The definition of mixed feelings: Watching your mother-in-law drive off a cliff in your brand new car.
Ha ha ha. We all joke about the infamous mother-in-law, but life with her doesn’t actually have to be so terrible.
Here are three ideas for how to structure your relationship, as a couple, with your parents and in-laws for the greatest benefit to your marriage.
Before we begin, we have a few caveats: if you or your spouse has a parent with a personality disorder, or with substance abuse issues, or even with a non-diagnosable challenge (such as really poor boundaries), you are going to have to take what we say and really scrutinize it carefully to see what will work for you and what won’t.
Another reality is that some of you are taking care of aging parents in your home. Again, you’re going to have to nuance what we say here to your situation because there are stresses related to caregiving that would be in effect if that was anybody in your home, never mind a parent or in-law.
None of us have perfect in-laws nor are we going to be perfect in-laws ourselves; but today we speak to the broader context of having reasonably healthy, imperfect parents and in-laws.
Getting Along With Your Mother in Law
Yes, cows do fly. This bonus worksheet is morethan just tips – it gets you thinking through some of the challenges around your in-law relationships and considering new ways of coming to those problems. You don’t want to miss this download!
How In-laws Influence a Marriage
You may be asking the question, “So, I have a few issues with my in-laws – does that actually impact my marriage?”
The research says, “Yes! It does.” A study from 2001 looked at the marital success compared to discord with in-laws in nearly 300 wives and 300 husbands. They found that:
- “The quality of the in-law relationship did predict the stability, satisfaction, and commitment expressed by the spouses in the study.” It is hard to predict causation, but in plain English they are saying that your in-laws can make your marriage painful.
- For wives specifically, your perception of marital success is predicted by discord with mother-in-laws (MIL) and father-in-laws (FIL).
- For husbands specifically, this was only noted with the relationship towards the FIL.[i]
We’re not sure why there is a difference there, but the point is that it is helpful to your marriage to have good relationships with your in-laws! It doesn’t mean that if you don’t, your marriage is going to fail, but there is an impact there and it is measurable. So, if your spouse is complaining about your parents and the relationship, you need to take that seriously.
We’ve now seen that in-laws definitely influence marriage satisfaction, so let’s look at three principles that should guide our in-law relationships.
Principle 1: The Autonomy of Family Units
When marriage was established at the beginning of creation, God’s instructions were that a man should leave his father and mother and cleave unto his wife.
Now, exactly what that looks like is going to be largely informed by your culture. We’re speaking out a white, north American background here, so if you’re from another culture the same principle is true, but how you might apply it will look a little different – keep that in mind!
The research comes to a very similar conclusion: “The new family has the task of forming a stronger, autonomous bond than the two from which the partners originated. If partners are unable to accomplish this task, their union may be threatened.”[ii]
It was even studied way back in 1954 and found that marriages were more likely to be cohesive if the couple was autonomous and had little conflict with their parents.[iii]
So the research and the biblical principle are aligned, and that is where I am pointing out that we need to observe this principle of autonomy.
The predominant responsibility is on the man to leave and cleave. This is leadership, but he is especially responsible to make his bond to his wife a higher priority than the bond to his parents. Not instead-of, but greater-than. This is about priorities. Where in-law relationships get very messy is when the wife feels that she has to compete with her husband for his loyalty, attention, trust, or time.
Not every husband goes into marriage fully prepared for this. Caleb covers these essentials in his pre-marital counselling: there’s more to marriage than just getting an apartment together – you’re creating a family unit, you’re accepting responsibility, a new set of priorities and new loyalties.
The loyalty part is key.
Here’s a tip. If your wife gets into a spat with your parents – always side with your wife in the moment. No exceptions – even if you know she’s wrong. If she was in the wrong, then you can go back later and you guys can make that right. It’s much easier to go back to parents with an apology for wrongdoing, having sided with your wife, than it is to try to repair your marriage after you side with your parents against your wife.
Same goes for wives: side with your husband, please.
This is supported by a Taiwanese study – a different culture but the principles here are universal human principles. The study noted that wives’ marital satisfaction was not negatively impacted when the husband took her side and used conflict resolution strategies to deal with the in-law conflict.[iv] Again, this underscores the need to take your wife’s side but at the same time, you can still work towards resolving that conflict, which is good.
