Q&A: Dealing With Extended Family

We recently had a woman write us and ask about some issues she was encountering with her mother-in-law. Specifically, her husband’s mother tends to butt into their relationship and act as though she has some sort of vote over how they conduct their lives, even in issues of intimacy.

To be honest I really can not relate to the horror stories I hear like this because my in-laws are fantastic and we generally get along very well with both sides of the family.  Having said that, there are some values that I have which apply to this situation so I’d like to offer a few suggestions.

First, it is important that you and your husband get on the same page as far as how the two of you want to conduct your lives. Even without your parents voices in the mix, it can be hard enough to work out differences of opinion on different matters so establish that first. The other thing is to respectfully set up boundaries and let your parents know when they are pushing past them. If they go in your room without permission or ask you about personal matters that you have decided are not things you will talk about with them, respectfully tell them that you need them to respect your boundaries.

The most important thing is to always remember that you are in charge of your own actions and attitude, and they are in charge of theirs. Let’s be honest, it is hard enough to remain in control of ourselves without worrying about trying to control someone else. You have no authority over how they act or what they say, and the sooner we learn to take responsibility for our selves and completely accept that we can not control another person, we can walk through life with more peace. If your parents are making a habit of saying or doing something that causes you to feel disrespected, tell them what you need from them in order for them to have a relationship with you. In the same way that I communicate to my kids that in order to be with the rest of the family, I have expectations on how they will behave, I would do the same with parents who acted in a way that disrespected me or the rest of my family.

This is actually something I have done with my father. He lives a lifestyle that is harmful to himself and which ends up negatively affecting me so we have hardly any contact. In order to protect my children from his destructive lifestyle, I have reduced my contact with him to almost nothing. Boundaries like these are important sometimes. Other times it is enough to simply have a loving conversation and explain that the person’s actions or attitude are having a negative effect.

Sometimes when there are frequent conflicts arising it is because there is a core issue feeding your interactions that needs to be resolved. In this case, pray for revelation of that core issue so that it can be addressed. Sometimes it is an issue where the parents have not let go of the authority they had when you were growing up in their home. Sometimes the problem is that the person you are married to has not fully left them and cleaved to you. Or it could be any of a hundred other things. Whatever it is, once you have clarity, you can work at resolving the core issue, first with your spouse and then with his or your parents as a united couple. Don’t make it a passing comment. Set up a time to meet with them and let them know at the outset that there are some important things you need to share with them from your heart. This is more likely to result in positive change.

Relationships with our parents as adults can be complicated, but it is important to figure out how to handle them. Sometimes the solution is less than ideal due to that factor of not being able to control them so just commit to doing the best you can. Remember that verse in the Bible that says as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. And remember all the grace that has been shown to you by the Lord and others in your life. It will help you to live with more grace for others.

If you have a specific issue that you would like feedback on from us and our readers, please feel free to post it in the comment section and we will interact with you on it. We will give you honest responses to what you say.

11 Comments

  1. What if… what if one of the parents in question, for various reasons, are offended and stressed by the boundaries the married ‘children’ set…
    I dunno, sometimes it feels like we’ve been given an ultimatum for our relationship – it’s on their terms or it isn’t at all.
    Which is never what he said but it feels like that.
    I don’t want my husband to tell our parents ‘well, we’ll only have a relationship with you if you follow X rules’ , b/c we DO want a relationship and we DON’T want to be judgmental…
    But at the same time, we need to know that all our parents respects us as our own family and respects my husband as my head. But we can’t demand it. And sometimes, we might feel that a set of parents is being controlling, or not respecting us, or undermining my husband’s authority, or ignoring our autonomy, and we’ll explain that to them, and the offending parties will just argue that what they did wasn’t disrespectful or undermining or whatever. I mean, they honestly have good motives for all their nosiness and ‘butting in’. But, as the recipients of the actions, we don’t agree with the actors. If that makes sense…
    What do you do if a parent disagrees that he or she is out of line?

  2. If a parent doesn’t agree that they have stepped over the boundaries and disrespected you, then that needs to be addressed, particularly if it is a habitual situation. As I said in the article, I have very good in-laws, but there have been times where my husband and I have felt that they overstepped the boundaries and we try to gently say “thank you for sharing you opinion,” and then we consider what they have said and make our own decision based on what we feel is best for us. There was one thing that became habitual and my husband had an honest conversation with them that we no longer wanted to hear advice that was shaded in a particular light. In another instance, my mother-in-law was doing something that became more and more bothersome to me so I gently explained how I felt when she did it. She apologized and was able to see it from my perspective.

    I wouldn’t describe setting up boundaries as a ultimatum, but I see your point. In a bad situation it might get to the point where it feels like that. Let’s take a common example. A couple has a new baby and are sorting out how to parent as a team, and the grandparents feel compelled to give their opinion on how it should be done (out of love for everyone involved, of course.) So, in this situation the new parents need to let their parents know exactly how they can offer their opinion in a way that feels respectful. If this situation gets really bad and you are constantly feeling like you mother is undermining how you parent your children it really is worth considering letting her know that if she wants to spend time with you and her new grandbaby, that you need her to refrain from certain comments. For most people this can be done in a calm and respectful way.

