Praying for Untangling
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What does it look like for parents to wait on the Lord when they see toxic tendencies in their child’s spouse? Doyle Roth talks about preserving relationships as you navigate difficult patterns of behavior.
Praying for Untangling
Bob: Some parents have experienced the disruptive impact that a new son-in-law or daughter-in-law can have on an extended family relationship. Doyle Roth says that impact should not be discounted or minimized.
Doyle: What happens with this toxic person that, now, is affecting the entire family with their negative energy? You know, you have someone, who is like this, come into the family dining room; and they suck all of the positive oxygen out of the room in about three seconds. The question becomes: “What do we do when we’re in a situation like that?”
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Tuesday March 16th. Our hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson; I'm Bob Lepine. You can find us online at FamilyLifeToday.com. What can we do, or what should we do, as parents, if our son or daughter has married someone who is toxic/is disrupting the family dynamic? We’ll talk more about that with Doyle Roth today. Stay with us.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. I came home from elementary school one day—
Dave: And you can remember this.
Bob: Well, this is one of those days you remember. It was a Tuesday afternoon; I dropped my books on the kitchen counter. I said, “Hi,” to my mom; she said, “Well, your sister got married today.”
Bob: So that’s one of those things that kind of gets your attention.
Dave: —like she eloped?
Bob: My oldest sister had been seeing a guy, [whom] my parents did not approve of. He had asked for their blessing. They had said, “We can’t give it to you right now,” because he was unemployed; hadn’t been to college. I mean, they were just looking at the pragmatic reality of: “Your love is not going to sustain you when the bills come, and we’d like to see a little more diligence”; so they had said, “No, we can’t give our blessing right now.”
And my sister and her boyfriend went to somebody at the church and said, “Will you marry us?” And that person said, “Yes,” knowing that Mom and Dad did not approve. I would go back to that person at the church and say—
Bob: —“Hang on”; right?
Bob: That was the beginning of what was a tumultuous relationship. What my parents saw, I think, were probably some—I don’t want to say they were just superficial flaws that they saw, because I don’t know any deeper than: “What kind of job does he have? What kind of future does he have?”—I don’t know what character issues they might have been concerned about.
We’re talking about those hard situations that moms and dads face, when you look at your kids, [whom] you love, and you see them making choices about marriage/about relationships; and there are yellow flags or red flags flying. Maybe you see them early; maybe you don’t see them until after the “I do,”s are over.
Dave: One of those mistakes is sitting right beside you: me! Her dad/Ann’s dad—
Dave: —barred me from dating his daughter.
Dave: He said, “You will not date my daughter”; and he told Ann, “You will not date Dave Wilson.”
Ann: He said, “I like Dave Wilson as an athlete.” [Laughter] My dad was a coach. He said, “But I don’t like his reputation as a guy to date my daughter, so you will not be dating him. He’s going to be a senior in college; you’re going to be a freshman in college. He’s at a marrying age, so I’m not going to let this take place.”
Bob: And did you say, “Okay, Daddy”?
Ann: I said, “Dad! He has a new reputation! He has given his life to Jesus; he’s like a new person! You wouldn’t even recognize him.” And he said, “Well, we’ll see about that.”
Bob: Yes; he came around.
Dave: —and here we are.
Ann: He did come around.
Ann: He ended up asking the coach of the football team/he said, “What do you think of Dave Wilson? Would you let your daughter date him?” And he said, “Absolutely!”
Dave: Yes, he was a good coach. [Laughter]
Bob: And he made $50, saying that to your dad. [Laughter]
Well, we’ve got a friend joining us this week to talk about how we navigate these difficult waters.
Dave: This is a great topic!
Ann: It sure is.
Dave: It really is.
Bob: Doyle Roth is with us on FamilyLife Today. Doyle, welcome back.
Doyle: Thank you so very much.
Bob: Doyle is a rancher; he’s an entrepreneur. He lives on the Front Range in Colorado. He’s been with us on FamilyLife Today before. He’s written a new book called Toxic Sons- and Daughters-in-Law: Untangling Difficult Relationships. We’ve already talked about the fact that you were that difficult son-in-law when you married Nancy—
55 years ago?
Bob: —57 years ago.
