FamilyLife Today® Podcast

Control Freak

with Les and Leslie Parrott | January 2, 2008
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What do you do when a parent tries to control you even after you're married? Find out by joining us for today's broadcast when Dennis Rainey talks to best-selling authors and counselors, Les and Leslie Parrott. Hear the Parrotts explain why drawing boundaries with in-laws is important, and why couples need to face the problem of over controlling parents as a team.

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  • About the Host

  • About the Guest

  • What do you do when a parent tries to control you even after you're married? Find out by joining us for today's broadcast when Dennis Rainey talks to best-selling authors and counselors, Les and Leslie Parrott. Hear the Parrotts explain why drawing boundaries with in-laws is important, and why couples need to face the problem of over controlling parents as a team.

  • Dave and Ann Wilson

    Dave and Ann Wilson are hosts of FamilyLife Today®, FamilyLife’s nationally-syndicated radio program. Dave and Ann have been married for more than 38 years and have spent the last 33 teaching and mentoring couples and parents across the country. They have been featured speakers at FamilyLife’s Weekend to Remember® marriage getaway since 1993 and have also hosted their own marriage conferences across the country. Cofounders of Kensington Church—a national, multicampus church that hosts more than 14,000 visitors every weekend—the Wilsons are the creative force behind DVD teaching series Rock Your Marriage and The Survival Guide To Parenting, as well as authors of the recently released book Vertical Marriage (Zondervan, 2019). Dave is a graduate of the International School of Theology, where he received a Master of Divinity degree. A Ball State University Hall of Fame quarterback, Dave served the Detroit Lions as chaplain for 33 years. Ann attended the University of Kentucky. She has been active alongside Dave in ministry as a speaker, writer, small-group leader, and mentor to countless wives of professional athletes. The Wilsons live in the Detroit area. They have three grown sons, CJ, Austin, and Cody, three daughters-in-law, and a growing number of grandchildren.

What do you do when a parent tries to control you even after you’re married?

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Control Freak

With Les and Leslie Parrott
January 02, 2008
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Les: One of the things that I always encourage couples to look for in this kind of a situation is what kind of permission are you giving mom and dad to do this to you?

 There must be some entry, some kind of message that you're sending to them that gives them the right to meddle in your life.

 Maybe it is that you're getting free babysitting from them, maybe they're paying the school bills, maybe they're paying your rent.  Whatever it is, they are somehow feeling like they have a right to do this.

Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Wednesday, January 2nd.  Our host is the president of FamilyLife, Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine.  If you're thinking, "I don't think I'm giving anybody permission to meddle in my marriage, but we've still got a meddler." Stay tuned, we've got some help for you.

 And welcome to FamilyLife Today, thanks for joining us.  I've got a letter that I brought in.  This is a letter that we got from one of our listeners.

Dennis: It's a pretty long letter, too, isn't it?

Bob: It's a fairly long letter. The listener wrote and said, "I need some practical, godly advice," and I was thinking, "What should we do with this letter," and, in fact, we've already responded to this particular listener, but I went through and changed some of the details, because I would guess, Dennis, that what this listener described for us is a somewhat typical situation.

 And then I thought, "Well, we ought to see if we could get Les and Leslie Parrott to come and help us with an answer to this letter, because the letter really deals with parents who continue to …

Dennis: Control?

Bob: Yeah, I think you're getting the right words in there.

Dennis: Not let them leave?

Bob: That's right.  I thought, if we could get Les and Leslie Parrott – I remember talking to them one time – Les wrote a book called "Control Freak," and Leslie said it was his autobiography, and I thought it would be perfect to just ask …

Dennis: And they're in the studio.  Let's welcome them to FamilyLife Today.

Les: I'll believe you now but, yeah.

Dennis: In case our listeners don't know Les and Leslie, Les is a professor of Clinical Psychology and Leslie, his wife, is a marriage and family therapist, and what that means is Les lectures Leslie, and Leslie counsels Les.


Les: You got it.

Leslie: You got it – two points.

Dennis: Their marriage has also survived enough counseling and lectures to write a few books together, and we're going to get their advice today as to how they would coach someone whose daughter and son-in-law are being, well, how should we say it – have a little heavy-handed mother-in-law and father-in-law.

Bob: The long arm of the parents stepping in.  Are you guys ready for the letter here?

Les: All right, let's hear it.

Leslie: Let's hear it.

