When Hurricane Isabel’s high winds sent a tree through our kitchen window in September 2003, my family — husband and 1-year-old daughter — suddenly found ourselves temporarily homeless. My husband’s parents, who live close by, generously offered to house us while our home was being rebuilt. Just over five months later, we finally moved back into our restored house, grateful to my in-laws for their hospitality and thankful to be home.
My scenario is becoming more common across the United States as young married couples — with and without children — move back in with one set of parents and thirty- and fortysomethings care for aging parents in their home. "Both situations are pretty common — having parents come live with you or having to live with parents because of financial or other reasons," says Christine Arnzen, director of training and professional development for the Branson, Mo.-based National Institute of Marriage, a non-denominational, faith-based organization committed to restoring and renewing the promise of a great marriage.
Multigenerational living — once the norm among Americans from all walks of life — brings its own set of challenges to modern home life. Whether you’re the one moving in with parents or in-laws or welcoming a parent into your home, here are some things that will make the adjustment smooth and God-honoring for all involved.
• Consider the relational dynamics of all individuals. How do you relate to your in-laws or parents? "If anyone in the two families is overbearing, controlling or doesn’t respect boundaries, it will most likely not work," says Tricia Cunningham, director of support resources for the National Institute of Marriage. When Cunningham and her family relocated, they lived with her parents in a basement apartment for three years.
• Have a frank discussion about expectations. "I think in order for us to make the leap to give up some of our independence, we idealize the situation," says Arnzen, whose mother-in-law lives with her family four months every year. "We change so much as we mature that a frank discussion of expectations is essential."
Cunningham adds working out such details as who will do which household chores, how long you will be there, or if you will pay rent helps to keep communication channels clear. "Having a clear understanding from the beginning will help keep resentment from growing," she says.
• Maintain your own independence. For example, with children, keep the grandparents in the grandparent mode and leave the disciplining to the parents, Cunningham says. Arnzen recommends giving the parent the option of not participating in family activities and encouraging her to have her own outside interests.
• Honor your in-laws or parents while living with them. One way to honor your in-laws especially is to let them know how much you love your spouse, their child. Arnzen also says another way to honor parents or in-laws is to honor your spouse in front of your parents. "In essence, you teach your parents how to treat your spouse by the way you treat your spouse," she says.
• Date your spouse. Living with family can limit a couple’s alone time, so going out on dates can bring your marriage back in focus. "We were able to put our children to bed and have a night out while my mom ‘babysat’ by just being there in case they woke up," says Cunningham. Arnzen’s mother-in-law was delighted to keep an eye on her grandchildren so that Arnzen and her husband could get away for an evening or an overnight.
• Keep your marriage alive. It’s important, Arnzen and Cunningham say, to make sure you make time for the physical aspect of marriage. "Make the most of every moment alone together, look at it as precious," says Arnzen. You might have to readjust the times when you are intimate with your spouse because of someone else’s schedule, but that doesn’t mean the spark has to leave your marriage," she says.
• Periodically check in with each other. If the stay extends past a few weeks, it would be wise to talk about how things are going. Arnzen made it a habit to periodically check in with her mother-in-law about the arrangements every few weeks. She also checked in to see how her children were coping, especially since one teenage daughter shares a bathroom with her grandmother.
• Take care of their spiritual health. If your family members are believers, then you have an added blessing of caring for their spiritual walk with God. It’s important, Arnzen says, to allow the family member to worship God in his or her own way at a church of their choosing.
For unbelieving in-laws or parents, in your house, feel free to set whatever rules you might need to, says Arnzen. If you’re in their house, don’t sweat the small stuff, unless it clearly violates Scripture.
Overall, while living with a family member — no matter whose house it is — can be stressful, it also can provide a wonderful opportunity for parents and grandparents and children to become closer. "These situations can be negative or positive — so much has to do with your mindset," says Arnzen.
Sarah Hamaker is a freelance writer based in Fairfax, Va. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.