As the holiday season approaches again this year, many people may be dreading the prospect of in-laws visiting during their vacation, especially when they tend to be overbearing. Avoiding the in-laws is not the solution, but how then do we as Christians deal with meddling family, who are demanding, controlling, and intrude into the lives of their adult children?
Dealing with difficult in-laws can be an overwhelming challenge. Paul describes certain women as being “busybodies” in first Timothy 5:13. The meaning of the Greek word for busybody in this context is “a self-appointed overseer in other men’s matters.” Having in-laws overseeing your marriage and family is very annoying, and not what God intended for the family.
The importance of leaving and cleaving
In Genesis 2:23-24 God’s plan for family life is explained where we are instructed to “leave our parents and cleave to our spouse”. In this regard the husband needs to take responsibility, according to Ephesians 5:25-33, by loving and protecting his wife. A husband who allows his mother or his mother-in-law, or anybody else, to interfere with his marriage is not living up to the commandment given to husbands in Ephesians 5.
How do I deal with overbearing in-laws?
Parents and in-laws should be treated with respect and love, and we can choose to adopt this attitude, irrespective of their behaviour. In choosing to respect them, we honour God above all things. We may not be able to change the way others behave, but how we respond to their behaviour is our choice. It may be tempting to gossip, hold silent grudges or withdraw from troublesome in-laws but keep in mind what Paul teaches in Ephesians 4:22-24 “...to be made new in the attitude of your minds...created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.”
We can make a choice not to be offended by our in-laws’ overbearing behaviour (Prov 18:19). How you respond to this type of situation determines your frustration. We can allow the actions of other people to get to us (offend us), or we can see it as an opportunity to grow in righteousness.
Set reasonable boundaries
The purpose of a boundary is to protect yourself and/or your marriage. It is a way to show someone how you will or will not allow yourself to be treated. The reality is that people treat us the way we allow them to treat us. If we permit them to intrude on the sanctity of our family, then that is what they will do. No one, not even our extended family, has the right to invade the privacy of our home, and it is the responsibility of the husband to guard that privacy.
Husbands need to take the lead to gently explain to your in-laws (or own family) that what they are doing is overstepping the boundaries. Remind them that God has given you the responsibility for your family and to relinquish any of that responsibility to anybody else (other family members) is to disobey God.
Assert your opinion with love
As Christians we need to learn how to confront people in love, doing things God’s way. Communicate your needs assertively, but in a gentle way. Speak in an authoritative manner, sending a very clear message. Use key phrases such as, “You’re entitled to your opinion, but this isn’t up for discussion” or, “I’m sorry you’re upset, but we’re sticking with our decision’’ assuring them that such behaviour cannot be tolerated.
Do not accept manipulation
Learn not to be perturbed when your in-laws are ‘upset’ with you. When it becomes evident to them that you will not allow yourself to be manipulated, your in-laws may choose to be offended and try to make you feel guilty for having needs that conflict with theirs.
What not to discuss
In-laws with healthy behaviour will respond appropriately when you communicate your needs and draw reasonable boundaries. Be firm and refuse to be emotionally manipulated.
“No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.” Heb 12:11.
Our Father is delighted when we live in peace with each other! Peace is defined as ‘’the presence and experience of right relationships’’. To obtain peace, we need to be honest in all our relationships with our parents and in-laws, not avoiding any issues, just because it will cause unpleasantness. Honesty in relationships creates intimacy.
Change can happen. Don’t lose hope; trust God!
If your in-laws are extremely overbearing, to the extent that you think they will never change, be encouraged that words spoken in humility and true Godly love, have the power to change hearts and bring about positive change. We cannot make friendship and love happen, but we can make space for them.
Here are a few practical tips one can employ for good relations:
1. Establish what should not be discussed
Both partners should agree on the information that may be shared with parents. This will keep you from divulging information that your partner wants to keep private. Many conflicts arise between marriage partners because this boundary is violated. According to Scripture some things should remain private: “Debate your case with your neighbour, and do not disclose the secret to another” Prov 25:9
2. Set time limits
Many husbands and wives fight because either their in-laws are constantly visiting, or one of the spouses visits their parents’ house too often, neglecting responsibilities in their own home. Incessant phonecalls from in-laws to find out what the family is doing will also impose on the privacy of your marriage. It is important to agree on a reasonable amount of time to spend with both sets of in-laws.
3. Stay loyal to your spouse and your decisions
Both partners must determine that decisions in the marriage are to be made without having to consult the in-laws first (for example what schools to send your kids to, whether you should emigrate, etc). As a couple, your attitude should be one of trust and obedience as you commit your decisions to God in prayer and search out His Word concerning issues.
When a husband and wife have reached a consensus, they should not allow their minds to be changed if the in-laws voice their disapproval. Should a decision be extremely difficult to make, it’s wise to get spiritual and practical counsel from the godly leaders in your life who can contribute important insight, answer questions, remove doubts and confirm inclinations. Choose people who will offer Biblical advice and remember not to be disloyal to your spouse in favour of your parents.
4. Keep to the rules
Children are easily confused when the standards of discipline vary between their home and that of their grandparents. Additional conflict can arise if a spouse refuses to politely correct their parents when boundaries have been violated. A helpful hint would be to remind parents and in-laws of your rules and what the children are allowed to watch on television, what treats they may eat, etc. When your children stay over at your in-laws’ home, your rules should be reinforced.
5. Maintain open communication
If one spouse fails to keep a boundary (such as those listed above), it will confuse in-laws, because they’re receiving different messages. In addition to this, when one partner fails to keep the agreement, the trust of the other is violated.
If this does happen, sit down with your partner and discuss the issue, ask for forgiveness and clarify your concerns. In a Biblical marriage, both partners should be honest with one another and remain committed in every area of life, working together as a team. When one person’s desires or personality is squelched and the other always gets their way, the couple are not working together.
The world teaches us to remain focussed on having things our way, but as we walk with Christ we learn that this should not be the case. In a marriage both people must submit to each other as is taught in Scripture: “Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord...Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the Church...each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.” Eph 5: 22-33
6. Deal with repeat problems
When every symptom seems cured, but we fail to search out the root cause, we can be sure that the same old problems will resurface. Understanding why both partners have allowed intrusions in to the home is essential. One of the important things to realise is that the relationship with your parents changes once you get married.
They may have manipulated your decisions in the past, or you may have feared displeasing them more than you did your partner, but once you are married and start your own family, your primary loyalty needs to be with your spouse and children.
7. Let His love guide your actions
Many issues can be resolved when we find out what makes our spouse and our in-laws feel loved and begin expressing our love in a way that is meaningful to them. Make Jesus the centre of your marriage and reach out for His help in difficult situations.
Pray for your in-laws and for the tensions that consistently arise. Praying for the problem will change your heart toward the person!