Bob: "I have a question in which I need practical godly advice.  I am a 30-year-old female.  I am married to a wonderful man, and we have a two-year-old son named Sam."  Now, again, we changed a lot of the details here, so as to protect this particular person.

 "We are originally from Texas, where both of our families are from, but we've recently moved to St. Louis for my husband to attend Covenant Theological Seminary.  My parents are the center of the question.  I'll begin by telling you that my mother and I have always been very close.  When Bill and I were married, I knew that I could no longer tell my mother everything.  Now I was one with my husband.  We were our own family.

 We live two hours away from my parents.  This was smart, but we also knew that they were still trying to wedge in between us by trying to make decisions for us financially and asking questions about our lives, financially and otherwise, and insisting on answers.

 Well, once we had our son, my mother wanted to come to visit several times a month, and she stayed many days.  When we found out that Bill had been accepted into seminary, we were so blessed, it was an answer to prayer in many ways.  One of those ways was because we knew it would be good for us to have greater distance from my parents.

 We thought the phone calls would slow down, but they seemed to call close to every day.  They came to visit two weeks ago for a week.  They are both very young.  My mom looks like she could be my sister – and they are very bold.  Bill and I gave up our room, and we slept on the floor in the baby's room.  I think my parents took that as an invitation to take over the whole household.  Everything was turned upside down.  My dad began taking our only vehicle, without asking, if he wanted to go somewhere.

 My mom, basically, took my job as a mother away, and I felt as though I didn't know Sam by the time they left.  She made me feel so inadequate as a mom.  If Sam needed to be changed in a restaurant, she would get up and follow me into the restroom until the last night, when I told her I had done this thousands of times, and I would be fine.  She pouted and would hardly talk the rest of the evening."

Dennis: Okay, time out here.  I think we've heard enough.

Bob: You've got a picture of what's going on here?

Dennis: We've got a picture.  Les, what's going on here?

Les: We need to find this woman and help her.


 This is not a pretty picture.  I've got to tell you, I've done a lot of research on controlling issues and controlling parents.  I wrote this book called "The Control Freak," as we heard was my autobiography, thank you very much, but I don't think that I've encountered a situation that is so blatantly controlling of parents and in-laws.

 And, you know, I have a chapter in the book on invasive in-laws, and so I've certainly done some research on this, but this is a case of, certainly, extremes.  And I would have a whole boatload of advice for this woman, and let me just toss out a few things.

 First of all, one of the things that I always encourage couples to look for in this kind of a situation is what kind of permission are you giving mom and dad to do this to you?  There must be some entry, some kind of message that you're sending to them that gives them the right to meddle in your life.

 Maybe it is that you're getting free babysitting from them, maybe they're paying the school bills, maybe they're paying your rent.  Whatever it is, they are somehow feeling like they have a right to do this.

Dennis: On a continuing basis, too.  This is not like it's happened once.

Les: Exactly, and now that they're breaking away and starting their own life, that can be hard for mom or dad to let them do that, and so they continue to kind of do the things that they were used to doing as a parent when they were a young child.

 So they need to look at the admission ticket they've given to mom and dad to come into their lives and do that to find out whatever it is and to take that away.  You know, make a decision, at least.  Is it worth the price we're paying to have free babysitting or to get our rent paid or whatever that thing might be.

Bob: You know, she talked about when mom and dad came to visit, mom and dad stayed in their room while they, the husband and wife, went and slept on the floor in the baby's room.

Les: Right.

Bob: Now, I thought about that, and I thought, "Well, that's humble, that's self-sacrificing."

Les: Sounds nice, yeah.

Bob: But it can also be symptomatic of somebody who is allowing control to take place.

Les: Yeah, and that leads me to a second word of advice I would have for this person, and that is to examine the boundaries.  You know, we hear a lot about boundaries these days, and there is definitely a situation here where some boundary lines need to be drawn, and their bed is a good place to start, especially if mom and dad are coming for a whole week.  This is a disruptive thing to the whole family with a little two-year-old at home and everything else.

 And so, yeah, you're thinking along the same lines I am, that maybe they have opened up their hearts a little too much to mom and dad and not drawn those boundary lines and, because of that, they're paying the price.

Dennis: As I listened to that letter, there is somebody who is absent in the entire story, and that's Bill.  The only time Bill is mentioned is when Bill got accepted to seminary, which ultimately resulted in a move away from the parents.

