Word to the Wise
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How can a parent respond when their child is married to a toxic person? Author and counselor Doyle Roth describes ways to wade through the difficulties that come with those hard relationships.
Word to the Wise
Bob: Doyle Roth says he’s a firm believer in premarital counselling, but—
Doyle: I think a lot of the premarital counselling focuses on the couple, and that’s good news. But they need talk about what happens in relation to your mother- and father-in-law: “What does that love look like?—what does that respect look like?”
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Monday, March 15th. Our hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson; I'm Bob Lepine. You can find us online at FamilyLifeToday.com. The Bible says that a man should leave his father and mother/cleave to his wife. The two become one flesh; that’s what marriage is. That doesn’t mean that our extended families don’t play a role in the success of our union. We’re going to talk more about that today. Stay with us.
Bob: And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. It was a couple of months ago; we aired on FamilyLife Today a series that the three of us did, where we had been talking to people about dealing with adult children. For those of us who are old enough to have adult children, there can be some challenges that come into those relationships.
More and more, as we’re talking with moms and dads all around the country, we’re hearing about sharp divisions that are taking place in families between parents and their adult kids. We didn’t really get into the fine points that we’re going to talk about today. But one of the areas where this can get challenging is with sons- and daughters-in-law, those new grafted-in members of the family. Sometimes, that graft is not as easy as you thought it was going to be.
Dave: And it’s one of those topics nobody wants to talk about.
Dave: It’s real, but it’s not an easy one to talk about.
Ann: I think a listener is going to say, “Finally, we are addressing this.”
Bob: We found a brave man, who would help us navigate this; Doyle Roth is back with us on FamilyLife Today. Doyle, welcome back.
Doyle: Thank you so much for having me come.
Bob: You’ve written a book called Toxic Sons- and Daughters-in-Law: Untangling Difficult Relationships. There’s a fence post with barbed wire all tangled around it on the front cover, [Laughter] which is what it can feel like for some of these parents.
Doyle: Boy, absolutely. This is a very, very interesting and a very difficult problem. What I wanted to highlight in the book is that this is about good parents. It’s not just about toxic sons- and daughters-in-law. I’m dealing with good parents/parents that have been raised, really, under the teaching of FamilyLife®: they love Jesus; they’re trying to bring godly parenting into their families; they’re raising kids in a God-honoring way.
But when these kids grow up, a lot of things begin to change for this lovely Christ-honoring family. When you bring an outsider—which I call the son- or daughter-in-law that comes into the family—when an outsider comes into the family, it can create a lot of turbulence in a family; in fact, it can be very, very divisive.
Dave: That can be sort of disconcerting because, as you mentioned, I think there is a belief by a lot of us—if we do the right things, if we honor God, if we follow Jesus, and we raise our kids that way—there’s sort of this built-in belief: “It will all be pretty; there won’t be barbed wire in our future. It’ll go pretty well.” Yet, great families, as you said, sometimes end up with toxic family breakdowns; right?
Doyle: That’s exactly right; it’s unexpected. These things show up in the times when it’s just surprising to you: your son or your daughter leaves home—goes off to school or maybe, in high school, meets somebody—and before you know it, they’re in an in-depth relationship. All of a sudden, the writing is on the wall.
Ann: What do you mean by toxic?
Doyle: Toxic is the kind of person that is uncompromising, self-willed, self-defensive, self-righteous.
Bob: I hear a lot of self in there.
Doyle: Yes; very self-focused to the point of extreme. They can be also addictive people—addicted to alcohol; addicted to pornography—a lot of people fall into that toxic class. It comes in through those various means that this, all of a sudden, finds itself in a good, wholesome family.
Bob: There’s a continuum here of toxicity. I mean, there’s everything from: “It’s an unpleasant relationship,” all the way to “It’s a dangerous relationship.” When you use the word, “toxic,” you’re talking about both ends of that continuum; right?
Doyle: Yes; correct.
Bob: We should start off by making clear, for your children’s sake, that you’re not writing this because your four kids wound up marrying toxic spouses.