And one more thing… When your spouse messes up or makes a mistake in the first couple years of marriage, don’t go running to your mommy. You really have to watch the triangles in in-law relationships and make sure you don’t have you, your spouse and one of your parents in a triangle.
You guys should be a team, an independent unit, with first priority to each other, then to others after that. That is the principle of autonomy.
Principle 2: Think in Terms of Kin Network
The kin, or family, network is the balancing point towards the autonomy principle.
To become autonomous, you do not need to cut off your parents and have nothing to do with them. Yes, your loyalty, time, attention and trust is prioritized towards your spouse as Number One, but you can still honour your father and mother and your spouse’s parents by balancing the autonomy principle with that of a kin network.
A study from 2000 looked at the closeness of family ties and how this related to marital happiness. This showed the positive side of good relationships with in-laws. They looked at newlyweds and how they established the boundaries of their marriage relationship, how they became accustomed to living with a person and meeting their needs, and shifting loyalties to place the spouse’s needs before those of other people (ie, their parents).
They found that among all spouses, increased closeness to the husband’s family predicted increased happiness in their marriages. This was especially the case for wives from divorced families.
Two years later, only the wives’ closeness to their husbands’ families predicted the couple’s marital happiness. Closeness to a person’s own parents had no significant impact on the marital happiness of the couple.[v]
What does this all actually mean?
When you get married you get this extended family, or “kin network”. These researchers are noting that the wives play a key role in influencing the size and cohesion of that network. The wives are the gatekeepers to family relations.
This is really interesting because where the Bible places a call on the man to separate, these researchers are noting what I think is a complementary activity of the wife in expanding the kin network so that while autonomy is established, there is also this warm, engaged network being put in place which has a positive impact on the marriage.
These two things are running in balance with each other.
The researchers stated that when “the wife encourages ties to her husband’s family, they become agents of network solidarity and enhance the well-being in their own marital relationship.”[vi]
As you can see, this balances nicely with the autonomy principles. There has to be the development of a kin network that is oriented towards the support and benefit of the new autonomous marriage that has been created.
Principle 3: In-laws Need Grace, Too
The final point is that we need to approach in-law relationships with a lot of grace. These relationships can be painful and really tricky to sort out.
The first thing is to remember that your spouse’s parents did experience (or, if you’re newly married, are experiencing) grief and loss around the loss of their son or daughter, when you married them. Be mindful of the fact that your loyalties, time, attention, trust, and priorities have shifted away from your parents and to your spouse.
Sometimes parents are truly delighted to become empty-nesters, but other times it’s a huge blow to have a kid married off and to lose that person from being a regular part of the household. If you marry a youngest child, the marriage signals the end of parenting for your mother-in-law. She may have years of identity invested in that, so it is a loss for her. Be gracious!
The second thing to remember is that everyone here is on a learning curve. Your in-laws are learning to relate to you as a new member of the family, and you are learning to relate to them.
There is always pain associated with learning: when you learn to ride a bike, you fall over; when you learn to ski, you fall down; when you learn to cook, you probably burn something. There’s always a little pain associated with learning new things.
Don’t expect everyone to figure this out perfectly. You’ll have disagreements, and moments when your values or boundaries, or styles or beliefs run into each other. This needs grace, too!
Thirdly, be willing to forgive. If you had a rough start and maybe you’ve backed off the in-laws, be ready to forgive and re-engage. Look for evidence of change – for those little things that tell you people are trying again and that it’s safe to re-connect more – and be gracious!
Finally, just beware of the matrix. Most people don’t think of this heading into marriage, but it has a huge impact. What is the matrix? It’s how you think your in-laws should act based on your own matrix of how you saw your parents act. We all come from different families with different ways of doing things. Lower your expectations, be curious and open, and be willing to learn a new way or relating.
[i] Chalandra M. Bryant, Rand D. Conger, and Jennifer M. Meehan, “The Influence of in-Laws on Change in Marital Success,” Journal of Marriage and Family 63, no. 3 (August 2001): 614–26.
[iv] Tsui-Feng Wu et al., “Conflict With Mothers-in-Law and Taiwanese Women’s Marital Satisfaction:The Moderating Role of Husband Support,” Counseling Psychologist 38, no. 4 (May 2010): 497.
[v] Susan G. Timmer and Joseph Veroff, “Family Ties and the Discontinuity of Divorce in Black and White Newlywed Couples,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 62, no. 2 (May 2000): 349–61.