Several months ago I received an e-mail that I have not been able to forget. A man I'll call Jason sent the following message:
Would you please write an article about the differences between being a single woman and a married woman [with regard to] her relationship with her father?
I struggle with my wife remaining "daddy's little girl." In the time it takes my wife to speed dial her daddy every time I give her an answer [on issues from] when the oil in her car needs changing to what time we are planning to meet for dinner, she calls her daddy to make sure what I said is "right." I have stopped wasting my time and self-respect responding to her on issues that she is going to daddy about regardless of my answer.
Can you sense Jason's disappointment in his marriage ... feel his pain?
Sad to say, he is far from alone.
There are countless daddy's little girls, as well as mama's little boys—husbands or wives whose heartstrings are still tied to their childhood roles. And there's no quick fix to their problems.
A change of allegiance
Where can one begin? How about in the Garden of Eden?
Genesis 2:24 (KJV) gives this advice to a husband and his wife: "Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife."
"Leaving" parents means forsaking dependence on them. "Cleaving" to your wife means joining together. And with that new bond of marriage comes a change of allegiance.
"Before marriage," author Gary Chapman writes in Toward a Growing Marriage, "one's allegiance is to one's parents, but after marriage allegiance shifts to one's mate."
Jason's wife has not transferred her allegiance from her daddy to her husand. And by continuing to depend upon her father, she has left her husband feeling second-rate, discounted, and understandably upset.
A friend I'll call Eric identifies with Jason's dilemma. While Eric didn't know how to fix anything when he first married, his new father-in-law could have starred in a home improvement show. "Fortunately," Eric says, "my wife's father saw this as a potential problem and after a few instances started to direct her to talk to me first."
I asked some pastors and Christian counselors how a husband in Jason's predicament should approach his wife. What could he do if she is too dependent on her father? Here are 10 ideas that might help:
1. Ask God to help you get to the heart of the issue. Spend some time looking inward. Have you done anything to cause your spouse to ignore your opinions? Have you made bad decisions in the past? Have you disrespected her? Not listened to her or belittled her? Have you ignored her past requests for help?
2. Talk with a mentor about your problem. Ask him to help you recognize any of your shortcomings that may have caused your wife to feel insecure, resulting in her numerous calls to her dad.
3. After spending time with the Lord and a godly mentor, go to your wife and discuss the situation with her. Identify the issues that you think are causing her insecurities. Calmly discuss why you need to be the head of your house—not your father-in-law.
4. When you talk with your wife, focus on expressing your feelings, and don't attack. One pastor said to use "I feel ..." language, not "you ..." language. For example: "I feel disrespected," instead of, "You are so disrespectful." "I feel like my opinions don't matter," instead of, "You don't care what I think."
5. Focus on only one specific issue at a time. For example: "Last Thursday when you noticed the oil light on in the car, you said you needed to call your dad. That made me feel like I'm not capable of helping you."
6. Ask your wife if she senses a barrier forming between you and her. If she does, ask her why she thinks this is happening.
7. Ask her, "How can I help you?" And then really listen to what she says.
8. Pray with your wife. Ask for her forgiveness for any ways that you may have failed her. Then ask her if she has any fears that are prompting her to call her dad before you. With compassion, try to understand what is going on in her heart. Does she feel like she can't trust you? Is she unwilling to let you fail? Is she somehow afraid she'll lose her relationship with her father if she stops calling him for advice?
9. You may want to call your father-in-law for some "manly advice." Respectfully share how you feel so that everyone is on the same page. Maybe your father-in-law does not realize the ramifications of his responding to his daughter's numerous pleas for help. Maybe he doesn't understand why you are not helping her more. "Without talking to her dad," one pastor said, "there are too many possibilities on the table."
You might explain to your father-in-law that you're trying to change and need his help in getting your wife to look to you instead of him. Respectfully ask your father-in-law to stop rescuing his daughter. If this goes well, you may want to meet regularly with your father-in-law to evaluate how things are going.
10. As you and your wife work together to have a godly marriage, pray together as a couple. Ask God to give you wisdom and unity as you make the shift in allegiance together (she by relying less on her father and you as a supportive spouse). You and your wife could also share your challenges with friends at church, asking for a couple to mentor you in this season of life.
With God's help, biblical counsel, and hard work, hopefully a wife who has had a hard time leaving and cleaving will begin to look first to her husband for help. Each time she does this, she will communicate to him, "I trust you." And trust is at the core of any successful marriage.
All grown up
In a traditional wedding ceremony, the pastor asks, “Who gives this woman to be married to this man?”
The father’s typical response is, “Her mother and I do.” Often with a tear in his eye, dad will slip the arm of his daughter onto that of her future spouse.
As she recites her vows, she transfers allegiance from dear ol' dad to the new man in her life. And with the pronouncement of “man and wife,” a new family unit begins. The time she has dreamed of has finally arrived.
Daddy’s little girl has grown up.
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1. For more great help for newlywed couples, check out Dennis and Barbara Rainey’s books, Starting Your Marriage Right and Preparing for Marriage Devotions for Couples.
2. Michael and Hayley DiMarco talk about their difficult early years of marriage on FamilyLife Today®.