Doyle: No; thank you for putting in that headline. [Laughter] It will protect me when this is all over. [Laughter]
Bob: In fact, if there was any part of this book that related to your own family, you, at the very beginning, say your wife’s parents had to deal with a toxic son-in-law when your wife got married to you.
Doyle: Exactly right, Bob. We started our marriage very young, but I brought into our marriage a lot of these self-oriented issues. I remember fighting my mother- and father-in-law, who were great people. I have come to love them and respect them. They were very patient with me, as a very immature young man; I was married at 19. The things that they did to try to help us, I resisted. The way they wanted to handle and be with our grandchildren—I didn’t want them to do that—and actually, created a lot of turbulence in the family because of that.
But God, in His grace, really helped me to grow, and mature, and be taught through the Scriptures what it really means to be a loving husband and also to honor—not just my mom and dad—but to honor mom- and dad-in-laws is part of this as well. I had to learn that, biblically, that that was important.
Dave: Yes, how did you learn that? Because I’m like Bob, when I started reading your book, I did not expect Chapter 1 to be about you; [Laughter] I really didn’t. I was like, “Oh, here we go”; then you’re like: “I know about toxic son-in-laws because I is one/I was one.”
Dave: But something changed; I mean, how did you mature out of that?
Doyle: The main thing is that I appreciate what God has in His Word. One of the problems that I find in my own heart/in the lives of people that I counsel with is a lack of application of biblical truths to their lives. They can read the Scriptures/memorize the Scriptures, but application is not always on their radar.
For me, as a young Christian guy, I felt like that was the thing I was learning: I was learning to take—actually, “Husbands love your wives,”/“…honor your parents,”—I was taking those things much more seriously. My Christian character, thank God, was growing.
Bob: Let me pull it back, because this doesn’t start after our kids get married. This whole issue starts to emerge when we see our son or our daughter starting to develop an interest in a young man or a young woman. We start to go: “Who is this young man?” or “…this young woman?” Sometimes, as parents, we’re a little concerned about where our children’s affections are being drawn.
Take us back to the headwaters of this. When your kids are in high school or in college, and you start to see them pairing off with somebody, and you start to have concerns, what’s the right approach to take, as a parent, in that situation?
Doyle: Well, you’ve entered into some pretty dangerous water.
Doyle: When your kids are of the age to start dating, or they’re off at college, they’re at an age where your opinion is not quite as strong as it was when they were in elementary school. There’s a lot of resistance. Especially, if you’re trying to describe the one that they care about in unfavorable or negative terms, they start to bristle real badly about that. You’ll find that the relationship that you have with your son or daughter begins to diminish because they care for this person.
The more that you talk about that, the more distance will come between you and your future daughter- and son-in-law. The thing gets more and more complicated the closer they get to the marital ceremony. Then afterwards is where the real break begins, when that son-in-law or that daughter-in-law says: “We are not going to get together at family meetings,” or “We’re not going to share the grandchildren,” or “We’re going to this or that.” It makes things just very, very difficult.
But I—Bob, and Dave, and Ann—I’m a real believer in premarital counselling. But I think a lot of the premarital counselling focuses on the couple—and that’s good news; right?—we should do that, but this is an additional piece that I think is really significant. They need to talk about what happens in relation to your mother- and father-in-law: “What does that love look like?—what does that respect look like?” Those things come out in the premarital context.
Dave: If you’re a parent—you’re just talking about that—and you’re watching your daughter or son start to date somebody that shows real signs of being toxic: maybe addictions, or uncontrolled anger, control. You see this, as a mom and dad; what do you do? You just said, “Man, if you step into it, it can really cause…”; so you can’t just step out of it; there’s that tension.
Dave: What would you counsel a parent to do?
Doyle: Well, I have a section in my book on the preventative resources that are available to people; because a dad and mom don’t always communicate effectively with their son or daughter,—
Doyle: —at this age, about things like this.
Bob: —and almost can’t—
Doyle: —and almost can’t.
Bob: —because of who they are.
Doyle: Yes, that’s right.
Bob: I mean, a young person/an adolescent, whether they’re in their late teens/early 20s, they are wanting to demonstrate to themselves and to others: “I’m my own person.”