  3. His girl,
    That is one of the hardest situations. I’ve never had to face that but 2 of my closest friends have (they had the same f-i-l). It was over leaving their home church. The dad was a very generous man, both sons worked for the family business and he made sure they were compensated extremely well. The material benefits never ended. When he started to butt into there personal lives he would wave these things over them. (He was a well respected godly man in his church and community), so from the outside (without all the info) it looked as though his children were ungrateful brats!
    Both of these young men stood there ground and left the church. Same kind of church just 10 miles down the road! They told them they felt God wanted them serving elsewhere so they left. He wasn’t happy with them and they did lose a lot of there monitary benefits. He did allow them to keep there jobs and houses though. I think he was very hurt and took it as a personal attack on him. Atter time the relationship was fully restored, and funny thing out of all 8 of his children I think he is most proud of these two and their walk with God. He has learned to respect them.
    Sometimes doing the right thing is the hardest and most painful road.
    It dosen’t matter what others think is right or wrong, only what you and your spouse think. Your relationship is your responsibility.
    I will continue to pray for you. Treat your inlaws with love and repect but stand your ground!!

  4. it was a condition of marriage that my hubby stop being a momma’s boy.

    no matter what the issue i was 100% right by definition and his mother was 100% wrong, and he was NOT to be in the middle but 100% on my side. yes, even if i was wrong.

    that rule came up because my mother in law is a mid-western farm girl evangelical baptist offshoot and i am massachusetts city girl roman catholic and never the two shall agree. she absolutely did not want us together and i put up with it for years, and eventually broke up with my bf because it was clear his mother did not want him to marry me. when he decided that he wanted to marry me, the above was my condition, and she tested it almost immediately by arranging for us to be married in her church — we got married in MY church.

    do not get me wrong, once i am calm, we can usually compromise, but … arrrrrrgh …

    sooooooo … for years we have gone to massachusetts for Christmas … largely because it is so far away we need a week to go both ways by car, but my mom unfortunately passed away this year … so my mother-in-law has raised the possibility of us having Christmas with her … as if my dad didn’t count!!!!

    which … i realize is just my intense sensitivity to everything she says talking!!! but still, sometimes …. she outweighs me by fifty pounds but i think i can take her …

    anyway, soooooooo how do i learn patience and tell her “no”, without insulting her, because she is just as hyper-sensitive about what i say?

  5. Actually, it’s not *my* inlaws…. which might complicate it more. I guess we’ve got the ‘you’re still supposed to honor me b/c I’m still the father’ thing going on. And I AM supposed to honor him, but some things aren’t his business, and I don’t like it when he tells me what I should to tell my husband to do, or what I need to do, or whatever – I think it’s highly innappropriate for him to state such strong opinions about things like our finances or how we spend our time or break up various household duties. and if it were anyone BUT him, I’d probably not speak to that person anymore. He says he doesn’t do it on purpose, they just come up.. I guess what I want is him to have an attitude of deference to my husband’s authority in my family, but I can’t change a person’s attitude – I think a person has to change his own attitude, and first he has to WANT to.

    And honestly though we try to explain the things that bother us, they really can’t seem to ‘get it’ – I think they feel we’re just out of line in our requests and that the things that offend us shouldn’t offend us. But then that is an old, old issue between my parents and I.
    when I said ultimatum, I more meant it seemed like they’ve given one – we accept them on their terms or their feelings are so hurt they don’t want to be with us.
    My MiL (with whom I’ve got a great relationship – after she let go of her ‘little boy’) says maybe it’ll just take a time of separation and then he’ll realize he’s got to relate to us differently.
    Or perhaps we just need to take their ‘input’ calmly and just not follow it if we don’t have to. It’s just complicated by the fact that I don’t like to disappoint my parents, and they’ve let me know that I have – even after I’ve been married. people say things like ‘oh, you just shouldn’t care, just care what God and your husband think’ but that doesn’t seem entirely right to me… And even if it is right, it’s not easy. I don’t want to disregard their opinions all the time… I still want a relationship, I just want my parents to respect my husband. I don’t want them to talk about ‘all his flaws’ to me, do they really think I’m not going to argue with them when they start that? I try not to but I can’t stand my lover to be so maligned – but they don’t like me to argue…

  6. I hear what you are saying. It does sound like your father has been given too much power in your life. It is hard to know where to draw the line, especially if you are a person who readily accepts other peoples expectations of you. I have been like that, but am slowly changing.

  7. “anyway, soooooooo how do i learn patience and tell her “no”, without insulting her, because she is just as hyper-sensitive about what i say?”

