At a bridal shower I recently attended, the bride opened her gift from the groom’s mother and found an apron with the two ties neatly snipped off. That was all that was in the box. Her future mother-in-law explained, “This was my apron. Daniel [the groom] cut off the apron strings and now they are yours.”
I broke into vigorous applause, which quickly ended because I was the only one clapping! But I meant every loud, lonely clap that echoed between houses (it was a garden shower). What a wise groom and future mother-in-law! Both mother and son knew that for the couple’s marriage to thrive the newlyweds would need to start their own individual family, putting each other above all the rest.
It’s the simple but profound leave-and-cleave concept that Jesus taught in Matthew 19:5. Jesus quoted His Father in answer to the Pharisees’ question on divorce: “For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they twain shall be one flesh” (KJV).
We don’t use the word cleave much, but the definition is “to glue to; to adhere.” If you have ever glued your fingers together, you know there is no room between them for even a thin, sharp blade to separate them without danger of cutting one or both fingers. That is how close we are to be as husband and wife. We are to be so close that nothing or no one can get a smidge between us.
If your husband is having trouble leaving his mom or still favors his mom over you, find a time when you both are relatively relaxed and talk to him about this. Share with him what you experience and how it makes you feel. A dear friend has worked hard in her 20 years of marriage to build a relationship with her mother-in-law while keeping healthy boundaries. Her situation includes more than one difficult, boundary-pushing circumstance that would send most of us into the fetal position within a few days. Get this—she lives in her mother-in-law’s former home and her in-laws built a house right next door! What follows are several of her valuable insights (names have been changed to protect the innocent … and the in-laws):
I think the biggest thing for me has been establishing boundaries. Since I live next door to my mother-in-law, boundaries have been so important, but painful, because Dave and I both hate conflict. If we didn’t have to do it, it would be easier to just avoid. But we have to address boundaries for my sanity and honestly, so my mother-in-law and I can have a good and healthy relationship. I firmly established the boundaries of where she could “intrude” in our life, and because she’s right next door that meant getting specific about visiting rules and when and how she could enter our house!
While being assertive and brutally honest, I have also tried to show her love. I can say I have a really good relationship with her. One way I’ve tried to show her love is to make “deposits” with her when I can. I invite them to dinner, invite them on weekend trips with us, and give them tickets for our church’s huge Easter cantata, taking them out to dinner afterward. Dave always makes sure they know it was my idea (when it was).
I have blessed her by intentionally forcing myself to ask her for help with cooking/recipes and gardening issues. It doesn’t seem like much, but cooking and gardening are her passions, and I have to humble myself to ask questions. She lights up when I do. It sounds crazy, but I have to fight the impulse to give her the impression I can do everything and am completely self-sufficient.
She is an excellent seamstress and once tried to teach me to sew and gave me an old sewing machine. Later I tried to just cut up an old towel and serge the edges to make cleaning rags. It was a disaster (again, couldn’t humble myself and call for help). The thread was knotted and tangled. I was laughing at myself by the end. It looked so pathetic that I couldn’t keep the joke to myself, and as an exercise in humility, I wrapped the sorry scrap as a gift for her. I included a note that said, “Thanks for all the sewing and alterations you do for me!” We had a good laugh at my attempt at sewing—something as simple as that really helped thaw our relationship.
I think you can see from what she said that the key is to have a healthy balance of humility and pride. Be proud of your man, your marriage, your home. But at the same time, be humble. Realize that (at least in many cases) these parents, for better or worse, poured a large portion of their time, heart, sweat, and tears into the man you call your husband, and give them the respect they deserve.
If you are living with a particularly sticky situation, or if your man just doesn’t get where you are coming from, you may want to return to your premarital counselor to discuss your in-law relationships. If your husband is resistant to counseling, consider going yourself. Whatever you do, don’t ignore the issues. You could try sweeping your in-laws under the rug, but I think that’s illegal in most states. And besides, good relationships with your family and your husband’s family can add richness to your lives.