Relating to a Difficult Mother-in-Law
- 2009 27 Jan
Editor's Note: Do you need sound, Biblically-based advice on an issue in your marriage or family? Dr. David Hawkins, director of the Marriage Recovery Center, will address questions from Crosswalk readers in his weekly column. Submit your question to: TheRelationshipDoctor@gmail.com.
When we get married, we understand we’re marrying not only our spouse, but their family as well.
Though we have an intellectual understanding of this process, working out the details is often another matter. What do you do when your mate wants to spend more time with their family than with you? What do you do if your mother-in-law seems to have more influence over your mate than you do? These are horrific problems and can be incredibly divisive. Once a division has begun, it can be very difficult to repair the rift.
The trick, of course, is not to allow a rift to occur in the first place. In an ideal world you take your time in getting to know your future mate, and their family, and then in cleaving to your mate—as the Scriptures indicate—you create your own solid bond, remaining open to your extended family, but not controlled by them.
However, this is not an ideal world, and loyalties are hard to break with your biological family. Perhaps you’ve grown up in a family where the attachments run deep, or at least the obligations to them seem very strong. This creates a threat to your marriage as was shared with me by a woman recently.
Dear Dr. David: I have been married to my husband for several years and we have had a strong marriage except for one thing—his mother. I have had an on-again, off-again relationship with her, but throughout our marriage my husband has always taken her side. At times I have even felt abused by her, and still he stays loyal to her.
This issue has been the undoing of our marriage. He spends more time and attention talking to her than he does to our children and me. No matter how hard I plead with him to push away from her, he won’t. He says I’m being immature and that he should be allowed to be as close to his mother as he wants. He says our marriage should be strong enough to have her in our lives, while I want her to get out and allow us to rebuild our marriage. We fight about this issue so much that our marriage is threatened. What advice can you offer us? ~ Threatened by Mother-in-Law
Dear Threatened: I can empathize with your feelings of frustration and anger. It sounds like your husband has failed to fully embrace you and his marriage and is quite possibly enmeshed with his family.
There is a fine balance to be had with our families of origin—on the one hand we need their comfort, support and familiarity to help us manage throughout our lives. On the other, there comes a time when it is critical that we fully embrace our mate and make them feel totally and completely secure. Scriptures are clear about the importance of “leaving and cleaving” when it comes to our marriage (Genesis 2:24). With that in mind, let's look at some practical ways to deal with this situation:
You are caught in a power struggle, and this must end. Obviously struggling with your husband to leave his mother has been ineffective. He has been unwilling to let go of her; possibly because of how hard you’re tugging at him to make this happen. Often when we try to force an issue, we are met with resistance and get the opposite effect. I wonder if this is happening with you.
You don’t mention seeking counseling to help you and your husband resolve this struggle. I believe a neutral, professional could help both of you see the validity of each other’s position. Certainly he has the right, and even obligation to respect his mother. He also has the obligation to protect you from any abuse or control on her part. A wise counselor could help resolve these issues.
Stop fighting! While this may be easier said than done, fighting endlessly about any topic is draining to a relationship. Don’t engage with him on provocative statements regarding your mother-in-law. Don’t get involved in petty bickering, or battles that lead nowhere and further weaken your bond.
Do set boundaries for yourself. While your husband may be unwilling to “take sides,” and in fact shouldn’t have to, you are not helpless in setting healthy boundaries with her. In a clear, calm manner, make it clear to your husband and your mother-in-law what behaviors you consider abusive and will not tolerate. Stick to those boundaries.
Seek places of agreement. In the midst of this thorny issue there are places where you and your husband can agree. Seek those places. Can you agree to visit your mother-in-law with him once a week? Can you support the healthy aspects of his relationship to her? Encouragement is a much stronger method of changing behavior than criticism. Try it.
How have others dealt with extended family issues? We’d like your input.
Published January 27, 2009.
Dr. Hawkins is the director of The Marriage Recovery Center where he counsels couples in distress. He is the author of over 30 books, including When Pleasing Others Is Hurting You, Love Lost: Living Beyond a Broken Marriage, and Saying It So He'll Listen. His newest books are titled The Relationship Doctor's Prescription for Healing a Hurting Relationship and The Relationship Doctor's Prescription for Living Beyond Guilt. Dr. Hawkins grew up in the beautiful Pacific Northwest and lives with his wife on the South Puget Sound where he enjoys sailing, biking, and skiing. He has active practices in two Washington cities.