Parent-in-Law Relationships

One aspect of marriage and family life that presents potential for difficulties is the relationship between an individual and the parents of his or her spouse.  The nature of these challenges differs greatly depending on the personalities, family situation, and other circumstances of those involved.  However, there are certainly several areas in which problems are common.  The purpose of this brief article is to identify some of these more common areas and provide some basic principles for navigating through the rough spots of parent-in-law relationships.

Common parent-in-law related complaints often center around one or more of the following: unwanted advice, intrusiveness, control, unwelcome visits, lack of acceptance or respect, unhealthy attachments, holiday and other family customs, living arrangements, spoiling the kids, and so forth.  Here are some hypothetical statements that illustrate some of the more familiar grievances.

  • Unwanted advice – “Her parents are always telling us what we should do and try to correct the decisions we make.  They are so controlling.”
  • Unwelcome visits – “His parents are always coming by uninvited or unannounced and they stay way too long.”
  • Acceptance and respect – “Her parents don’t think I’m good enough to be married to their daughter.  They always find ways to criticize me or express their disapproval.”
  • Unhealthy attachments – “His parents treat him like he is a six-year-old kid – and he just lets them do it.”
  • Holidays and family customs – “Her parents always insist that we accommodate the arrangements that they make for the holidays.”
  • Intrusiveness – “His parents are way too nosey.  They are constantly asking personal questions that are none of their business.”
  • Living arrangements – “Her parents are upset with us because they live so far away.  They keep pressuring us to try to work and live closer to them.”
  • Spoiling the kids – “His parents always undermine my authority as a parent.  They don’t respect the decisions I make for raising my children.”

Each of these may vary considerably in degree and complexity.  In some cases difficulties are mild and seem to work themselves out naturally as the relationships progress gradually over time.  In such cases it is not generally necessary to draw attention to the problems.

It is also possible at times to become overly sensitive, defensive or critical to the innocent attempts of parent-in-laws who offer assistance or advice.  It is human nature to misinterpret the words or actions of others and view them more negatively then they are in reality.  We must be aware of these tendencies and truthfully evaluate our own expectations, intentions, and motives.

Unfortunately, in other cases there exist more complex, severe, and ongoing troubles that have potential to significantly harm the relationship.  It is certainly a reality for some that their parent-in-laws may be difficult people – controlling, manipulative, or otherwise dysfunctional.  In such situations more direct and deliberate remediation may be needed.

In all situations, however, it is paramount that we consistently maintain a commitment to Christian character.  Even for scenarios in which establishing reasonable boundaries or other corrective measures may be necessary we must be sure to exemplify the virtues of patience, kindness, gentleness, self-control, and so forth.  In-laws are worthy of the same dignity and respect that we should endeavor to display towards all people.

Furthermore, we have moral and practical obligations towards our parents and parent-in-laws.  Biblically, we are commanded to honor parents (Ex 20:12, Pro 30:17, Eph 6:1-3, Col 3:20).  This duty does not end when we become adults or get married.  In marriage we “leave” our parents and “cleave” to our spouse (Gen 2:24, Mat 19:5, Mar 10:7).  But this does not relieve us of the responsibility to honor our parents throughout their lives and ours.  From a practical perspective, we are connected to family members via many dynamics – both simple and complex.  It generally serves everyone best to live in peace and harmony with parents and parent-in-laws to the greatest extent possible.

Here are a few basic principles to navigate difficult parent-in-law interactions and build positive relationships:

  • Be true to Christian character
  • Honor parents (including parent-in-laws)
  • Be civil, considerate, and courteous
  • Proactively build the relationship
  • Focus on the positive
  • Be flexible
  • Accept reality

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