This is a subject that, I know, you stepped into with a little bit of fear and trembling, but you’ve been doing counseling with couples for decades now.
Bob: These themes have been showing up over and over again.
Doyle: Yes, they have; it’s showing up more and more. I think some of the reasons for that are that families are breaking up more. When you think in terms of the divorce rates—both in Christian and non-Christian circles—those kids, who are growing up there, don’t have a really good understanding about what marriage is going to look like.
There could be a lot of issues in those families. I think they bring a lot of this baggage into the relationship with their wives or husbands, as the case may be; and certainly, bring it in for moms- and dads-in-law; and they have to deal with this. They come with a lot of emotional anger/frustration with their previous parenting. It seems like, to me, there’s a lot of that that just transfers over into the marriage.
Bob: And we should not minimize the fact that most of them are coming into the marriage after having become sexually active with one another/—
Doyle: Absolutely; no, that’s right.
Bob: —maybe with a history of sexual activity in their life. There’s no way to overestimate the significance of that kind of baggage coming into a marriage and what that can do.
Doyle: That’s right; and I do a lot of premarital counseling as, Dave, you and Ann do. I see, in Christian young couples, a lot of that sexual activity that lays a bad foundation for them to grow in.
Doyle: I see a lot of Christian young couples, where one of them is new in the Lord, because families put a lot of pressure: “You can’t marry this person, because they’re unsaved”; and all of a sudden, they make a profession—and then deny that profession just, literally, months—I had one, about six months after the marriage, said, “I didn’t believe any of that stuff anyway!”
There’s reason for us, as parents, to be very concerned/careful about these matters.
Bob: Doyle, I got hit with a question at one of our Weekend to Remember® marriage getaways. We had just done a session for the pre-married couples in the room. This couple came up to me; and they said, “We’ve got a dilemma. Both of us are believers. My parents”—this is the wife saying her parents were not believers; her parents had said to her—“If you marry him, we will cut you out of the family.
Bob: “You’re not welcome for Christmas. We won’t be there when the babies are born. You’re making a choice; it’s either our family, or it’s him.” They said, “What do we do?”
I’ll tell you what I told them, but let’s put you in that room with that couple coming up to you. How would you have counseled them?
Doyle: Well, that’s manipulation and control on the parents’ part. I would never do that; I think that was putting themselves in the wrong place. Their God is awfully small. God is bigger than that, and they have to understand that as parents. God may be doing something in my kids’ lives that I’m not really understanding right now. Parents do get very controlling/manipulative—things like that—that’s where the problems come later on, with in-laws.
Dave: And yet, you know, control is often out of fear—
Dave: —because we’re afraid—so you know, we try to take care of that by control. They’re still afraid; you’re saying, “Don’t control.” What can they do?
Doyle: Well, they can pray.
Doyle: They can pray. They’ve got to have a big God. I mean, our God is large and in charge; right?
Doyle: And as soon as He gets small, and we get big—because we’re putting these limits and these boundaries on things—we’re in the wrong place spiritually. We’ve got a great big God, and I’d rather trust Him than trust my own judgment.
Bob: Yes; I just looked at that couple, and I said, “First of all, you need to ask yourself the question: ‘Is there something that even my unbelieving parents are seeing about this relationship that we’re blind to?’
Bob: “Because it’s possible that your parents, who love you and know you, may see something here. You’ve got to pull back and say, ‘Is there anything that gives us pause about our relationship with one another?’” Then I said, “You have to count the very real cost. You have to imagine it’s five years from now, and you’ve just had your baby; and you can’t call and say, ‘It’s a boy!’ because they won’t take the call. You have to calculate that in.”
I said, “Now, the reality is: it may be that your parents are being controlling and manipulative,”—just like Doyle said—“but that’s a cost you have to count, because you’re making a choice today with the possibility that it’s not going to get any better than this. Are you ready to cut yourself off from your legacy?” That’s a painful decision to make.
I had a chance—you know, this was/you’ve got five minutes to have these conversations—you wanted to know: “Have they been this way about other relationships you’ve had?” or “What are the concerns that they’ve seen or that they’ve expressed?” “How have you tried to talk to them about it?”—you want all of those types of diagnostics.
