An independent household
We have emphasized the point several times in earlier chapters that it was the intent of the Lord God that once married a husband and wife were to form an independent household separate from their respective families (Gen 2:24 and Psa 45:10). This doesn’t mean that the newlyweds are to ignore or cut off their family relationships, indeed, ideally it should lead to a broadening of experience and a deeper circle of friendship and love. However, it does mean that married couples’ first consideration and loyalty must be to each other. It goes without saying that there is a plethora of hostile in-law jokes precisely because there is a kernel of truth that interfering in-laws can make a happy marriage difficult if not impossible to sustain. The humorous Mark Twain is said to have remarked that “Adam was the luckiest man; he had no mother-in-law.” That thinking can equally well be applied to the wife, for many a woman has found that her husband’s mother was difficult to handle and fathers-in-law, in my experience, are not exempt from, at times, also being overbearing.
Other external relationships that can interfere in a marriage are friends, colleagues, and especially prior relationships in which one had an emotional attachment such as an ex-boyfriend or girlfriend. I call these parties out-laws for convenience to distinguish them from blood relatives.
In either case, whether in-laws or out-laws when two people wed they buy the whole package. His family becomes your family and vice versa. Her friends become your friends and vice versa. His past relationships, and yours may be history, but they still happened and both parties in the marriage need to understand this reality. Naturally, over a period of time friendships do ebb and flow, but adjusting to which past relationships to keep and which ones to discard must be done without rancor.
The in-law relationship
The first rule of in-law relationships is don’t be judgmental. This works both ways, a wife or a husband need to remember that their spouse lived with their parent(s) or guardians for many years prior to knowing them. These years formed almost all their good habits, and also their quirks for that matter, which now conceivably become part of the married relationship. If his parents were slobs it’s a good bet you would go crazy trying to make him clean up after himself. You are also likely to find that his parents cannot understand why you make such a fuss about neatness — this can become a source of conflict if you let it. Naturally, the opposite equally applies; if her parents were neatniks they will frown on any indication that their son in-law is not so inclined.1 In my case since I didn’t marry an Italian girl my grandmother was certain I would starve to death! However, she had enough graciousness not to say such a thing directly to my wife. The rule to avoid being judgmental also applies to far more serious potential conflicts that can arise with in-laws.
Some excellent guidance on in-law relationships can be gathered from the book of Ruth. Almost all married couples have to relate to their spouse’s families and the more pleasant that relationship, the happier it will be the marriage. Naturally, Lord willing, someday it is entirely possible that a happily married couple will become in-laws themselves when their children grow-up and find a mate. This essay may have some lessons to keep in mind for the future in that eventuality. Either way the story of Naomi, and her family, presents us with some very excellent models to emulate if we face similar situations in our lives. Let us consider the connection between Naomi and her daughters-in-law.
In an age when it was the norm for parents to arrange their children’s marriages, apparently this didn’t happen when Mahlon and Chilion wed the Moabites, Orpah and Ruth, respectively. I think it is reasonable to assume that if this were the case a woman as faithful as Naomi would have wished her sons to marry Israelite women who were within the household of faith. I suggest that Naomi accepted the situation as best she could and did everything to display by her love and concern for her daughters-in-law in the spirit of righteousness. By her character, her sons’ wives could appreciate the faith Naomi had in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. There is no hint in Scripture that Naomi was a bitter or a nagging mother-in-law. From the account in Ruth it is obvious that both her daughters-in-law deeply loved her, for we read:
“Then they (both) lifted up their voices and wept again. And Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her” (Ruth 1:14 ESV2).
The fact that Ruth clung to her is a testimony to the quiet faithful teachings of truth that she must have heard over the years from Naomi. Sadly these lessons did not instill in Orpah the same willingness to sacrifice worldly security in exchange for following the religious faith of her mother-in-law.
We can observe another apt rule for happy in-law relationships, namely, to treat the married couple as adults and let them make their own decisions without threats or laying on guilt. Note this in the alternative that Naomi presents to Ruth and Orpah:
“But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, ‘Go, return each of you to her mother’s house’ ” (Ruth 1:8).
It was a no pressure statement and it is precisely what one would expect given the cultural norms of the time. If her daughters-in-law were going to follow her back to Israel they would have, of necessity, been expected to worship the Lord God of the Patriarchs. The decision where to spend her future, and what God(s) to worship, was not forced on Ruth, she made it of her own free will.
There is another in-law lesson to be learned from the story of Naomi and her Moabite daughters-in-law. One can be reasonably certain that Naomi was a faithful follower of the Lord God otherwise there is no way Ruth would have been able to say: “Your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” Neither would Ruth have displayed such love for Naomi if she had been a shrewish mother in-law. If we find ourselves in a situation where one of our children marries out of the faith, or if you are in a situation where your spouse is not in the Truth, then the road to maintaining a happy relationship needs to be paved with love, kindness, consideration and by letting your faith show by your works. The apostle Paul gave some advice on how to have a happy relationship in these circumstances when he said:
“For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband” (1Cor 7:14).
I believe the same advice applies to in-laws issues, namely accept the situation you find yourself in and do your best to inspire holiness by your behavior as we are commanded by our Lord Jesus Christ.
