I can still remember meeting Sally’s parents for the first time–only one week before the wedding. We met and dated in a different state than Sally’s home, and we were engaged within three months. Mom and Pop Hill are extremely likable people, and the slight problems we encountered were due to the awkward situation, and not them.
I arrived in Boulder, Sally’s hometown, about 2 p.m. I had stopped earlier to clean up and put a suit on before meeting Sally’s family. Since they lived in the mountains above Boulder, I decided to drop in on Sally’s dad at work to get directions to their house. Pop was a well-known auto mechanic in Boulder. When I entered his shop, the supervisor told me Mr. Hill was working under a car, several cars down the line.
I was spotlessly dressed, overly aggressive, and somewhat nervous. I walked up to the car and said to his feet, which were sticking out, “Mr. Hill, I am Don Meredith.” Stunned, Mr. Hill got about halfway out from under the car before I grabbed his greasy hand and said “Hello!” He was embarrassed about the grease, and we both felt rather awkward. He gave me directions to their house, and I left with my clean suit and greasy hand.
That night the pressure escalated. I quickly discovered that Sally’s house had only one bathroom, and you had to go through her parents’ bedroom to get there! After going to bed, my worst fears came true. I had to use the bathroom. I’m a very modest person. I waited as long as I could, and then I walked through their bedroom. I flushed the toilet and it sounded like Niagara Falls. I was so embarrassed! I felt emotional pressure from that point forward.
Later in the week we had a serious problem concerning the phone expenses. Sally and I had made some long-distance calls related to our wedding plans. However, we forgot to tell the Hills that we intended to pay for the calls. All the calls were long, full of questions, congratulations, and general catch-up, and they were all expensive. Finally, Sally mentioned her parents’ concern over all the calls. This was perfectly understandable, but in light of the tension, I reacted strongly against Sally. I took pride in my financial responsibility and felt my integrity being questioned.
These problems sound foolish as I retell them, but at the time they were very serious. Four people, who under normal circumstances would have hit it off perfectly, started out on the wrong foot. Since then, things have smoothed out, and, by God’s grace, our in-law problems have been minor. Our family greatly enjoys our times at Sally’s parents’ home, and we all look forward to our visits. This is true of my family as well. Many couples start off wrong and are then burdened with poor in-law relationships for years. Once again, it will take faith to develop positive in-law relationships. For this reason, couples need to know what God says concerning in-laws.
Leaving one’s father and mother
God established His foundational thoughts concerning in-laws at the time He created marriage: “For this cause a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). In this passage the man is commanded to leave upon marriage, yet throughout the Old Testament numerous examples are given of women leaving. The Hebrew word used in Genesis 2:24 for “leave” means to abandon or break off completely. God is saying that before a significant new relationship can begin, the old parent-child relationship must cease. By this God means that in issues of authority the parents no longer have responsibility.
God does not mean that the parental relationship should end altogether. Obviously, children should never stop honoring their parents. God is not against parents. His strong command to men and women is to put their full trust in God and their mates. Total mate satisfaction and respect can occur only when a couple has established a new primary allegiance.
God knew that after twenty or so years of responding to parental authority, there would be a tendency to continue the dependence even after marriage. Therefore, God indicates that one dependent relationship should end so that another can begin.
Although the parents’ authority ends with the creation of the new relationship, the couple’s responsibility to honor their parents continues. Deuteronomy 5:16 tells us that the duty of a child is to honor his parents. This word “honor” speaks primarily of valuing at a high price, showing deep respect or reverential awe. In marriage, parental experience and advice are very important. Still, decisions must be made by the couple apart from parental control. Even though parental advice may be necessary at times, it is better for the couple to go to the parents and not vice versa.
How to truly cleave to your mate
Failing to leave your parents hurts them in the long run as well as your mate and yourself. Agree together on a mutual plan to leave the authority of your parents. Here are several suggestions for truly leaving your parents’ authority and cleaving to your spouse for help, comfort, and advice in decision making.
First, evaluate everyone’s needs. Parents are not your enemy; they just do what comes naturally. If misunderstandings arise between you and your parents or parents-in-law, don’t strike out at them for loving you, even if their method is wrong. Since both mates have an innate need to be at peace with their parents, don’t be disrespectful to your in-laws.
Instead, when frustrations occur, analyze the situation with your mate and agree together about the cause. Evaluate everyone’s real need, what went wrong, and most importantly, look for a creative solution. If either mate has wronged a parent, ask forgiveness. If a decision is needed to protect the integrity of the marriage, make it together. Then look for a creative way to communicate this to the parents.
Second, maintain privacy. Commit together never to share any intimate needs or decisions with either set of parents without your mate’s permission. A husband may be dreaming of a new car, and his wife simply mentions it to her dad. The father then voices his disapproval to her husband, and the husband feels betrayed. Couples must build their lives together, and everything should remain private unless agreed otherwise.
Third, handle critical statements with care. Never be critical about your mate to your parents or allow them to make critical statements about your mate. Sharing something critical about your mate is damaging, not only to your mate, but also to your parents. Why? Because parents never forget the problems shared, and rarely allow your mate to change (in their minds). Your parents naturally become overly protective of their own children. We know one wife who revealed a financial irresponsibility by her mate in the first year of their marriage, and her parents are still bringing it up after twenty years. Parents don’t have the opportunity to see your mate change and improve as you do. They only have your comments to go on.
Do yourself and your parents another favor. The next time they make a critical statement about your mate, respond with a strong but loving rebuff. I know of one man whose mother was just leading up to a critical remark about his wife. He interrupted with, “Mom, I love you a lot, but please don’t be critical of my wife. I want you to know she is God’s gift to me, and I don’t want to hear those criticisms.”
His mother hastily replied, “Don’t be silly; I wasn’t going to be critical of her.”
The wise son responded with, “Forgive me, Mom. I just so want you two to be friends, because I love you both so much.” He was strong but kind to his mother.
Fourth, develop a plan for visiting in-laws. Before visiting your parents, especially early in marriage, agree on the length of time that you plan to stay. One idea is to allow your wife to go home to her parents a few days earlier than you in order to give her parents the attention they need before you arrive. Men, occasionally go home to see your parents alone. Sometimes parents need time alone with their children after they are married. If you live close to either parent, this will not be a problem.
Most importantly, when visiting as a couple, let your mate have the freedom to love his own parents. If you feel somewhat ignored while at your spouse’s parents’ home, anticipate and discuss it before your next visit.
For example, you might want to go somewhere with your wife while at her home. Since she is the one who is naturally accepted in her home, take her aside and tell her your plan. That way she can announce the need for you both to go somewhere at the appropriate time. She takes total responsibility for the decision. You are free from the possibility of hurting her parents, and they better understand and accept the decision. If in-laws tend to visit too much, agree on a plan; then the child of that in-law should talk to the parent. Don’t put your mate in a position that might offend or hurt your parents. It’s easier to deal with your parent yourself so your spouse is still approved and not involved in tough discussions.
Fifth, be considerate toward your in-laws. Ask your mother-in-law and father-in-law what they would prefer that you call them. Let them know you will be glad to call them Mom and Dad if they prefer. You may be more comfortable calling them by their first names, especially if you have known them for a long time. Asking gives them the freedom to say, “It’s up to you.”
Another thing that demonstrates consideration is dropping your parents-in-law an occasional card, thanking them for their role in your mate’s life or for allowing you to visit. Courtesy with parents not only brings joy to them and to you, but increases the possibility of an exciting grandparent-child relationship in the future.