I wanted this couple to know: “If this is what you believe God is calling you to in marriage, there may be a cost to it. You’ve got to follow God and be obedient to that, but count the cost before you do.”
Dave: And I think a lot of couples, especially if we’re talking before marriage—if they hear somebody/maybe a parent or somebody offer caution—what do they think? They think what we all think: “Oh! Well, I see a little bit of that, too; but I’ll change him.”
Doyle: You’re right; you’re right, Dave.
Dave: You know: “It’s just a little; it’s not that big. I’ll change him once we get married.” Talk about that: Does that happen? Do they change?
Doyle: Oh, absolutely, no! [Laughter] No, change comes very hard, period.
No; I think that is something that couples often explain to their parents: “Why we want to move ahead with this.” He’s just recently—or she’s just recently—become a believer: “Yes, he’s got a little bit of a drinking problem; but when we get married, it will be different,” or “He’s on this particular drug or something; it’s going to be different,” “No, he only does a little bit of pornography; and that will all end when we’re finally married.” All of those things are excuses, and they’re inviting all sorts of troubles into their lives.
Dave: And they say things like: “Yes, but he’s promised me,” “He has made a vow to me.”
Dave: And one thing we always try to help pre-married couples—and this is true for married as well—is a person’s past is more important than their promise; it really is. You think, “Oh, the past is there; but he’s made a promise.” Again, promises are important/vows are significant; but you can’t underestimate. If there’s a past, look at it!
Bob: —with a pattern/if you see a pattern.
Bob: I’ve said to young women, “Pay careful attention to how your boyfriend treats his mother; because someday, he will treat you the same way he treats his mother. If he’s kind to her, and helps her out, and supports her, he’ll do that with you; but if he’s like: ‘Oh, Mom! Leave me alone. Why do you have to…’ he’s going to be that way with you.” Don’t you think that’s true?
Dave: Oh, definitely true.
Doyle: Sure; sure.
Doyle: But what happens when he turns against them and starts limiting their involvement with kids?
Doyle: What happens with this toxic person that now is affecting the entire family with their negative energy? You know, you have someone, [who] is like this, come into the family dining room; and they suck all of the positive oxygen out of the room in about three seconds.
Ann: Yes! The whole dynamic of the family is changed.
Doyle: —the whole dynamic of the family. The question becomes: “What do we do when we’re in a situation like that?” That’s what’s hard.
You know, there are tons of books written on whether a mother and father should do this or that; there are enough to fill a landfill with those things. [Laughter] There are so many books like that. Mothers and fathers play an incredible role—that is true—but they can become legalistic. Through fear and intimidation, they can control their kids; and that’s part of their parenting model.
But when this child actually is in my family, acting like that, what do I do when he comes in and the siblings detest him?—the siblings don’t care for him?
Ann: —or the siblings don’t want to be there with that person there?
Doyle: They don’t want to be around him.
Ann: Yes, what do you tell those families?
Doyle: No, that’s where this book lives—is trying to get the family together—to encourage the siblings to try out: “Dave, smile; keep your mouth shut, and pray.” [Laughter] “Because the more you speak, the worse this is going to get.”
Bob: Yes; you said you wrote this book for those parents, who are facing these kinds of situations, to coach them on how they can be like Jesus in these situations and how they can go against what may be their fleshly impulses: to want to control, or to manipulate, or to engineer, or to fix everything. That’s a difficult place; and yet, you go back to Genesis 2:24, where all of this gets started. The first thing the Bible says about marriage is: “A man shall—
Doyle: — “leave…”
Bob: —“leave his father and mother.” This is something we talk about at our Weekend to Remember marriage getaways. I had a counselor tell me one time that he thought you could trace 90 percent of marriage problems back to a failure to leave on the part of the son or the daughter/that some emotional, or financial, or some kind of a mystical tie to that family of origin was undermining and sabotaging this new marriage.
I’ve watched that and seen how family history is so significant in influencing what the dynamic of a new marriage relationship is. You’ve seen that; haven’t you?
Doyle: Oh, absolutely; yes.