    I assume that you are hoping for an honest answer, but you may not agree with me. I also may not fully understand the situation. In a nut shell, it sounds to me like you expect more from her than you are willing to give yourself. I think it is ridiculous to insist that your husband always agree with you 100%. How can he be a man of integrity in that situation. It just doesn’t sound healthy to me. I am all for a couple approaching their parents in unity, but what you describe sounds unreasonable. Again, there may be variables that I am not aware of….

  8. well think out the usa’s relationship with israel before obama. publicly we stood with them even if things were said behind closed doors.

    the issue is really if he is not 100% on my side, then he is in the middle, and she talks with him about some issue, and in many cases he may not even know what i have already said about it.

    likewise i provide the same courtesy to him when dealing with my family, although actually my mother knew better than to try and use me to manipulate my husband

  9. Hi lisab,
    I love your spunk. I thoroughly enjoy reading from someone with so much passion.
    Having said that, I will agree with Cinnamonsticks.

    Maturity tends to clear a fiery personality. I have had to learn how to deal with my outgoing, sanguine/choleric aggression by answering a call from God…serving.

    I laughed when you described your MIL’s weight and how you think you could take her on. Never forget how much power a mother has upon her son. Mama’s rule until the day a man dies. Why. Because we pour our heart and soul into our sons and they will give us their allegiance, always, even above a wife.

    I understood this mother/son bond very early in my marriage and began to honor and repect my MIL although she truthfully drove me nuts with her sarcasm and overlording of my man. I have raised my 3 sons to loyally serve me as well. Mothers rule.

    I did stand up to my MIL but by praising my man’s capabilities and actually physically embracing and touching him. That visual message was more powerful than me mouthing off at her. Therefore, my husband craved my attention and respects me to this day; my MIL jumped back at my forwardness; and I was vindicated in standing up for my man.

    Most times, I was victorious and she was gradually trained to respect her son. He was the last family member she spoke to before she died…

    Don’t quit now.
    I was honored to lead my FIL to Jesus Christ, 6 hours before he passed away and was the only non-family member he trusted because I remained respectful and non-aggressive towards my husband’s family. My FIL left the care of his wife to my husband and I, with special instructions to me to be a friend to his wife. We were true to his wish and took care of his wife for 10 years after he passed away. I could not have lived with her for 5 of those then visited her every week, in the nursing home, if I had not humbled my proud nature.

    You are bigger than this problem. I believe you can do better by yourself, and your family, by embracing a peace maker type of mentality. Most importantly, you will respect yourself for not caving to your emotionally driven passions.

    Rooting for you, lady.

  10. thanks, i need the support.

    i actually won many battles the same way, “I did stand up to my MIL but by praising my man’s capabilities and actually physically embracing and touching him. That visual message was more powerful than me mouthing off at her.”

    i try very very hard not to ever mouth off at her. that would again put my man in the middle, with loyalties to both sides.

    i always try hard to deal with her calmly and directly and to leave my hubby out of it.

  11. Challenges with my in-laws began with the first christmas after our daughter was born. I wanted to evenly split Thanksgiving and Christmas between our two families and got real flack from my in-laws for it (“we’ve always done it this way” is what I typically heard). Over time they adjusted to the change, but new problems came up. First, my MIL is my complete opposite in areas of parenting, morals, etc. When we had been married 7 yrs, my MIL came over and cleaned my house, throwing away things I had collected from Europe. Granted, I was not a good housekeeper, but she didn’t ask permission. It was a stressful time and I felt ganged up on. In1996 my in-laws moved in with us (a condition for giving us the downpayment for our house). I was ok with it since they would be living downstairs and have their own kitchen (it’s a large 2 story). Things went well for the most part (aside from her occasional undermining of our parental values and authority) until 5 years ago. She is in her 80′ and goes south for the winter. When she returns, she wants it considerably warmer (we all prefer it to be under 75, she wants it closer to 80). This has been a source of contention since she lives downstairs and heat goes up. I won’t go into all the details of the other problems with her, but she was the only topic which caused my hubby and I to fight. I did what I could to make her feel personally warm (extra electric blanket, heated slippers) but she put them away. Last year I had planned to take a long vacation during the summer while she was here so she could have the run of the house, but circumstances made it to where I didn’t have to. This year things have changed dramatically. My hubby got a new job and so we have to sell the house next year. My MIL is moving in with her other son who lives in a warmer climate. I want her to be happy and comfortable wherever she lives. Just not at our expence. I know this is long, and I didn’t mean for it to be. My advice, if you are ever faced with the possibility of your parents or especially your in-laws living under the same roof with you, set clear boundaries. Set a time limit for how long it will be, who determines how warm or cool the house will be thru the year, what your kids are allowed to do and see, especially movies, etc. And above all, you and your spouse MUST back each other up. Honor your parents, but your spouse comes first. Personally, if I had to go back and do it all over again, I would either have set a time limit for how long they would live with us, or just not have done it. Not worth the stress.


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