 There should have been a few stories scattered in here where Bill went to his mother-in-law and father-in-law and had a very, very gracious yet solid discussion of what's taking place in the relationship.  Early on, she said that there was wedge being driven between us.  Now, they actually talked about is as a husband and wife, that they were sensing that mom and pops here were trying to manipulate them with money, demanding answers to their questions, their calls, their visits, their boldness, even to the point of taking a vehicle. 

 It's kind of like would the leader in the house please step forward to protect his wife?  And I've read a number of these types of letters and heard a number of stories over the years in talking to couples at our FamilyLife Marriage Conferences, and I really, at a point, after I've listened in most cases to the wife talk about the circumstances.  I've turned to the husband and say, "What would you recommend you do in this situation?"

 And it's really up to him at that point, I believe, to get a game plan for how he is going to speak the truth in love to his mother-in-law and father-in-law, and that is tremendously threatening, but it's time to step up and be the husband and be the man at that point.

Les: Right, and you've put your finger on it exactly.  It is so threatening because they are not your blood relationship, and so he's kind of relegated this to her, and that's always a mistake.  One of the things I mention in the book is that when it comes to in-law problems or parent problems as adults in a marriage, we need to face this as a team.  We need to come together as a couple and sit down with them and to talk about how this is impacting our marriage, give them a picture for what this is doing to us.

 So she's doing this on her own, no wonder they continue to have problems, because the balance in the relationship is not what it should be.

Bob: Yeah, but here is what's going to happen.  If they try to put some boundaries, even if the two of them come together and approach this graciously and in love, I mean, when mom tried to follow the daughter to the bathroom to change the baby's diaper, and the daughter said, "Mom, I've done this a thousand times, I can take care of it, " mom pouted the rest of the evening.

 All of a sudden, you're going to pay an emotional penalty if you confront this issue, and you tell these parents to back off.

Dennis: You are going to pay a short-term emotional penalty that I believe will result ultimately in a wheel alignment and a proper alignment of the relationship so that the mother gives the daughter the freedom to be the mother of her child.  I believe in most of these situations, feelings will get hurt, okay?  Count on it.

 But if there is proper biblical love being expressed by the adult children back to their parents, I believe that relationship will sustain that momentary pain of someone establishing the boundaries and then holding the parents to those boundaries once they're established.

Bob: Let's listen to what she says as she goes on in the letter.  She says, "I'm not good with confrontation, and my mom is easily hurt.  I am afraid she is going to think I don't appreciate her help.  I just want to mother my son without someone peeping over my shoulder constantly to see if I changed a diaper, fed him, if I have the Cheerios and the blanket or whatever else.  I think she forgot that I have successfully done these things for two years now by myself.  I am a mother and a wife.  I appreciate advice when I ask for it, otherwise I don't need it."

 Now, she's not good at confrontation.  Mom is easily hurt.  This kind of pattern can go on unless somebody does step forward and brings some confrontation into the relationship.

Les: Right, it's self-perpetuating, and that's why somebody has to take a bold step here and step out of the pattern and change – short-circuit it, otherwise it will continue.  And this is only going to get worse for this couple.  This is not something that's going to take care of itself, and so many times in our relationship problems, we just think, "Oh, we'll give it some time."

 Well, when these are – this is a groove.  Sometimes I tell newlyweds, you know, choose your ruts carefully because you're going to be in them for a long time, and this couple that's been married for – they have a two-year-old, they've been married for, what, four years or something like that.  Well, here they are in this rut, and they've got to do something drastic to get out of it.

 And, as you said, they've got to do that as a team.  She can't do that, she's already feeling inadequate, she's going to hurt her mom's feelings, her mom is going to pout, and she's going to punish her with these emotions, and so forth.  Something drastic needs to be done.

Leslie: You know, it really is scary to confront someone who you love deeply, realizing that they will hurt.  You know, one of the things that I've learned, as Les has worked on this project, again, is that when we are overly controlling, so often what's at the root of that is a high level of anxiety, and anxiety is underneath there and, of course, this mom is anxious.  She's afraid of losing her daughter.  She cares so deeply, maybe she's afraid of having no meaning in her life.  Maybe the only thing that meant anything to her was being a mom, and now she sees a chance through this grandson to extend that meaning again and recapture some of that joy she felt.

 And so if this daughter can find a way to reassure her mom's root anxiety – of course, she doesn't have to be the one who magically intuits what the need is, but if she can find a way to say, "You won't lose me.  You will not lose this grandchild if you can find a way to respect this relationship and allow our marriage to thrive, you'll have us in your life, only we'll be choosing it.  You won't have to push yourself into our life."