For mom and dad to come and say, “Here’s what we think,” it’s almost like, “Well, then I have to think differently to be my own person.” This is where—I thought this was a great insight in your book—you’re saying mom and dad need to lean into a broader community and get some mentor help.
Doyle: That’s right; that’s the protective resources/the preventative or protective resources—a good mentor, a youth leader, someone from Cru®, someone from this or that, a pastor, a counsellor—these are people [who] need to come into this relationship, and they help describe and define what the relationship really looks like in a way that’s more receivable by the kids.
I think that’s a very important piece of where this thing goes—because if the parents are out front—I’ve had parents say things to their kids, pre-[married], that those kids have never forgotten into the marriage. They hold those things against mom and dad; and that’s the distance that we, as Christian parents, don’t want.
Ann: Now that I’m older, and I’ve—and a lot of my friends’ kids are now getting married/or even in high school, and they’re dating someone—the mom will describe this horrible relationship that their son or daughter is in; and they’re expressing that to their son or daughter, like, “You shouldn’t be dating them.”
I’ve said, “Be very, very careful with what you’re saying; because they could end up marrying that person—
Bob: That’s right; that’s right.
Ann: —“and you have no idea what the future brings.”
I would pray before you have those conversations, because they’re not always received readily. They can/kids can really push back. You’re right; I’ve seen that. Sometimes, if those words are spoken, they are never forgotten—even if the parent comes back and, “I shouldn’t have said that,”—but it’s still hard.
Doyle: Even Christian families and Christian people that are suffering, like we’re talking—when something is said, they can say, “I forgive you,” or they can say, “I confess that I did wrong,”—but those things are burned in the brain; and they’re still there.
Dave: Yet, in some ways, I’m sitting here—obviously, as the dad, thinking again, as a parent—“How do you not say the wrong thing?” Like you said, you’ve got to be so careful; maybe you shouldn’t say anything.
I think, at the end of the day, you sort of have to trust that there’s a God that can speak into that. I’m literally thinking of my own experience, growing up. I was dating a girl I had no reason to marry. Guess who told me that? —my mom/single mom, who I love. I know she’s praying about this; but she said to me several times, “I don’t think she’s the one.” It was just like you said, Bob, before; it’s like, “Okay; if you say that, then she is the one.”
Dave: I know she was praying—because I wasn’t listening to her—that God would somehow show me.
Dave: As I look back now, I’m sitting here, literally, going, “Oh, my goodness!” I remember I was going to see her at her college; I was at a different school. I bump into her sister/younger sister; and she says to me, “Hey, my sister’s not who you think she is,”—blew it off!
Dave: I was at a New Year’s Eve party; this stranger dude walks up to me at the party, close to midnight. My girlfriend had just gone to the bathroom, so she’s not standing beside me. He goes, “Dude, I respect you; I believe you’re a good guy. You should not marry that girl. She is not who you think she is.”
I’m looking back now. God’s given me sign after sign until the day I walk in and surprise her in her dorm room and catch her with another guy.
Dave: That’s when I went, “Oh, my goodness!” Now, I’m like, “My mom tried to tell me three years before!”
Bob: Right; strangers tried to tell you. [Laughter]
Doyle: Yes, right.
Dave: I mean, and I’m sitting beside the most incredible woman ever.
I’ve said this, as a preacher, many times, “If I would have made the choice to marry her,”—now I don’t know this 100 percent—“but I would bet 98 percent, we’re divorced; because who she was—was not the woman of character I thought she was—and I [wouldn’t] even [be] here right now. My entire legacy, every job I’ve ever had, everything would have been changed by that one decision.”
Dave: My mom told me, and I wouldn’t listen.
Ann: That’s kind of depressing, as parents,—
Dave: I know.
Ann: —that we have no power/that we have no say. So what should we do as parents?
Doyle: I can tell you that I’m a hard head; I’m a stubborn hard head. [Laughter] If my dad or my mom would have said, “Don’t marry Nancy,” it wouldn’t have worked.
Doyle: If Nancy’s parents would have said, “Don’t marry that flat-head guy,” [Laughter] that would not have worked. It would have put us closer together. I think we have to be realistic and understand the limits of what we can do, as parents, with adult kids.