“…let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matt 5:16).
Surely, it was that light that shined forth from both Naomi and Ruth that made for a very loving in-law relationship and so should it be with us.
Now what should one do if in spite of all your loving efforts your in-laws continue to be overbearing, critical and sometimes even downright hostile. There is a passage that the apostle Paul wrote to the Galatians that is well worth remembering in such a situation:
“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness…” (Gal 5:22).
The AV, ESV and Diaglott translations uniformly agree that the first three attributes of the fruit of the Spirit are love, joy and peace. However where the ESV follows with the word “patience” the AV uses instead “longsuffering” and the Diaglott “forbearance” in translating this passage.
Patience = capacity for waiting
Longsuffering = patiently enduring lasting offense or hardship
Forbearance = refraining from action
The Greek word here is subtle and encompasses the emotions of all three of the English words used in the three translations cited above. There are many quandaries in trying to translate a complex set of emotions that are embodied in a single word in one language, but are attributed to multiple expressions in another language. Most Bible students are familiar with this in the reverse sense since the word “love” in English has many different shades of meaning when expressed in other languages, such as Greek and Italian, to cite a couple of familiar linguistic examples.
Now to focus on the main practical point of this diversion — if you want to win over a hostile in-law (and anyone else for that matter) one needs to apply all three of the attributes noted above. Some rules to remember:
Be patience: don’t give up. It may take time to develop a lasting friendship with your in-laws. In fact it may take years.
Be longsuffering: you may need to overlook a lot of unpleasant things that are said and done to you and/or your spouse.
Be forbearing: whatever your feelings don’t overreact, avoid the temptation to repay kind for kind. Refraining from action in the face of unpleasantness is the ultimate example of applying the teaching of our Lord Jesus (Matt 5:39 and also Luke 6:29).
I can personally testify that these maxims work having faced this type of situation in my own life, and been a witness to it in the in-law interactions of a number of other brothers and sisters. Applying these Scriptural principles eventually resulted in having acceptable relationships with in-laws in almost all instances.
It is also a good rule that each partner in a marriage should be the primary person to handle difficulties with their side of the family when a conflict with their spouse arises.
“Let another praise you, and not your own mouth…” (Prov 27:2).
By dealing with my own family on the rare occasions when there was some criticisms of my wife’s homemaking or child rearing skills, I found that the situation defused immediately. I made it plain to my Mom and Dad that I loved my wife and she was the best possible daughter-in-law that they would ever have. After that what could Mom or Dad possibly say?
The situation with out-laws
Conflict in a marriage can arise in many ways from past relationships, we will give a few examples, but by no means is this intended to be comprehensive. The situation often arises that prior to being married a couple each traveled in different friendship circles. Suppose the husband had previously been accustomed to going out frequently with his male friends several nights per week, bowling, to attend sporting events or on long solitary hunting or fishing trips to cite a few possibilities.
The wife may have cultivated a set of close interests with her female friends that don’t appeal or relate to her husband. I don’t particularly like spending a day shopping with my wife. To me shopping for clothes or shoes is sometime done only for a replacement when an item has worn out, and then it is time to get another one exactly like it. The whole process shouldn’t take more than 15 minutes of my time. Obviously, my wife (maybe it’s a gender thing, because my mother was just like my wife) needs a whole day to buy a pair of shoes and deciding on a dress could take weeks. Hence, long ago we came to an understanding — go shopping for clothes by yourself, or with your girlfriends, daughters-in-law and more recently granddaughters, but I am perfectly content to spend that time alone reading a book or writing one! However, this can become a problem when the out-law association becomes obsessive and extents to such lengths that the marriage relationship is neglected. It is even possible that we can make the “Truth” a cause for neglect that can harm our chances of having a happy marriage. How can that be? A brother can become so engrossed in Bible study, missionary work and being away from home for extended periods of time to speak at Christadelphian venues, that his wife and family rarely occupy his time and energy. While being a dedicated follower of the Lord Jesus, by doing community service, is a good thing, it should not be done at the expense of shepherding one’s own family into the Kingdom.
An even more serious a problem occurs when out-law relationships become destructive.
“Hear, my son, and be wise, and direct your heart in the way. Be not among drunkardsor among gluttonous eaters of meat” (Prov 23:20, also cp. Rom 13:13 and Eph 5: 18).
I believe the words of Solomon given here in Proverbs are good general advice to avoid all outside relationships that head in destructive directions. This applies not only to drinking buddies, but to all out-law relationships (gluttonous) that lead to excess or emotional interference in one’s marriage.
Husbands and wives will find that with time they will themselves have a much happier marriage if each one is willing to adjust past friendships that may not be to the liking of their spouse. Sometimes that will mean letting that past relationship wither, or it could also be that with time the offended partner might learn to adjust and recognize what his/her spouse appreciated from their past association. Either way, to have a happy marriage the bottom line is to realize that it is important not to let out-laws get in the way of the bond between husband and wife. If they do, such a relationship needs to be discarded.
John C. Bilello (Ann Arbor, MI)
1. The “him” and “her” in these examples should be considered interchangeable, i.e. every example I have given for a man applies equally for a woman.
2. All references are from the ESV, except as noted.