But I also want to be known as a woman with generous boundaries. I want grace to define the way I love and give even when I have to say “no.”
HONORING OUR IN-LAWS
One of the most difficult aspects of marriage is knowing how to honor our parents and in-laws while disagreeing with them. Often, the struggle is between giving into our family’s demands and meeting their expectations or shutting them out of our lives all together.
But neither option encompasses the idea of honor. How do we honor our parents and in-laws while holding firmly to our own convictions? How do we honor when we disagree?
Unless there is a clear issue of abuse or toxic behavior, cutting out our in-laws is not wise or kind. Often, we struggle with the concept of honor because of what we have been taught honor should look like. The definition of honor is to “hold in high respect or great esteem.” But it has often been twisted to mean something different. For instance, I was taught honor meant the person had to feel honored. This is difficult to do when the person who wants to feel honored has very high demands. Then honor becomes an endless pit of manipulation.
So how do we honor without enabling toxic behavior?
What Does it Mean to Honor?
Many years ago, I wrestled with this very question. A wise friend offered a definition which changed how I viewed honor and freed me from a cycle of manipulation. To honor our parents is to live a life that honors God. Our parents don’t need to feel honored to be honored.
There are many cultures where believing in Jesus as your Savior dishonors your family of origin. To retain your family honor, you must renounce Christ and return to your religion. So clearly, we cannot always honor our parents or in-laws in the ways which they demand. We must honor Christ in all we do. And by honoring Christ, we honor our parents.
When we settle in our hearts what it looks like to honor Christ, we are free to live without trying to meet unreasonable expectations. Living by our convictions will come at a price. And sometimes it means our extended family will not agree or understand our decisions. But when our hearts are tuned to God’s will and His desire for our lives, we can be sure He will be honored by our decisions even when our parents are hurt or offended.
A RELATIONSHIP ROOTED IN GRACE
Over the years, I have come to appreciate the ways my in-laws have touched my life. And I like to believe we have come to a mutual understanding that while we are different, we are connected through our shared love. We have navigated these waters imperfectly, but always with a desire to honor God and be gracious.
We are not guaranteed conflict-free family relationships on this side of Heaven. In fact, if you enjoy a healthy in-law family dynamic, count your blessings! For many of us, we straddle the line between loving our in-laws and wanting to avoid another long, tedious family gathering. And yet, in God’s infinite wisdom, He ties together a man and woman from different homes, cultures, and personalities, and unites them as one body. How we navigate this mystery rests on the grace which we have been given from above which then spills over to those we call family.
What other advice have you been given in navigating the in-law dynamic, both helpful and unhelpful?
What is something you appreciate about the people in your life who have become family through marriage?
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