Bob: We had the opportunity to interview R.C. Sproul, the famous author and theologian, who has now gone to heaven. We found out, before we did the interview, that his son, R.C., Jr., had been engaged to an unbeliever at one point prior to his getting married. R.C., Jr. eventually married—broke off the engagement—married someone else.
We asked R.C. about that; we said, “What was it like for you and your wife Vesta when your son is now engaged to be married to somebody who is not a believer?” He said, “Well, Vesta wore out the rug in the bedroom with her knees; she was praying passionately.” He said, “I knew well enough that I better not say too much, but I needed to say something.” He said, “I went to my son and I said, ‘Son, remember who you are.’” He didn’t mean: “You’re a Sproul”; he meant—
Doyle: “You’re a believer.”
Bob: —“You’re a believer. You’re a child of God. Remember who you are.”
We had the opportunity to talk to his son and say, “Do you remember that conversation?” R.C., Jr., said, “That stuck with me.” He said, “I know he was being cautious not to say too much,”—because just like we’ve confessed here—if he’d have said too much, R.C., Jr., would have bowed his back a little bit.
Ann: One of our sons was dating a girl. Dave and I do marriage stuff, so we see all these red flags. She was a great girl, but there were just some things that we thought/you can just foresee the future of what could happen in this. I was praying; I would fast. When people talk about this, I’m like, “Have you fasted about this for your child?”
I was fasting, and the son calls. He’s on his way to see this girl in college. He said, “Mom, I just feel like we’re [girlfriend and he] always fighting; I feel like this stuff’s going on.” Then he said the magic words, “What do you think?” [Laughter] I’m like, “Oh, finally you asked me!”
Doyle: —“I can say something.”
Ann: Yes, but I’m super cautious. I say that little prayer in my head, “Lord, help me to know how to say this in a way that it can be received.” I asked him a few questions. I said, “Do you feel like this fighting is something—like you guys are in the honeymoon-stage of just dating; this is the fun part—has this been going on for a while that you’re continually fighting?” I think asking those questions is a good thing, to let them come up with the answer.
He says, “Yes, it feels like we’re always doing that. I said, “Do you think that it would get better when you get married, or do you think it could get worse with all the strain that you have with kids and jobs?” He goes, “Oh, yes, it would probably be harder.”
I said, “Well, I think those are some things to think about; because as somebody that’s been married a while, I’m telling you that the stress and strain of life/that just pushes on your marriage and your relationship. I think those are things to just think about and pray about. But you’ve got a great head on your shoulders, and I know you’re praying; so I’m sure that you’ll make the right decision.”
They broke up. [Laughter] “Thank you, Jesus!” I’m not saying she wasn’t a great girl, but I’m saying it probably would have been hard.
Bob: We’ve got to speak to this; because there are some folks, who are listening, and they’re saying, “We had those conversations—
Bob: —“and they got married. Our daughter married an unbeliever,” or “He said he was a believer,” or—
Ann: —“He’s toxic.”
Bob: —“They’re believers, and now they’ve got problems.”
Sometimes, parents have got to be really careful; Doyle, you speak to this in the book. I’ve seen parents, who—now, it almost becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy—and they find themselves saying [in a knowing tone], “This is what I thought was going to happen.” It's almost justification or validation. Instead of parents, at the point, pivoting and saying, “No, I’ve got to be here to help this marriage endure,” they’re almost like, “I need this marriage to fail so that I’m vindicated.”
Ann: Yes; “I told you.”
Doyle: Yes; right.
Bob: If parents are in a situation, where a son or a daughter has married somebody, and it’s not been what you wanted, and they knew it wasn’t what you wanted, how can the mom and dad start to do some repair work and try to build it as healthy as possible, going forward?
Doyle: Well, I think you’ve got to stay below the radar. I think you’ve got to be able to encourage them, love them, come alongside of them. But I think you better be careful correcting them. I think you step too far into the weeds if you’re talking about their marriage. If they invite you to do something like that, that’s one thing. If they are not inviting you to help them with their marriage, I would stay away from that.
Ann: Oh, that’s so hard! [Laughter]
Doyle: In fact, even if they ask me, I would be careful; I’d be careful about doing that. It’s so hard.
