What we find funny often points to a life experience that many share in common. All the in-law jokes remind us of the struggle between father/mother-in-law and son/daughter-in-law. They point to very real relationship issues in most families. The way our culture responds to these challenges often drive a wedge of separation deeper. We should not be surprised that the Bible offers a different approach, one of building friendships.
The reason why in-law relationships are so challenging is because every family is different. I believe that good parents will nurture and develop a unique family environment. The challenge arises when a young man and a young lady get married. The wedding ceremony not only brings together two unique individuals, it also merges two unique families. It is often these family differences and expectations that cause the tension between in-laws.
“Making Friends with the In-laws” was the sixth and final message of our marriage series “Happily Ever After” and the podcast can be found here. God’s description of marriage offers several insights on in-law relationships. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, …” (Genesis 2:24) First let me make a couple observations of what should not happen when a couple comes together. First, they are not to isolate themselves from both or either family and their traditions. When God says the son needs to “leave” he is not saying he is to isolate himself from the parents. The patriarchal structure of the Jewish family under the Mosaic Law meant a room would be added for the son and his new bride. Second, the new couple is not to abandon their parents. This is more clearly taught in the Fifth Commandment. The first instruction that God gives in people to people relationships is to “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.” (Exodus 20:12) The term here for honor is more than just saying “please” and “thank you.” It is more than sending a birthday card or calling on Mothers day. It involved highly prizing the relationship with one’s parents. It means that this relationship should be valued only slightly lower than your relationship with your spouse. A second aspect flows from the first which emphasizes the responsibility of caring for one’s parents. And the third means that they are to be treated with respect. I like to summarize this by stating “Children are to treat their parents and parents-in-law with dignity!” Each of these points could also be emphasized from the parents perspective too. The leaving of the son is God’s way of pointing out that a new family has been established. The parents can no longer enforce their will on the new couple. The challenge for the parents is to recognize and respect the relationship between their son/daughter and daughter/son-in-law. Parents that fail to respect their child’s new spouse will only drive a wedge in their relationship. God calls the new couple to support and stand by each other even when it conflicts with the parents’ wishes.
Let me point you to Gary Chapman’s book “Happily Ever After” for some practical insights on how to transform this challenging relationship in your family. It begins with listening. I am not talking about simply hearing what a person says, but “walking a mile in their shoes.” I have found that both sides in these types of conflict are good intentioned. The back story usually adds meaning to misinterpreted actions and words. It is easy to vilify when things do not go as they expected but the solution is to listen. And for this to begin there needs to be “respect” for each other. This means that the new couple will work to honor family traditions. It means they will work to give each set of parents’ equal time. But it also means that parents will respect the couples desire to do things differently. It means that parents will give the new couple the freedom to choose the solution that works best for them. It is this mutual respect that will allow the relationship to being to grow.
Just like the other message in this series, the priority focus needs to be on the relationship. This requires us to lay down our swords and work together as mature adults. If that happens then you are on your way to becoming friends with the in-laws.
-Pastor Joe Parkinson