10 WAYS TO AVOID CRAZY IN-LAW INTERACTIONS
By Dawn Wilson
In-law “horror” stories abound. I’ll be honest; I used to laugh at in-law jokes. But not anymore. I believe God can use in-law relationships to bless and encourage us, and also to rub off rough edges in our personalities. Looking at in-laws through Jesus’ eyes, I now hope for “honor” stories.
Sometimes, in spite of doing all the right things, in-law relationships can fall apart. We cannot “fix” other people, but the Lord can change us and fix relationship messes in His own time and way. In the meantime, we can choose to love others—even the unlovable—as Jesus would.
Given that disclaimer, there are powerful steps we can take to create healthy in-law interactions.
1. Approach with humility.
A huge mistake with in-laws is a prideful attitude. A “holier-than-thou”, judgmental attitude poisons any interaction, and it’s especially toxic in this sensitive relationship. Pride waits for others to make a mistake and then says, “I told you so.” Humility says, “We all make mistakes. I know you’ll do better next time.”
A Facebook friend reminded me of the importance of humility for older in-laws when she referred to Luke 14:10. The point of that verse, she said, is it’s better to take a lower place—to “sit at the foot of the table”—and be asked to move up, rather than to push for position. That’s an excellent concept for a mother-in-law. Humility says, “I’m here for you if you need me, but I’m going to back off until you do.” That doesn’t mean we aren’t involved in our family members’ lives. We simply practice godly humility.
A young military wife told me her mother-in-law taught her to love her husband the way he needs love, not the way she might think he needs love. Moms tend to know their sons’ love language and how best to approach them, and this young wife was wise to humble herself and learn from her caring “mom-in-love” in a Titus 2 relationship.
2. Always show respect.
Respect manifests in many ways. Respect listens with the desire to understand. It’s careful not to share sensitive information or gossip about family relationship issues, but rather goes directly to those involved for clarification or to express concern. It’s never wise to talk negatively about in-laws behind their back. In the words of a younger-than-me friend, “It will make it back to them, and the damage will be hard to reverse.”
Younger in-laws should always show due respect for their elders. Respect might include compassion, grace, and a desire to forgive—be a quick forgiver! No one enters marriage without personal flaws and some scars from parental mistakes.
Older in-laws should respect the new family their children are creating. This means cutting the apron strings (Genesis 2:24), allowing younger in-laws to grow in independence, and not competing for our married child’s love. It means accepting them as a couple and extending invitations to your child and their spouse.
3. Aim for acceptance.
It’s easy to accept those who are like us, those who have a similar background or interests. But just as we often marry a spouse who is different than us—and that’s a good thing—we’re likely to marry into families that don’t do things the way we do. But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn to love and accept them. Some people accept total strangers but struggle to accept those the Lord has allowed to become part of their family. This should not be. Note: Acceptance is not the same as condoning poor or ungodly behavior.
You may be a saintly, welcoming person, and still be completely ostracized by your family. In some cases, it’s best to simply say, “I’m sorry you feel that way” and allow them to own or take responsibility for their responses. Aim for acceptance and peace, but recognize there may always be deep differences. Even within the body of Christ, we hear Paul say, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”
Accept things you cannot change. Accept your in-law’s different perspectives and goals. Allow them to have the same freedom you desire for yourself. Pray that they will know and live for Christ; but if they don’t, understand you are not the one to change them. God is.
4. Avoid hurtful responses.
Nasty, passive-aggressive words and responses are hurtful and have no place in in-law relations. What does passive-aggressive look like? It’s the “I’m not angry” while you’re seething inside, or the sarcastic remark—“whatever” or “fine”—or the snarky comment with a smile. It’s verbally complying, but procrastinating or failing to act in order to express displeasure or anger.
If I want to create healthy interactions, I will choose to be considerate and kind. I will let my words be “seasoned with salt” (Colossians 4:6) and life-building. I’ll avoid casting blame or humiliating my in-laws. I’ll avoid favoritism and genuinely seek to include everyone.
One of the best ways I know to avoid hurtful responses and embrace healthy ones is to practice all the “one anothers” of Scripture, like love one another, serve one another, encourage one another, forgive one another, comfort one another, and pray for one another. Imagine how sweet in-law interactions could be if these were always practiced.
5. Advise with caution, if at all.
A common piece of advice given to in-law moms is: “Don’t give advice unless asked!” Young couples need to make their own decisions. We need to allow them to succeed or fail on their own. The truth is, the Lord wants to teach and mature them, and in-laws shouldn’t get in the way. I try to remember: their need isn’t always an invitation for my solution!
We all mess up, but we appreciate the freedom to make our own choices, even if it means learning the hard way. Think how you’d feel in the same situation. A young wife says this about advice from elders: “We don’t always ask for advice, because the danger in asking and doing something different is sometimes seen as advice not valued or taken.” Similarly, if you are a young in-law, don’t assume your elder relative wants your advice. Always ask!
