By Dolores Smyth, Crosswalk.com
As any long-time married couple can tell you, in-law issues eventually become couple's issues. Stories abound of couples who fell madly in love and joyously got married, only to later stew with resentment over how their in-laws treat them and, more importantly, how their spouse responds to that treatment.
Many married couples report that putting up with a pushy in-law here or a know-it-all in-law there is an annoyance they've learned to live with. However, other couples say that trouble with the in-laws is a significant source of strife in their marriage. It has triggered ripple effect feelings between the couple such as distrust or a sense of emotional abandonment.
The way you interact with your in-law's matters because it impacts the most important people in your life: your spouse and your children. In a perfect world, every in-law would be respectful of the new family unit you and your partner created when you got married. In reality, your in-laws may have difficulty letting go, not being the center of their child's attention, or not being in charge, and their treatment of you may well reflect that. The hard truth is that you can't change how other people behave; you can only change how you react to that behavior. Managing your reactions takes firm boundaries and a healthy dose of self-reflection.
If you ask people what they feel is behind their strained relationship with their in-laws, most stories center around two issues: control and criticism. This article is written for people who have controlling or critical in-laws and who are doing things—intentionally or not—to facilitate their in-law's boundary-stomping.
Here are three reasons you may be contributing to your strained relationship with your in-laws, followed by three Bible-based tips on mending that relationship in the future.
1. You let your in-laws treat you like a child.
John always noticed that his wife Maggie would seek her parents' approval for everything she did, from her clothing to the baby names John and Maggie picked out for their children. The fact that Maggie acted like she still lived under her parents' rules was something John wrote off as Maggie's indecisiveness.
Not long into the marriage, Maggie's parents started pressuring John to change things in his life as they saw fit. What began with pressure to change his haircut became pressure to drive a different car. At first, John conceded to these requests to not rock the boat with his wife or his in-laws.
However, things changed when his in-laws started pressuring John to quit his job and take a position he had no interest in. John started to resent his role in enabling his in-laws to treat him like a child incapable of making his own decisions instead of like the competent, grown man that he was.
Relationship-mending tip: The Bible says that once you grow up, you're to give up childish ways and, instead, speak, think, and reason like an adult (1 Corinthians 13:11). The fact that your spouse still has a childish relationship with their parents is a dynamic that your spouse will have to fix for their own good and the good of your marriage. It's your responsibility to confront your relationship with your difficult in-laws or risk their continued mistreatment.
When dealing with in-laws who treat you like a child, remember that arguing tends not to work with people who are used to meddling in other people's lives. Instead, try politely saying, "thank you for your advice" (repeatedly, if necessary), and changing the subject. If the meddling persists, try calmly excusing yourself from the room.
While you work on improving your relationship with your in-laws, show your spouse grace in expecting them to face their own childish relationship with their parents. It can be hard for children and their parents to break the cycle of codependency or manipulation, and your spouse may not be emotionally ready to do so. Pray and encourage your spouse to put your marriage first.
2. You allow your in-laws to foot the bill on big-ticket items.
When Karla's in-laws offered to buy her a new car, she ignored the warning bells that went off in her mind telling her that the big-ticket gift might come with strings attached. Karla's conscience proved correct, and her in-laws' seemingly kind gesture turned into a means of control.
Karla tearfully described the cycle of control her in-laws exerted over her: she and her husband would fight, her husband would tell his parents his side of the argument, his parents would show up at the couple's home in the middle of the night and drive away with Karla's car to "punish" her for her role in the argument, and Karla would then have to plead with her husband to drive her to her in-laws' home to get her own car back so that she could go to work.
After several of these humiliating incidences, Karla paid her in-laws the money they had spent on the vehicle and transferred the title to her name. The next time her in-laws offered to foot an expensive bill, Karla chose peace over free swag and declined the offer.
Relationship mending tip: Scripture describes "good" gifts as having no variation or shadow due to change (James 1:17). Gifts that are conditional on you making the gift-giver happy or giving in to their demands are not truly gifts but tools of manipulation.
If you accept gifts from your in-laws despite feeling that the gift can be used to control you, then you are complicit in handing your in-laws that hold over you. This situation is more common than people think. There are so many accounts of in-laws using expensive gifts as a means of control that it should serve as a general rule that a married couple should live within their means, even if that translates into having something other than the car or home of their dreams.
In fairness, there are times when the gift-givers intentions are good. However, if circumstances change and the gift-giver stops feeling appreciated, they may start to second-guess how much you actually deserved the gift. Whether logical or not, this change in perception can quickly snowball into the gift-giver feeling taken advantage of for a gift they chose to give in the first place! To nip this situation in the bud, buy your big-ticket items yourself, pay back anyone using gifts to manipulate you, or find another way to get out from under any such inappropriate control.
3. You don't speak up for yourself.
Jessica had always resented the wedge her mother-in-law tried to drive between her and her husband, Aidan. Slight after slight, Jessica held her tongue whenever her mother-in-law heaped praise on Aidan for gifts she knew Jessica had picked out and chastised Jessica for missteps she knew were Aidan's doing. Aidan knew that Jessica felt targeted, but he dismissed getting involved by saying that he didn't like to disagree with his mother.
After years of waiting for Aidan to stand up for her, Jessica's buried resentment exploded in an ugly confrontation with her mother-in-law that finally caused Aidan to come in from the sidelines and take his wife's side. But by that point, the damage to Jessica's relationship with her mother-in-law had been done, and the two in-laws spent years avoiding each other afterward.
Relationship-mending tip: One of the first relationships God addresses in the Bible is the marital one when He says that "a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh" (Genesis 2:24-25). This unity is essential to any healthy marriage. Unity makes for a supportive household and instills confidence in children that parents who have each other's backs will also have theirs.
There's no doubt that it's your partner's responsibility to directly address issues with their parents to reduce the possibility of conflict between the in-laws. In practice, many people have grown up afraid to stand up to their overbearing parents and bring this fear into their marriage. While you encourage your spouse to speak up and have appropriate boundaries with their parents, you need to assert your own boundaries by speaking up for yourself. You do not have to tolerate someone's untrue or targeted statements about you. Standing up for yourself can be intimidating, but you can always choose to do it afraid anyway. Your in-laws may not like your newly asserted boundaries, but you'll respect yourself more for refusing to be talked down to, and, in time, your in-laws may respect you more for it too.
It's important to remember that your in-laws' behavior may or may not get better over time. All you can do is control your reaction to it and sidestep any foreseeable issue with the in-laws as often as possible. Any positive change in a relationship takes time and firm boundaries. It's always worth the effort when it comes to improving your relationship with your spouse's parents.
Photo credit: ©Getty Images/fizkes
Dolores Smyth is a nationally published faith and parenting writer. She draws inspiration for her writing from everyday life. Connect with her over Twitter @byDoloresSmyth.