A few weeks after their wedding, the young man came home to find his wife in tears. She told him that his father had called her and said, “I cannot believe you forgot my wife’s birthday.” In the father’s mind, it was her responsibility to keep up with occasions like these—even birthdays for her in-laws.
The young man knew what he had to do. First he got on the phone with his mother and said, “Mom, I want to apologize for not sending you a birthday card or present. I’m really sorry about that.” Then he asked to talk with his father.
“Dad, this is the only time I want to have this conversation with you,” the young man said. “I never want you to do that to my wife again. My loyalty now is to her, and if you have a problem with something I have done, then you need to talk to me.”
I wonder how many young husbands would have stepped up with that type of courage in similar circumstances? What impresses me is that he honored his mother through his apology, but he also did not hesitate to let his father know he had overstepped his boundaries. And in the process he let his new bride know that she was the new priority in his life.
Honor … and forsake
When we marry, we face a difficult balancing act with our parents. On one hand, the fifth of the Ten Commandments tells us to “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you” (Exodus 20:12). No matter what your age, you should honor your parents by spending time with them, thanking them for what they’ve done well, caring for them as necessary … and, yes, remembering their birthdays!
But then we look at Genesis 2:24, part of the narrative where God creates the institution of marriage. This verse tells us, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” The Hebrew word for “leave” means to forsake, to leave behind, to literally let go. As difficult as it may be, when you marry you declare to the world, “No other person on earth is more important to me than my spouse.” Your spouse becomes a higher priority than your parents.
So how do you balance leaving your parents while also honoring them? Here are a few suggestions:
1. When you marry, determine to set up your own home and family. This means more than physically living apart from your parents; it also involves setting your own schedule, creating your own family traditions, and establishing your own values and priorities.
Early in marriage, one of the most common points of conflict with in-laws is holidays. Where will you spend Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, or other occasions? It is difficult for many to accept the fact that those holidays will never be the same as they were. Talk with your parents well ahead of these occasions about possibilities. Be creative and flexible, and urge your parents to do the same. And in the future, when you have children of your own, there may come a time when you ask your parents to begin coming to your home for these holidays.
2. Pull away from dependence upon your parents. One of the most common problems you will face as a newly married couple will be the temptation to allow parents to bail you out of financial difficulty. I know of one couple that kept turning to the wife’s parents to bail them out after poor financial choices. As a result, the husband was not forced to step up to his responsibility to provide for his family and to live with the consequences of poor choices. It undermined his self-respect as a man, and his wife was losing her respect for him as well.
It’s also important to pull away from emotional dependence. Some spouses are so accustomed to consulting their parents, for example, that they feel uncomfortable making decisions on their own. There’s nothing wrong with getting advice—the problem comes when they doubt their ability to make good decisions independently. This also means being willing for you or your spouse to make bad decisions and learning from your mistakes … just like your parents did when they were young.
3. Look for opportunities to spend time with your parents. Remember how difficult it is for them to let you go. And for single parents, the loss can be even more wrenching. Leaving does not mean withdrawing from them; that’s abandonment, not leaving.
If you live far away from your parents, you will need to make a special effort to visit them on a regular basis during weekends, vacations, etc. This will involve flexibility and sometimes sacrifice, but that’s part of the commitment you make when you join another family.
4. Don’t allow them to manipulate you. This is one of the most difficult issues to address. Your parents know you well, and they know what buttons to push so you will do what they want. And sometimes they don’t even realize how they are being manipulative. At times you will need to lovingly confront them to establish your independence.
5. Protect each other. Don’t criticize your spouse to your parents, and defend your spouse when they are critical. If you are having a conflict, don’t get advice from your parents.
I once made the mistake of making a negative comment about Barbara to my mother. It was not a major issue, and I soon forgot it—but she didn’t. For years she brought up that comment occasionally, and I realized I had not protected Barbara as I should have.
For many of you, the act of leaving your parents will be one of the most difficult steps of your life. But it’s a vital step in the process of growing up and establishing your own home.
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