Marriage is often seen as the fulfillment of a wonderful dream when your only thought is that you will be together with that special person day after day. How little one is aware that with that special person comes a whole web of family relationships, parents in-law and any number of sisters and brothers in-law. Some will be a blessing and others will bring stress into your life. In-laws can be a spring of refreshing water or a thorn in the flesh. So one asks the question where does the responsibility lie? Who has to make the adjustment?
Even though you may have many things in common with your new spouse, the two parent families you come from are different. These differences include: at home feelings, ways of showing love, resolving conflicts, values, philosophy of life, views on parenting and ways of doing family, just to name a few. As you cross the threshold of your new home according to whose values and philosophy will you pattern your new life? Most of the time it seems natural to follow your own parent family patterns because you feel at home there. But because you both feel like following your own home feelings it is important that you build a new pattern which is unique to the two of you. You may well choose some values from both of your parent homes but the new pattern must be one that the two of you establish together.
What are some of the causes of in-law tensions? One of the causes may be the differences in how family life is perceived. The in-laws want to continue doing family as they always have but you want to build your own family pattern. Choosing to build your own home pattern means that at times you will be out of sync with your own parent family and at other times with your spouse’s parent family. This can create tension between you and your in-laws. So it becomes a challenge to build your own unique marriage pattern but still have a good relationship with your in-laws.
Sometimes the tension is caused by differences in personality. There may be clashes in personality. It may also be that there is an expectation that each person brings into the relationship. In-laws have expectations of you and you have expectations of them. They may expect you to make the effort to fit in while you may feel they need to make you feel welcome in the family.
There is also the tension of loyalty. Until the marriage you were loyal to your parent family but with the marriage you must switch that loyalty to your spouse. It creates a lot of pain when a marriage partner sides with his or her parent family rather than with the person he or she is married to. At times marriage may be seen as breaking up the family and thereby creating difficulty accepting that new person. In Genesis 2:25 the Bible speaks of the man leaving his father and mother and being united to his wife and that they become one flesh. This speaks of loyalty and also unity in the relationship.
Marrying someone within a different culture group can also bring stress into the marriage. There can be differences in how you relate to parents, in your values and even in the food you eat. The role of the husband and wife may also be seen differently. Here it becomes important to follow the guidelines set forth in the Bible of showing love and respect to one another. Different cultures also have different ways of making decisions. In many cultures people make decisions individually, in some decisions are made as a group, while in others decisions are made by the older people in the family. If there is a mixture of any of these in a marriage it will take understanding and patience to make adjustments. A person in such a situation will have to learn to appreciate and be accepting of the culture of his or her spouse. Changes can be made, but these will have to happen a small step at a time together with much love and understanding.
Different faith backgrounds can also bring tension into the in-law relationship. Living with such differences will require showing respect and exercising patience. Here too, following Biblical principles of love and understanding can have a great impact.
What can be done to build good in-law relationships? Ideally, one would like to see love, acceptance and appreciation of the new family member. However, this does not nearly always happen. So you have a choice as to how you want to respond to whatever the family dynamic is that you are facing as an in-law. As a person coming into the family you may have to take the initiative in building relationships. Showing acceptance, affirmation and having an attitude of meeting their needs rather than your own will make a difference. At times you will have to let go of irritations while at other times you may have to confront issues in a loving way. It will require patience to build this relationship. At the same time there will also have to be an assertive side to your relationship where you in a loving but firm way protect your new marriage pattern and schedule. There may be times when you say “no” to family requests in order to follow through on plans that you have made as a couple. It is important that your parent-family gets the message that your spouse is number one in your life and you will be loyal to her or him. If there are tensions that arise it always helps to talk about them in a loving way. There may also be misunderstandings and then it is important to discuss them in a kind, respectful way in order to clarify the issue. How you say things, your tone of voice and choice of words, makes a huge difference in the response you will receive from the in-laws.
Looking at the other side of the in-law issue is also helpful in building good relationships. If the new in-law is entering your family, showing love and acceptance for that new person is so important. Being aware of including them and showing appreciation will also help them feel a part of the family. Making an effort to get to know this new person in the family and acknowledging that they have something to contribute makes the new in-law feel valued. Choosing to say and do things that will make that new in-law feel welcome will build a sense of belonging and will also motivate them in making the necessary adjustments to fit into their new family.
Building an in-law relationship that is a spring of refreshing water rather than a thorn in the flesh takes an effort from everyone involved. It means all must have a servant heart focused on sharing both joy and pain, building each other up, expressing appreciation and being ready to give and take. Focusing on the strengths that the new person brings will enrich the entire family. Following the teachings of the Bible where you are encouraged to show love, to look out for the interests of others and to consider others better than yourselves will make you a spring of refreshing water in that new family of which you are now a part.
Jesus gives us a wonderful example to follow in Philippians 2. Here we are encouraged to have the attitude of Jesus who gave up his rights, took the form of a servant and humbled himself to the point of dying on the cross. We see the wonderful results of such an attitude. God exalted him and give him a name that is above every name. I believe we can also follow this example in relating to in-laws. When we give up our rights and have a servant attitude God will exalt us in his way and will bring joy and blessing into our family relationships.