After you were married, did you begin to see your parents in a different light?
This experience is pretty common for married couples. Each of us comes from a separate family history, and we relate to our parents in a certain way. Then a new person comes into the family, and the dynamics change. Your spouse brings a new perspective to the situation—observing your parents’ strengths and faults, and noting how they affect you.
At this point, you and your spouse have some choices to make.
Will you be a positive influence for your spouse in this area? Will you honor your parents, or will you begin focusing on your parents negative qualities and spend years bogged down with bad attitudes?
He pushed his wife away from her parents
That's what happened to Ryan and Jessica.* Her father was a successful lawyer, a powerful man who was accustomed to getting his own way. He had provided for his family quite well financially, but he had been so preoccupied with building a career that he had largely neglected his family. He was opinionated, blunt, and bossy. When they failed to meet his standards, he belittled them with cruel and sarcastic remarks.
Jessica sometimes wished her father was different, but over the years she grew accustomed to him and his ways. That began to change, however, when she married Ryan. A young insurance salesman, he was a hard driver himself. So it was inevitable that he would feel some tension with his new father-in-law.
Out of respect—and perhaps a little fear—Ryan acted politely during the first few times he spent with Jessica’s father. Even if the man said something he completely disagreed with, Ryan held his tongue. Alone with Jessica, however, he expressed his frustration.
"How can you take that man?" he said one night as they drove home following a family dinner. "He treats you like a little kid, he always has to be in control, and he thinks he's right about everything!"
"He's my dad," Jessica replied. "I know he's got his faults, but that doesn't mean I shouldn't love him."
By the time they reached home, Jessica was depressed. Memories that she had suppressed for many years—of birthday parties missed, of hugs she wanted from her dad but never received—came flooding back.
Over the next few years, this pattern continued. To avoid any conflict, Ryan mainly kept to himself when they visited Jessica’s family. But he heard everything that went on and led a debriefing session while driving home. Jessica, meanwhile, found herself feeling more resentment and anger toward her father. She wondered why God could not have put her in a different family, with a father who loved her.
Ryan and Jessica found themselves feeling increasingly alienated from her parents. On one hand this was easier, because the less time they spent with them, the less tension, pressure, and anger they felt. But deep inside, Jessica wished it was different. When a friend mentioned her father, she would say, "I wish I could find a way to break through to my father, but he's so cold."
What Ryan did not realize was that he was the main problem. By dissecting each family visit during the drive home, he pushed his wife to focus on her father's negative attributes. He brought confusion and tension into her life because he was encouraging her to alienate herself from a man who, despite his faults, she loved deeply.
Where's your focus?
One of the 10 Commandments is “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.” For those who have difficult relationships with parents, obeying this commandment is a big challenge.
So it’s important for you to remember the power you have in your spouse’s life. Make a commitment to help your spouse honor his or her parents.
Tensions with parents and in-laws are inevitable in a marriage. But a married couple needs to make a mutual commitment early in their relationship to avoid focusing on the negative. Give parents a lot of grace. Talk about the things parents are doing right.
Look for ways to spend time with parents, doing the things they like to do. Ask their advice. Thank them for help they give you.
I know of some adults who have been so hurt by their in-laws that they actually discouraged their spouse from honoring their parents. If this is your situation, this may be a crucial step of faith for you; do everything you can to help your spouse honor his or her parents, no matter how difficult that is. It may mean holding your tongue sometimes at family gatherings. And afterward as well.
A tribute to a father-in-law
Susan wrote me to tell about her father-in-law, Frank, who had hardly spoken to her, even after several years of marriage. If anyone had the right to discourage her husband, John, from honoring his father, she did.
Instead, Susan chose to encourage her husband to continue honoring his father. And then she went a step further: She wrote a “tribute” to the very man who seemed to be rejecting her.
While attending a writer's workshop, she began thinking about the wonderful qualities of her husband. “Then I started thinking about Frank and how easy it would be for me to hate him," she wrote. "God spoke so clearly to me that day that I was not responsible for how Frank responded to me, but for how I honored and esteemed him."
The result was a poem which she wrote and sent to her father-in-law. It ended with these words:
for being present in my husband's life,
for generously providing for your family,
for being faithful to your wife,
for patiently enduring John’s adolescent and teen eras,
for not envying,
for not being rude,
for diligently keeping the home in order—in your way.
Thank you for living a life before him which helped shape his personality—
God bless you, Frank! You're very special!
Susan never heard back from Frank. But when she asked her mother-in-law if he liked the tribute, she was told, "Oh, of course, he liked it." She hopes the gesture planted a seed for something beautiful to grow in the future. And in the process, she not only honored her father-in-law, but encouraged her husband as well.
Adapted from The Forgotten Commandment, © Copyright by Dennis Rainey, FamilyLife Publishing, 2014. All rights reserved.
1. For more information about writing a tribute, read the article "The Best Gift You Can Give Your Parents." You can also see examples of tributes at the end of that article.
2. Listen to Dennis Rainey talk more about honoring your parents in the FamilyLife Today® series, "Putting Your Parents in Proper Perspective."
3. Order Dennis Rainey's book, The Forgotten Commandment.