Bob: And to your point about what the past has been is more significant than what the promise is—
Dave: Yes, I know when Ann and I were first married—I don’t know how long this went on—but every time we would go see her parents—[whom] I love, you know?—I was the toxic guy that her dad said, “Do not marry.” Yet, over the years—and it happened very soon in our marriage—we became almost best friends. He did see: “Christ has literally changed this young man’s life, and he’s somebody I want in my family.” He became my dad. You know, I never had a dad; and he became very close.
But this “leave” part was really easy for me, because I came from a broken family with no dad and alcoholic parents: “I’m out of here!” You know, I love them; but—
Dave: “I can’t wait to start a new life!”
It was not so easy for her, because Ann came from a wonderful family. We would go visit that family; her brothers are great! It’s just wonderful. We would get in the car to drive home, and we fought 15 hours.
Ann: Every single time we would be with my parents—and it wasn’t that often, because we didn’t live in the same hometown—
Ann: —we would come back, and I was mortified over how Dave treated my parents. I would say things like: “Why did you do this?” and “Why do you have to up my brothers all the time?” It would be a fight every time!
Dave: I mean, I got to the point, where I didn’t want to see them—even though I loved them—because of the drive home.
Here’s what I felt: “She hasn’t left; they’re still more important to her than I am.” I was probably jealous of her relationship with them; and so I kept saying, “You haven’t left them.” It’s what Bob said—it was a real thing in our marriage—that: “I’m your number-one priority now, not your mom and dad and your brothers.”
Ann: And I was like, “You are my number-one priority, but why do you have to act like that when you’re with them?” [Laughter]
Dave: The question is, you know, as a parent—or even as the son- or daughter-in-law—“How do you truly leave and cleave?” This is the question of the century, out of Genesis 2.
Doyle: Well, I think that is an emotional thing that you have to decide, just like you said, Ann: “You are first, but that doesn’t excuse the behavior that you’re demonstrating to my mom and dad.
Ann: Thank you!! Yes!
Doyle: “And you’re being a knucklehead if you’re going to treat them that way. [Laughter]
Bob: Doyle is now Ann’s new best friend!
Doyle: “So back off.”
Ann: I like Doyle.
Dave: This conversation is over. [Laughter]
Doyle: No, but you make a great point. I think that jealousy is one of the big factors in families that are successful like yours, Ann, where people wish they had a family like that. The husband is reacting to them—trying to pull them away from there—because he’s insecure, Dave. That makes the transition for “leave and cleave” even more difficult; because he’s trying to pull rather than just invite, and it happens normally.
Ann: Did you do that, Doyle, with your wife, Nancy?
Doyle: Yes; I didn’t have a leave-and-cleave issue.
Doyle: And I didn’t have a jealousy issue with her and her family.
Doyle: I was just a knucklehead like Dave. [Laughter] I just wanted my way! I was a self-righteous, self-centered young man; and that was probably more insecurity, Ann, than anything.
Doyle: That just created an awful thing for my poor mother- and father-in-law. It was terrible!
Bob: You know, for Mary Ann and me, we would drive home from early visits to my folks; and Mary Ann would say, “You’re different when we’re with your parents.”
Bob: This was not with her parents, but with my parents.
Ann: Oh, with your parents!
Bob: Yes; what she was pointing out was: when I would go back home, I would start to act like I had acted, growing up.
Bob: I’m falling into patterns. I’m back in the house; I’m back to acting like I’m their son rather than acting like I’m her husband. When I’m away from my parents—when I’m with her—I’m her husband. That’s the dynamic: I would go back home, and I’d start to be their son again.
I didn’t have any emotional problem leaving my parents; but there are still strings, and ties, and patterns, and habits that we don’t even know are there—because I would say, “I’m no different!”—and she would go, “Yes, you are. You act this way, and you do that.”
I started to see that: “Yes, this is just ingrained in me; it’s subconscious.” I didn’t know I was doing it; but when she brought it to the surface, I could see it. I could recognize: “When I go home, I’m not going home as their son anymore. I still respect them and honor them,”—that’s appropriate for me to do—“but I’m now her husband, and that’s the priority relationship.”
Doyle: That’s right.
Doyle: And sometimes, when they go into the home, like you’re speaking, they are more comfortable in that environment: they play with their siblings; they go out and shoot baskets; and in essence, they ignore their wives; right?—they ignore them.
