"My husband always stops by his mom’s house on the way home."

"My wife still asks her father for advice instead of asking me."

"My mother-in-law pops by without asking and redoes housework I’ve already done."

When you mention any of these scenarios to a group of married couples, nods of understanding and sighs of agreement can be heard around the room. Whether you’re newlyweds or married for years, struggling to get along with your in-laws while also attempting to create your own relationship outside of their control is a line many people walk – and many trip over.

What can you do, then, when your in-laws won’t let go? And how do you navigate this issue without creating more problems or a divide that feels too big to cross?

Karin Gregory, a Focus on the Family Canada counsellor, frequently gets calls from people who are struggling with this exact issue. Whether it’s something big, like a difference in religious backgrounds, or something small, like a difference in Christmas tree toppers, families everywhere are feeling the tension of unhealthy in-law relationships.

Here are seven things Gregory – and other experts – suggest you remember when you’re caught in this conflict.

1. A healthy marriage has two independent adults who have left their parents

In Genesis 2:24, it says, "Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh."

Before you can become one with your spouse, you have to first leave your father and mother. Ted Cunningham, in Ready to Wed, explains that this isn’t just about physically leaving. What’s more important is leaving relationally and emotionally.

"Leaving your parents relationally and emotionally means you leave and abandon their expectations for your life," Cunningham explains. "You begin making decisions with your spouse in mind, not your parents."

When you get married, you can certainly feel supported and encouraged by your parents, but Cunningham notes you cannot allow your parents to have control in your life – and especially not in your marital relationship.

2. The marriage relationship always comes first

Since you and your spouse are both to leave your parents and hold fast to one another, it’s clear that you have a new priority: your marriage. When you’re with your parents, with your spouse’s parents or on your own, you must always take care of one another first.

If you’re faced with a situation where you have an issue with your in-laws and your spouse doesn’t see it or doesn’t acknowledge it, Gregory suggests you take a step back and ask yourself what the real issues are within the marriage. Tell them, "You’re not hearing me," and then explain the situation and how you feel. For example, "Every time your dad comes to the door, he’s eyeballing me and judging whether or not I’m properly providing for his daughter and it makes me feel like I’m not good enough."

If, on the other hand, your spouse has an issue with your parents and you’re the one who doesn’t see it, Gregory suggests you asks yourself, "How invested am I in caring well for my spouse?" Are you willing to put your marriage relationship above your relationship with your parents?

According to Gregory, it’s crucial to be united because it’s in unity that you can better experience healthy in-law relationships. But unity doesn’t always mean harmony. There may be moments, as a couple, when you have to agree to disagree with your parents and in-laws.

Ultimately, you need to ask yourselves: "How do we be a ‘we’ in our parents’ presence? And not a ‘you’ and ‘me’."

3. We’re only responsible for our own responses

This may seem obvious, but in a moment of conflict, it can be difficult to remember what we’re responsible for. Gregory explains that when faced with an issue with your in-laws, there are two ways of dealing with it: reactive and responsive.

Reactive is when you immediately respond with fear, panic or anger. Your mother-in-law subtly or not-so-subtly tells you you’re doing it wrong, and you react without thinking.

Responsive is when you take a moment, consider the implications of what you’re about to say, and respond with grace. You may say to your spouse, "This has not been working for us. We need a new plan," and then come together to figure out what works for both of you.

"Knowing what you want ahead of time allows you to offer this plan to your parents and/or in-laws with sensitivity and calmness to avoid reactive responses," Gregory says.

It’s also important to not only take ownership of your own responses, but to also consider whether your words and comments create an atmosphere of hostility. Ask yourself, "Am I setting myself or someone else up to be reactive or disappointed?"

In her book The Mother-in-Law Dance, Annie Chapman advises daughters-in-law and mothers-in-law (as well as sons-in-law and fathers-in-law) to ask themselves three questions before speaking:

  1. Is what I’m going to say true?
  2. Is it kind?
  3. Is it necessary?

This allows you to take ownership of your words and creates an environment where no one feels attacked or belittled.

4. Boundaries are necessary for healthy living

"Healthy boundaries," Gregory explains, "are respectful, clear, firm and sustainable." They’re not vindictive or malicious. You don’t set boundaries to get back at people who hurt you. You set boundaries to protect yourself and your marriage relationship.