When an in-law feels comfortable with you and does ask for advice, counsel should be shared cautiously and with great care and wisdom. Pray first! No critical, nit-picking, or controlling behavior allowed!
6. Adapt to family boundaries.
Boundaries are not normally negative, but we can react to them in a negative way. Even God’s boundaries for us were established for our good and His glory. Think of boundaries as protection so interactions can work more efficiently, not as hindrances to relationships.
Every family establishes its own boundaries. Encourage young couples to consider and establish their own and then respect them. Stay out of their “business.” Older in-laws need to come up with kind ways to express their own boundaries too. Elder in-laws may genuinely want to spend time with kids and grandkids, but younger in-laws should not “take advantage” of elders simply because they don’t seem as busy as they once were.
For example, when planning get-togethers, find the “sweet spot” in each other’s schedules, and then call or text first. Don’t ever just show up or barge in. Treat others as you’d want to be treated (Luke 6:31). Set limits on what you can or will tolerate, and don’t put unreasonable expectations on others.
7. Assume the best in one another.
Why is it that some people give co-workers and friends at church the benefit of the doubt, but then assume the worst about family members? Making wrong judgments can lead to serious fallout.
There are a lot of possible “don’ts” here. Don’t assume different opinions are intentional digs. Don’t assume interruptions are meant to harm you. Don’t assume a person is angry. Don’t overanalyze circumstances. Don’t escalate situations.
An appropriate way to assume the best is to communicate in a gentle and straightforward manner. Ask questions if you are confused, need clarification, or wonder about intentions. This is especially important in the social media age. One of my sweet daughters-in-law sent me a note because she wondered if she sensed some displeasure in something I wrote in an email. It was a total misunderstanding, and I’m so grateful she asked. That took maturity on her part and a willingness to assume the best.
8. Appreciate and encourage them.
In-law relationships, rather than being adversarial, can become blessings. Are you doing all you can to appreciate your in-laws and cultivate genuine friendship? Ask, “What is there about this person that is unique or special?” “What gifts does this person have that I can encourage? “How can I show how much I appreciate her (or him)?”
Allow time for the relationship to grow. Go shopping together, reach out for help, ask for input and listen sincerely. Skip superficiality and be real with each other. Maybe there is a decision you can make together or a project or hobby you can mutually enjoy.
As an older in-law, support your adult child and their spouse in their homes, parenting, and work. As a younger in-law, discover what brings out the best in your in-laws and encourage it. At any age, always applaud progress and growth. Express gratitude. Compliment sincerely. Give credit where credit is due.
9. Allow the Lord to work.
Too often, in-laws rush in and try to “fix” a situation when it would be wiser to allow the Lord to work in their lives. That doesn’t mean we stand idly by. There are many things we can do to encourage healthy interactions while giving the Lord time and space to accomplish His will in a loved one’s life.
Relationship and conflict resolution expert Deb DeArmond wrote, “I’ve known outlaw in-laws who prey on one another. It shouldn’t be so.” One of the ways to change this is to pray for your in-laws. “It’s impossible to pray genuinely for God’s favor and direction” in your loved one’s life, DeArmond said, “while constantly criticizing her.” Instead of preying, we should be praying! If they’re open to it, ask how you can pray for your in-law. Or simply pray at home in private about needs you observe. Don’t forget to pray about your responses too.
Depending on the relationship, share Scriptures or helpful articles; but use the utmost discernment and only with the Lord’s clear direction. Having a preachy in-law is no one’s idea of fun! If your in-law does not know the Lord, pray for opportunities to naturally and winsomely share your testimony and the gospel message. It’s better to share sips of Living Water than to drown someone with truth. The gospel may offend, but we shouldn’t be offensive.
10. Act creatively to cultivate bonds.
If there’s little in-law connection, don’t just sit back and hope for the best. Offer loved ones ways to feel useful and contribute to the family circle. Take the initiative to get together, plan activities, and offer help to cultivate stronger relationships. Try to find activities that will be fun for every age.
Extend invitations to your child and their spouse. A young Facebook friend says, “Make an effort to spend regular time with both sides of the family. Don’t rely only on special occasions. That way ‘relational collateral’ won’t be relegated to holidays when everyone wants to plan things,” she says.
Get creative about times together and ways to contribute. You might shop for grandkids’ school supplies if their mom says it’s okay. Celebrate birthdays. Take trips or go on outings. Help with college expenses. Give adult children vacation opportunities by watching their kids. Do ministry together. Go to a conference or event. Take photos and create albums. Update them on the telephone. Host parties in your home and invite the in-laws. Save or give to meet urgent needs.
Ask the Lord to help you work harder to create healthy interactions. “Do all that you can to live in peace with everyone” (Romans 12:18).