Ann: Our daughters-in-law complain about their husbands: “They come back, and they’re playing video games again,”—ignoring the wives.
Doyle: —ignoring their wives.
Bob: They’re being brothers again.
Ann: Sure, they’re being brothers; you’re right.
Doyle: They’re being brothers again; yes.
Ann: One of the things you say in your book—which I thought was so good—you talk about a time for prayer for parents/for the parents of these in-laws. You say, “Just like going slow, while breaking a horse,”—I don’t read that every day in a book; I like this!—“it’s the same with sons- and daughters-in-law. You must move patiently, slowly, and respectfully; or the job will be increasingly more difficult.”
This is when you get into saying: “One, pray for Christ-like response to your feelings and emotions. Two, pray for a positive attitude. Three, pray for patience. Four, pray for protection. Five, pray for heart change. Six, pray for strength to trust God.” Those are good practical steps that we can take.
I think we get so fearful of losing our kids/—
Doyle: Oh, right.
Ann: —of losing our grandkids—
Ann: —that we kind of take things out of perspective.
Doyle: And we disconnect from our spiritual convictions. We’re Christian people; we’re people who really trust the Lord. We do pray. God is bigger than our events; He’s the One who controls all those things.
We leave prayer out of these things; and we turn into, sort of spiritual monsters, in a way. We get angry; we get frustrated; our God gets smaller, and we get bigger. It just doesn’t work like that when you’re in a situation with a very difficult son- or daughter-in-law; it just doesn’t work.
Dave: It’s what you say in the book: “It isn’t: ‘Pray one day.’”
Dave: It’s: “Pray patiently; it’s going to take a long time.” I mean, your story is your in-laws gave you grace. My story is Ann’s parents loved me—
Doyle: That’s right.
Dave: —gave me grace—
Bob: —for years/for years.
Dave: Yes, I was going to say: “I didn’t change in a year; it was close to a decade, probably.”
Dave: Maybe Ann would say two decades. [Laughter]
Dave: But you know, I was still sort of a jerk when I would get around them. I think, at the heart of it, as you said earlier, I was insecure; and I was jealous. I’d never had this family; and instead of relishing and cherishing it, I was feeling like it was Ann’s fault.
They prayed, and they loved and gave grace. I don’t remember them ever once saying, “You’re being a jerk.”
Dave: But I’m not saying they shouldn’t have said the truth sometimes, but they just patiently watched God change me.
Doyle: That’s right.
Dave: And so, I would say to the parent: “Don’t give up.
Doyle: No, don’t give up.
Dave: “Just keep getting on your knees.”
Ann: And they never critiqued you to me, ever. Not one time did they say something negative about Dave. Had they, at the beginning, I would have jumped on that.
Doyle: That would have been hard.
Ann: You know, the enemy is always looking for a foothold.
Doyle: That’s right!
Ann: And so, if they would have said something negative, I would have probably gone back and thought, “Yeah! He does do that!” And then it could have led me to the place of: “Maybe I shouldn’t have married him.”
Ann: And that’s the thing that the enemy can do as well: if the parents have said something negative, the kids later, if they’re having difficulty, they are probably thinking, “My parents were probably right; I shouldn’t have married them.” That can put us in a tough spot.
Doyle: That’s exactly right.
Bob: This is where I think to have some ongoing coaching/to have a book like the one you’ve written, Doyle, is almost essential for us as parents-in-law, especially if we’re facing anything challenging like this, to be able to be pointed to: “This is how you pray,” and “This is what you say,” and “This is what you don’t say.”
We’re making your book available this week to FamilyLife Today listeners who can help with a donation to help support the ongoing work of this ministry. Doyle’s book is called Toxic Sons- and Daughters-in-Law: Untangling Difficult Situations. The book is our gift to you if you can help extend the reach of FamilyLife with a donation today.
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Now, tomorrow, we want to dig into whether we should try to confront a son-in-law or a daughter-in-law, who is disrupting family harmony. Doyle Roth will be with us again. I hope you can be here as well.
I want to thank our engineer, Keith Lynch. We got some help again today from Bruce Goff. On behalf of our entire broadcast production team and our hosts, Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Bob Lepine. We’ll see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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