"We train others how to treat us," Chapman writes. "When we accept other people’s ill behaviour, we are actually reinforcing it and encouraging them to repeat it . . . Even though it may feel awkward, love demands that we draw a line of what is acceptable and unacceptable treatment."

However, Gregory notes that when setting boundaries, it is not up to the daughter- or son-in-law to set the boundaries with their in-laws. It’s up to the child of those parents to stand up for their spouse. "When the spouse is quiet," she explains, "the parent thinks they need to speak for them." This goes back to point number two – the marriage relationship always comes first.

5. Don’t let ideal expectations make you forget real people

"This year, Christmas will be perfect."

I’m sure you’ve either said this yourself or heard someone else in your family say it, but rarely does this actually happen. When we have ideal expectations in our mind, we often forget that our family members – and especially our in-laws – are flawed human beings. People get sick; finances get tight; traditions are at odds. Things come up, especially around the holidays, that threaten to destroy the idyllic picture we have in our heads.

This is why we need to practice flexibility and keep a good sense of humour.

Perhaps you have a job and can’t make it to a full-day Christmas celebration. Or your mother-in-law expects you to host the family dinner, but your new baby and lack of sleep make this expectation daunting. When this happens, there’s greater possibility for a harsh word or a passive-aggressive comment such as, "That’s why you should have done it this way."

But what if the reaction was different?

Jen* and her husband Greg* had moved away from his family for his work. They had three kids and she was expected to host Christmas dinner for her in-laws – even though he had to work that day. When her husband’s family arrived, she had dinner laid out for them: pizza. This situation had all the potential to turn into a heartbreaking affair with sharp words, broken expectations and disappointments. However, her in-laws recognized how overwhelmed she was with the move and with her husband working, and offered grace. Together they laughed about it and it became a cherished memory instead of a cataclysmic event.

6. Differences aren’t wrong; they’re just different

Dave Ortis, a Focus on the Family Canada counsellor, often tells people, "Marriage is a cross-cultural experience." It doesn’t matter if you were both raised on farms in Alberta or you grew up next door to one another in Toronto, you come from two different families with different traditions and different expectations for everything.

"There’s an expectation that our way is normal or standard," Gregory explains. "People lack the ability to remember there are many perspectives. They’re different, not wrong."

If you always unwrap your Christmas presents on Christmas Eve and your in-laws unwrap theirs on Christmas morning, neither is right nor wrong. You can either agree to disagree, or you can see it as an opportunity to create new family traditions.

Over the years, as her children got married and brought new children-in-law into her family, Mary* could have demanded they cave to her family’s tradition of opening presents on Christmas Day. However, she knew the stress that comes with Christmas and didn’t want to be a mother-in-law who let old traditions stand in the way of new relationships. Now, instead of demanding everyone gather in their pajamas on Christmas morning, they work together as an extended family to find a day that works for everyone. Whether it’s the Saturday before Christmas, or a Saturday after, they remember it’s less about the day and more about the time spent together.

7. Pray for wisdom, grace and love

"In Colossians, chapter 3, we find some of the most incredible instruction for positive Christian living," Annie Chapman writes. "I want to point out two things found in this passage that will help us love our in-laws, even when our emotions are not cooperating. We are to ‘put aside’ and ‘put on’."

"But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth . . . Put on then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive." (Colossians 3:8; 12-13)

When you’re faced with difficult in-laws or a tense relationship, it can be tempting to react with anger or frustration. But, as Christians, we’re called to live in Christ – and our actions and responses should be indicative of that.

"Remember, love is not a feeling," Gary Chapman writes in In-Law Relationships, "Love is an attitude, a way of thinking, and a way of behaving . . . A loving attitude leads to loving behaviour." And we are able to love because Christ first loved us (1 John 4:19).

It may be difficult to will ourselves to respond in love and kindness to a difficult person, but that’s why prayer is such a gift. You can pray for this grace-filled attitude. You can pray for strength in your marriage relationship. And you can pray for wisdom in knowing how to set boundaries for healthy living.

*Names changed to protect privacy.

Amy Van Veen is editorial manager at Focus on the Family Canada.

© 2016 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.  

If you liked this article and would like to go deeper, we have some helpful resources below.

Our recommended resources

Free advice on marriage, parenting and Christian living delivered straight to your inbox

View comments ()