Up until now, the guests posts featured during In-Law Week have all been positive accounts, detailing how each writer's in-laws showed grace and the love of Christ to their new family members. This was undoubtedly not always easy, especially considering how each person did not exactly fit the mold of their new family's expectations. But maybe you've been reading and you're thinking, "That is not my experience at all. I'm trying and trying to love, but it's a one-way street and I'm exhausted." Today's post is for you. My guest today (and precious friend), Marci Preheim, shares some loving, grace-filled wisdom for how to handle those intense in-law relationships (or ANY difficult relationship).
Romans 12:18 says this: “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” The first two clauses in this verse speak volumes. They reveal this truth: 1) it is not always possible to live at peace with everyone, and 2) you cannot control other people’s behavior. You can only control your own.
This little verse has brought comfort to many young newlyweds who have found themselves in a surprisingly difficult in-law relationship. My best-friend (I’ll call her Jane) and I used to joke that, until we got married, we had never met anyone that we could not MAKE like us. We used to flip our hair back, look in the mirror together and laugh: “What’s not to like about me?” Even though we were being facetious (and obnoxious), there was some truth to our jesting. You cannot MAKE someone love you.
I suspect there is very little written about the difficulties of in-law relationships in Christian circles because no one wants to dishonor their parents or their spouse’s parents. After all, most writers write about what they know—what they have learned from experience. Many articles I have read about in-law relationships sum it all up with an exhortation for mutual love, and boundary setting. They give examples of Christ-centered respectful relationships that we should all pattern our lives after. For those who have exhausted every effort to live at peace with their in-laws to no avail, these exhortations are like a dull knife to an already sensitive wound.
Jane’s mother-in-law is one of those ladies in the church who cooks and serves and has people over for dinner and spoils children with sweets and gifts. Everyone loves her. There was a little evidence during the wedding planning that mom-in-law had a controlling side. She gave her opinion much too readily and could snap your head off without warning. Jane wrote it off as wedding stress. Things settled down after the wedding. It was smooth sailing. . .until babies came along.
All of a sudden a tolerable relationship turned unbearable. Jane and her husband had moved six-hours away from his parents (which was a crime in itself), but when babies came along so did the expectations. Mom-in-law decided she was going to visit every six weeks and stay for a week each time so she and her grandbaby would be close. This was hard on Jane, but she wanted to honor her mother-in-law. Gradually with more visits, came more expectations. Jane began to feel like she and her husband were just two more children for his mom to parent.
Men don’t often see the complexities of female relationships. Jane’s husband thought his wife could use the help and he enjoyed having his mom’s cooking and affection. His mom behaved well when he was around, but when he wasn’t, she was cold and critical to Jane. She made Jane feel like she was an unworthy mom, wife, and person for that matter. She unapologetically slandered Jane to other family members. Jane felt guilty for not wanting her around. When she broached the subject with her husband, he suggested that she might be over-reacting. He urged her to be selfless, grateful for the help, and asked her to keep the peace. After all it was only one week out of every six.
I can almost hear the female voices of those reading this article. Trust me, every word of advice that is about to drop out of your mouth, Jane has tried. What do you do when you have done everything possible, as far as it depends on you, to live at peace with your in-laws? The more Jane sacrificed, humbled herself, kept quiet, the more intrusive mom-in-law became.
When we talk, in Christian circles, about loving one another and sacrificing for one another, what does that mean? Should Jane honor her mother-in-law by letting her take leadership over her home once every six weeks? Are we commanded, as Christians, to let other people take control of our lives for the sake of peace? There is not time to sacrifice to this extent for everyone in our family, in the church, in the world. How much sacrifice is enough?
In my own (much less severe) relationships with extended family, I have had to take refuge in the Lord. I have had to cling to Him as my rock and my salvation (Psalm 62:6). There are times when I have felt such immense pressure to do something, and yet when I ran to the Lord, His word said: Wait. . .wait. . .wait! “Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for Him. . . Refrain from anger and turn from wrath; do not fret—it leads only to evil.”
Dealing with in-laws (or any difficult relationship for that matter) cannot be remedied with a simple command to love and sacrifice for others. Most of the time, these relationships reveal our utter inability to do so. Our confusion should drive us to the cross—to the only One who ever truly loved sacrificially. James gives us this invitation in his epistle: “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him” (James 1:5). The hard part is waiting for the answer and believing it will come.
I don’t have to give communication tips or a flow chart of who’s responsible to talk to who about what. In difficult circumstances people naturally pull out every tool in their arsenal of wisdom—human or spiritual. Sometimes Christians act in the power of the Holy Spirit. Sometimes they explode with their own impatience. We do anything to escape suffering. At the end of all this striving and effort a sweet surrender to the Lord can be found. It is the moment you cry uncle and hand it over. It may be a moment by moment surrender, but it is the kind of surrender that trusts that someone else sees the situation. Someone else has the power to fix it but has chosen, for some good reason, not to. Someone else will care for me until it is fixed. I don’t have to do anything.
I give the same counsel that the Psalmist gave to himself: “Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God. . .My soul finds rest in God alone; my salvation comes from him. . .Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your hearts to him, for God is our refuge” (Psalm 43:5, Psalm 62:1, 8).
Marci Preheim was born in Lincoln, Nebraska but moved to Hollywood, California as a teenager. It was there, at the age of 21, that she came to know the Savior through the ministry of a local church. Within a couple of years of her conversion she became involved in a women’s prison ministry and discovered her passion for sharing the gospel publicly. Marci has been married to Arnie Preheim since August of 1993. Shortly after their marriage, Arnie and Marci moved to Nashville, Tennessee. They have 2 children, Brock (born in 1995) and Paige (born in 1998). Marci regularly teaches the women’s Bible study at Community Bible Church. For ten years, she has also led a monthly chapel service for women at the Nashville Rescue Mission (Hope Center for female recovering addicts). You can find more of her writing at marcipreheim.com and in her book, Super(free)Woman: From Fundamentalist to Failure to Faith.