In-Law Week: How Do We Go Wrong?

'Cat fight' photo (c) 2010, Tom Taker - license:

 In the midst of hearing some really great stories about in-law relationships, there are also so many that just aren't good. Reasons run the spectrum, and I've seen many truly difficult in-law experiences play out with close friends. It's not helpful to dwell on those situations that are bad, but there is wisdom in learning from the mistakes of others. So today we'll just look at a few things that can cause this relationship to get off to a rocky start.


Mother-in-law - Maybe you've always wanted a daughter. Maybe you see a lot of things you're excited to help your daughter-in-law with. Maybe you expect things to stay mostly the same with your son, just adding a new person to the mix. Maybe you're dreading the whole thing because of your friends' experiences.

Daughter-in-law - Maybe you're scared to death because you've heard horrible tales.  Maybe you're excited to have a mom who will be more involved in your life. Maybe you're afraid your mother-in-law will pop in uninvited and tell you how to do things. Maybe you feel like you'll never measure up.

As with most life experiences, our expectations can kill a great thing before it even starts. If you've ever felt the weight of someone's expectations for you and thought you could never live up to them, then you will know how important it is to give those expectations up to the Lord before you get any further into this relationship. Take time to pray and examine what is really going on in your heart--are you judging the other person harshly? Are you expecting something bad to happen, even though it hasn't?

Ultimately, we have to remember Who is sovereign over this relationship. God is bringing two families together, and even the most difficult situation is not out of His hands. Rather than expecting something amazing, or something terrible, from the other person, we can just expect grace and love from our Father. We will make mistakes, we will not measure up, we will hold one another to impossible standards. And His grace is sufficient, even then.


One friend wrote this about her initial relationship with her mother-in-law (which has since improved dramatically), and I think it really illustrates the idea that we easily misinterpret others' motives:

Once the vows were made, it was hard for me to get used to the idea of ANOTHER mother. I already had my own mother and a step-mom (who is really great). I am incredibly (and often sinfully) independent and self-assured, and I want to do things MY way, fail or not. It was not helpful when she would offer suggestions around our first little-bitty condo about where to put things, how to decorate, how I should do the laundry, etc. I already knew what I wanted to do, how I wanted to do it. The main problem, looking back, was that her advice, however good or even appropriate, was thrust upon me, instead of her waiting for me to ASK. It came across to this 21-year old bride as criticism, each piece of advice felt like a jab saying I was not taking care of her son as well as I should or could. Back then (14 years ago) I could not see that she was trying to love me, trying to help.  

What the mother-in-law thought was loving, the daughter-in-law saw as criticism. I know I was insecure as a new wife and wanted to do everything perfectly, so I can see how it would be so easy to feel that way (although I didn't, Carol Parks...don't worry!).

Our interpretations of others' actions are almost always going to err on the side of us perceiving we've been wronged. I can have a whole conversation with another person in my head and then feel very hurt or bitter toward them, even though they weren't even around for the argument. My friend once had a dream where I betrayed her and the next day she could hardly speak to me. We are really great at playing the victim--my imagination is amazing, I assure you.

But what if we were so secure in our identity in Christ that we didn't have to play the victim? What if we knew we were loved so perfectly by our Father that we didn't have to obsess over the actions and words of others? What if we reminded ourselves that Christ gets it--He suffered greater pain and sorrow than we ever could, for the sake of those at whose hands He experienced such pain.

By the power of the Holy Spirit, when I'm able to forget myself for just a minute and remember that I am in Christ--adopted, betrothed, and so greatly loved--then I experience amazing freedom to let my interpretations of the motives of others go. I can just give it up and run to Christ. I can choose to believe the best, because God has freed me from worrying about myself all the time. He's got it. I can rest.

Walk a Mile in Her Shoes

Mother-in-law - It's hard to let go. When my son was two days old, I sat in the hospital bed holding him, in a room by myself, sobbing (people, don't leave a hormonal mom alone for long periods of time...not much clear thinking comes out of this scenario). I just kept saying, "Don't leave me. Don't go off and marry some girl and leave me. Stay with me." Not my best moment. But I get it just a little bit now that I have a son. Of course he's just three and still thinks I hung the moon, so I don't really get it. Anyway, your relationship has already changed, but it's going to change even more. And that is super hard. I can't even think about it yet.

Daughter-in-law - It's hard to see your husband's mom holding on when he's supposed to be leaving and cleaving to you. She's telling you how to fold his underwear and you're thinking, "Oh my sweet goodness, please let me be his wife, Lady." You have waited so long to be in this role--a wife and helper for your husband--but his mom just won't give it up.

So just take a minute and consider what it's like in her shoes. Mom, what was it like to be a new wife? How was your mother-in-law? Daughter, how do you think you would feel if your son had just grown up and walked out the door with his new wife? She still remembers his first steps like they were yesterday!

And then PRAY. There is something so incredible about praying for someone. Not praying that God will change her, but praying FOR her. When I pray for people (normally people I'm mad at and don't want to pray for), something amazing happens. I start to really love them. I start to care about their needs. And my little Grinch heart grows and grows. Try it. It really works.

So what are other ways we get off track in this relationship? Have you seen any of the above in your own heart? (I know I have...)