Ann: You would? Even if they ask you, you’d be careful?
Doyle: I would be careful. I would, again, recommend that they find somebody to talk to; because you’re prejudiced. The mom and dad are prejudiced; they’ve got their kid involved here.
Ann: We’re biased.
Doyle: Our kids are really at risk in these things. My goal is to try to encourage parents to see their child as the ultimate win: “Keep the relationship with your child; keep that functioning. Talk with them about the blessings of what’s going on in their lives. Try to connect with your child, continually, because that’s really what this is about.”
A toxic person wants to break that relationship; they want to pull you away from that. That’s why a lot of isolation goes on; they try to isolate your son or daughter from the parents. They try to win that argument; I don’t think it’s healthy to be a part of that argument. I think it’s better to be an example of what God wants us to be—in love and affection for them—and stay strong.
Dave: Is that what—
Doyle: I have a saying in my book; and I say it over and over again: “Smile; keep your mouth shut, and pray.”
Doyle: That’s the basic thing. [Laughter]
Dave: Is that what your in-laws did?—because you were that guy.
Doyle: They did, and that’s why I dedicated the book to them. They walked a very, very difficult line; and they smiled; they kept their mouth shut, and they prayed. I might add that they fixed roast a lot on Sunday mornings. [Laughter] They had a cowboy’s heart when they did that. [Laughter]
Bob: There’s some hope there, because your in-laws had a son-in-law that they were concerned about; and over time, God did a work. That’s what our listeners need to hear, wherever you are on this continuum—whether you’re on the front end, and your son or daughter is heading headlong into a relationship that you’re concerned about; or whether they’ve already gotten married, and now you’re starting to see the red flags—God is still God. He’s in the business of transforming, bringing beauty from ashes, making all things new.
Bob: He can do that with relationships and with marriage.
Dave: I would say, “Wear out the rug.”
Doyle: “Wear out the rug”; that’s right.
Bob: Yes, and maybe get a copy of Doyle’s book and read through this together. Pray through this book is what I’d say. We’re making Doyle’s book available this week to those of you, who are regular FamilyLife Today listeners, who want to help extend the reach of this ministry through a donation. When you help us reach more people, more often, through your donations, we want to help you by providing resources like Doyle’s book, Toxic Sons- and Daughters-in-Law: Untangling Difficult Relationships. You can order the book from us, online, at FamilyLifeToday.com; or you can receive a copy of the book when you make a donation to help support the mission of FamilyLife Today to help us effectively develop godly marriages and families that change the world one home at a time.
Your financial support extends the reach of this ministry. You make it possible for us to reach more people, more often. In fact, when you donate, there are hundreds of thousands of people every day who benefit from the practical biblical help and hope they receive from this radio program/from this podcast. Thank you, in advance, for whatever you’re able to do; and be sure to ask for your copy of Doyle Roth’s book, Toxic Sons- and Daughters-in-Law, as our thank-you gift in exchange for your donation. Donate, online, at FamilyLifeToday.com; or donate by calling 1-800-358-6329; that’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
One other quick note: I want to remind you that we have an event coming up next month that many of you are going to be interested in. It’s a virtual event; it’s our 2021 Blended and Blessed® event for couples, who are in blended families or stepfamilies. This is set for April 24th. You can get more information about how you can view this in your home or in your church. Go to FamilyLifeToday.com for more information. It’s a one-day event on a Saturday, April 24th; starts at 8:30 in the morning, Central Time, and wraps up about 3:30 in the afternoon.
Again, get more information when you go to our website, FamilyLifeToday.com; there’s a link there. If you’re in a blended family, or if your church has a lot of blended families in it, consider hosting this event as a help to couples who are facing challenges in the dynamic of their blended family. Again, more information online at FamilyLifeToday.com.
Now, tomorrow, we’re going to continue our conversation with Doyle Roth about how we deal with disruptive sons- or daughters-in-law when they come into a family and it fractures things; what do we do? We’ll continue that conversation tomorrow. I hope you can join us.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch. We got some help from Bruce Goff this week; also, I want to thank our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our hosts, Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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