“You are a guest in their marriage and their home. You have to fold into their rules and their lives if you want to be welcome there.” Dr. Phil
The topic of in-laws is an emotive one, a funny one and a sad one. There are millions of jokes about in-laws especially the infamous mother-in-laws. Whenever the in-law topic is broached, there are always mixed feelings, obviously because people have different experiences, but it would appear many experiences lean towards the negative. Others, have wonderful in-laws, which is something my husband and I can attest to. And no one has paid us to say so.
Before we go blaming the parents for bad in-law relationships, it is true that the couple quite often has varying expectations of their parents-in-law and of each other with regard to in-laws.
Take my husband and I for instance. Our two sets of parents and families of birth are opposites. My father is not only outgoing but also likes talking in person and on the phone. My father-in-law can go for a while before he feels the need to call you. My husband is like his father and I’m like my father. If I expected my husband to call my parents as often as I call them, I would have lost my marbles by now. If I called my father-in-law as often as I call my dad, he would probably tell me politely to take it easy on the calls.
When it comes to siblings, you have heard the stories. A brother passes by to say hello to his sister/brother and ends up pitching tent. There is no sign of going back home. If it is his brother’s house, he expects to be treated as another man of the home. Or perhaps it’s the husband’s sister who moves in to go to school or look for work. She begins to behave as if it is their parents’ house and in the process angers her sister in-law, which leads to an ultimatum – the husband/brother has to choose; either the sister stays or the wife stays. What to do?
There is the father who is not impressed with his son-in-law. He doesn’t consider him the right pedigree – he plays guitar in a band for heaven’s sake! The fear with the musician son-in-law is that he may not be able to support a family let alone the parents if they are in need of such support. Or, God forbid, he speaks a strange tongue. The fear with the strange tongue in a rabidly tribal culture such as Kenya is, that the fellow will always vote for the opposition and, worse, will infect their daughter with the other tribe’s backward habits and culture.
For some couples, the journey begins rough right from the introductions. Dowry negotiations are absurd. One family – usually the girl’s – plays extortionist as if they are literally selling their daughter off. In extreme scenarios based on the above and other issues such as level of education and perceived financial ability, the parents even fail to attend their children’s weddings.
Most pre-marital classes address this topic, but that isn’t enough. The couple must together discuss this matter and seek audience with older couples who have walked this path and know the matter more than just hypothetically. Chances are you will agree (to disagree) but if your views as a couple are as different as night and day and none wants to budge, it may be time to invoke what the sages say; better a broken engagement than a broken marriage.
Some of these challenges we have mentioned may be brought about by the respective individuals in the marriage; leave and cleave. This never happened. In Genesis 2:24, it says “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh”. One of our mentors told us that many fear leaving and cleaving more than obeying God’s word.
Another challenge is in the naming of children. Who has the say in the naming, God or your parents?
In some marriages, there are those who choose to only support their families and not the spouse’s while others leave their spouses exposed at the mercies of their families who humiliate and extort them. Others become ambassadors of their families’ opinions in their marriage.
There are those who opt to isolate their in-laws for one reason or the other. This is quite difficult in the African context. There are at times where cutting ties or reducing interactions may be necessary, especially where respect for either the husband or wife is lacking. Choose to be at peace with your in-laws. This does not mean you become a doormat nor does it mean abandoning them because you do not want anything to do with them.
“If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” Romans 12:18
How can we resolve conflicts with our in-laws effectively?
- Talk to your spouse and express your frustrations so that he or she is able to understand the issues you are facing.
- Establish general rules of interactions with in-laws as a couple e.g. what time and for how long can in-laws come to stay in your home.
- Be a friend to your in-laws despite frictions that may arise in the course of your relationship. Learn to overlook these differences. But avoid being too friendly.
- Choose your battles. Do not be defensive and always seeking to be heard.
- Communicate. The person closest to the relative must be the one to communicate any issue to their relative. The spouse who is not related to the relative must re-emphasize the point, and this could even be by mere presence.
- Support your in-laws. Honor your parents. Care for the needs of both families as per your agreement and ability.
- Choose not to be a troublemaker. Focus on good relations and what matters.
There are good stories of in-laws we can find in the Bible. There’s Ruth who shows a great example of how to care for our in-laws in Ruth 1:16, “Your people shall be my people.” Naomi cared for Ruth to the point of giving her tips on getting noticed by Boaz. Then there’s Jethro who cared for the wellbeing of Moses, his son-in-law.
Whichever side of the divide you’re on, I pray that there will be focus on deliberate relationships the way God desires.
“So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” Matthew 19:6