Bob: Dennis, I remember you talking about one way that you counseled a couple to do just what Leslie is talking about – a couple where there were controlling in-laws, and you suggested that they, in establishing those boundaries, do it in the context of expressing honor to the parents.

Dennis: Yeah, I wrote a book called "The Tribute and the Promise," and in that book I told the story of this couple and the practical way of reassuring – and you did a good job, Leslie, of saying that – that mom needs the reassurance that she is going to be loved; that her adult daughter is not withdrawing from the relationship.  And so what this young lady did was she actually wrote a tribute to her mom and dad and both she and her husband, I believe it was at Christmas or maybe for their anniversary, went home.  They read this tribute to them, gave it to them in a frame and, as a reminder of all they'd done right, and then the husband turned to the parents and said, "There really are some boundaries that need to establish around our marriage and around our family for the good health of our relationship."

 And he began to lay those out in a very clear – and not in a hurtful way – came out of the flow of the honor that had been given to those adult parents.  And, as a result, what happened was the daughter was released by her mother and her father to become her own mother and her own wife and woman.  And that couple were released from the control because they had delivered honor back to their parents, and the parents began to back off, realizing that what they were doing was unhealthy. 

 But it took the courage of both the husband and the wife of going back to the parents and of establishing the boundaries, and I can't say it strong enough that I believe in these situations, it is the husband who must step forward.  They can do it as a team, as you said, Les, I think that's a beautiful picture at that point.  But many times it takes that husband stepping in because the daughter has been manipulated for so many years, and she's been emotionally blackmailed in that relationship.  She can't do it.  She needs someone who is objective.  She needs someone who will do it lovingly without getting angry, who has prayed over it, and who will go back with the spirit of Jesus Christ – going back to bring hope and healing and some wholesome relationships to adult children with their parents.

Les: Absolutely, and when they do that, they will find themselves at a new level in their own love life, in their own marriage, that they never even thought was possible because they've worked through this.  It's kind of life going through something, kind of a war together, almost.  Maybe that's too strong of an analogy, but you go through something difficult, and then you look back on it and go, "Man, we made it through that.  We succeeded at it." 

 And for a husband and wife to join together and come through a process like that is a beautiful experience, and it's going to create a healthy relationship with mom and dad and, you know, that's what this is about.  How do we create a healthy relationship, because what will end up happening, if they just perpetuate this, is it creates unhealthy dynamics for all of them when they're together and even when they're apart?

Dennis: Including the grandkids later on, too.

Les: Absolutely, because they'll never be apart.  It's always – even if they move across the country, they're still – and they did.  They moved across, and they still get phone calls every day, and visits, and so forth.

 So if something is not done, it perpetuates it, or then they get resentful, and then it shuts down the relationship and nothing happens.  So that's why this is a make-or-break issue.

Bob: Okay, let's review.  Give me an action plan for the person who wrote this letter.  Step 1.

Les: Well, first, understand why do our in-laws or your parents become so invasive?  Why?  Well, it's primarily out of anxiety.  They want something from you that they're afraid they might not get, or they're afraid they're losing something or whatever it is, so you want to identify that anxiety and help them alleviate that as much as possible, as Leslie said earlier.

 Another thing is – I call it "taking back your in-law's right to meddle," and it comes back to that step we mentioned earlier of finding out where is it that you're giving them permission to do this?  What's the string that is attached to this relationship?  So examine that.

 Thirdly, you want to work as a team.  This is not a one-person job.  This is a team effort, as we've talked about.  I think also another thing that I would suggest in the action plan is to learn – put the word "no" in your vocabulary.  Mom and dad take your car without asking, learn to say "No, that's not how it works in our home, sorry, but that's not how it works."

 So there's a few action steps that I would toss out there.

Bob: And if they pout when you do that …

Les: That's their problem not yours, and that's tough to hear, but that's the truth.

Leslie: One of the things we don't realize is when we don't set accurate boundaries, we are allowing our parents to really fail, because for our parents to have succeeded, they need to have raised us in such a way that we can become independent, healthy, autonomous adults.  That's really their success.  That is what honors them.

 And so we are taking that chance that they have to have been successful parents away if we allow them to continue in that dependent cycle.

Bob: Oh, that's a great point.

Dennis: It is, and I'd like to conclude by just addressing the parents at this point, because I’m a parent, and I'm also an in-law, and I believe one of the things you can head off at the pass is this whole issue of control by taking a good close look at Genesis, chapter 2, and before you give your daughter's hand away, before you pay for your son's rehearsal dinner, and you bless that union, count the cost of allowing your son, of allowing your daughter the privilege, the freedom, and the responsibility to leave you, sever the loyalty that has been a lifelong loyalty, and I’m going to tell you something.  What I'm saying here is not easy, as a parent.

 But you allow them to do that because you know there must be a new loyalty established.  And, as a parent, you let them leave, you bless that leaving, and then you keep your hands off that relationship, and even as Barbara and I did, we told Ashley and Michael, "We will not offer advice unless you ask."

 Now, would you like to know how long my tongue used to be?  It's been chewed nearly off.


 I'm kidding.  We really haven't had that many times when we've wanted to offer advice.  Ashley and Michael have done a wonderful job.  But there will be those moments with your adult children as they get married and, for that matter, when they become single adults, when you will need to say, "I need to allow my son, I need to give the freedom to my daughter to make their own mistakes just like I did."'

Bob: All right, I've got to know – what are you doing tonight for dinner?

Dennis: Well, I'm spending the evening with my grafted-in son, Michael, and Ashley.  And I'm going to kiss my two grandsons goodbye, and they're heading back off to Memphis.  They've been in town for the last couple of days.

Bob: You called them and said, "It's time for you guys to come over here.  You need to make a trip over here?"

Dennis: No, they actually came over on their own, and they've been here for the past three or four days.

Bob: And tonight at dinner, are you going to bring up any issues that you need to talk about?

Les: You know, Bob is really trying to stir up something here.  I don't know what he's looking for.


Dennis: You know, it's funny, because there really aren't any issues, and it's really quite a fun relationship, because we don't have any strings.  We don't have any financial strings; we don't have any emotional strings.  Now, I'm not telling you there aren't those strings that don't begin to grow from our hearts toward theirs, but if you understand on the front end that God commands a man and a woman to leave, cleave, and become one flesh, that responsibility is just not the adult children, it is also the parents' responsibility to bless that union.

Bob: You know, I have to think that the woman who wrote us this letter would benefit from reading a copy of Les's book, "The Control Freak."  It would help her understand, maybe, something what's going on in the heart and the mind and the soul of her parents, and then I think she might also benefit from reading a copy of the book that you wrote, "The Best Gift You Can Ever Give Your Parents," where you give counsel to couples on how to honor their parents even when mom or dad or both mom and dad have been a challenge.

 We've got both of these books in our FamilyLife Resource Center, and if you're interested in a copy of either or both of the books, you can go to our website,  You click the button that you see on the home page that says "Go," and that will take you to a portion of the site where there is more information about the resources that we've talked about here today.

 Again, the website is  Click the red "Go" button that you see on the home page, and you can order from our website, if you'd like, or you can call us at 1-800-FLTODAY, that's 1-800-358-6329, that's 1-800-F-as-in-family, L-as-in-life, and then the word TODAY.  Give us a call, and someone will make arrangements to have whatever books you need sent out to you.

 By the way, something special that we want to make available for those of you who might be able to help support the ministry of FamilyLife Today with a donation of any amount this month, we'd like to send you a copy of the brand-new book by Dennis and Barbara Rainey called "Moments With You."  It's a daily devotional for couples – 365 daily devotions that you can go through together.  These devotions give you something to talk about, something to think about, something to pray together about.  It's a great way to build a stronger relationship with your spouse and with God.

 Again, the book is our gift to you this week when you make a donation of any amount for the ministry of FamilyLife Today.  You could make a donation online at  If you do that, when you come to the keycode box on the donation form just type the word "moments" in there, and we'll know to send you a copy of Dennis and Barbara's new devotional book for couples.

 Or you can call 1-800-FLTODAY, make your donation over the phone and, again, we're happy to send a copy of this book out to you.  Just mention that you'd like to receive it.  It's our way of saying thanks for your partnership with us here in the ministry of FamilyLife Today.  We appreciate hearing from you.

 Well, tomorrow Dr. David Clarke is going to join us, and we're going to talk about what to do when your marriage needs more than just a little fixing up – you need a total marriage makeover.  We'll talk to him about that tomorrow.  I hope you can be back with us for that.

 I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, and our entire broadcast production team.  On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine.  We'll see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.

FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas, a ministry of Campus Crusade for Christ. 


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