Whenever I think of the term mother-in-law, I can see Ray’s mom on Everybody Loves Raymond saying patronizing things like, “Now Debra . . . ” or “Debra dear . . . ” You might have your own classic version of the Hollywood mother-in-law in your mind, but most of us probably have some version.
The mother-in-law is a character that has been type-casted to death. If we stop to think about it, most of us who are mothers-in-law should be utterly offended. Mothers-in-law are portrayed as meddling, helicopter mamas who won’t butt out. But we aren’t shocked, we aren’t mortally offended, and that says something. It says two things—first, it’s really so common we forget to notice anymore, and second, there’s a grain of truth in there that makes it funny.
So, why are mother-in-law relationships so classically difficult? Even if you have a great relationship with your mother-in-law, was there ever a time when it was not so great? Have you ever simply had a difference of opinion with your in-laws? Have you ever, even once, complained to your husband about your mother-in-law, or conversely about your daughter-in-law or your son-in-law?
Family relationships—whether good, hard, or ugly—are complex, and no two people mesh together perfectly without a little tension, a little sin, and a little forgiveness that deepens the relationship for richer or for poorer. This goes for mothers-in-law too.
Genesis 2:24–25 is where we find the foundational first steps of all marriage relationships. These verses aren’t just for husbands and wives either. They are written for all of us to see and learn from.
Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.
In-law relationships are hard because they involve leaving and cleaving. The burden of leaving and cleaving, we can see in Genesis 2, is on the husband, the leader and head of the household. A couple sets boundaries together, but it is under his leadership, with the guidance of God’s Word and Spirit, to make these boundaries stick. He is holding fast to his wife, essentially saying, “You are my priority. I will make all decisions with you in mind and for your good. My goal at the end of the day is to love you well, in the forgiveness and love of Christ Jesus. You are the most important thing to me in this world, beyond my Lord, Jesus Christ.”
Wow, if we don’t think that is going to rub up against some family emotions, we are fooling ourselves.
While the husband isn’t “choosing” his wife over his mom, to some extent he is invited, and commanded, by God to place a higher priority on this new marriage relationship.
While still honoring fathers and mothers, a couple is called to give more time and attention to each other. Again, this isn’t “choosing,” but sometimes to our sinful selves, it sure feels like it. I never quite appreciated my mother-in-law until I had a twelve-year-old son. A son who started wearing deodorant and giving bracelets to girls, and who no longer wanted his curly hair tousled in public. Someday, he will win the heart of one very lucky girl, and this mama will have to set aside my own desires to have him eat me out of house and home forever, and let him leave and cleave.
So, now I’m interested. How do we do this better? How do we leave and cleave as an immediate couple and as an extended family well? I have three quick suggestions.
First, give time and space.
When a couple is new, they need more space. This goes for those married older and those married into blended families, just as it goes for fresh, young married couples. In the Old Testament, men were not supposed to go to war for a certain period of time after marrying (Deuteronomy 20:7). It was understood that the new couple needed time to grow as a couple, time for physical intimacy, and time for emotional and intellectual connection, time to get settled. To be naked and unashamed with each other in marriage includes having time to be able to grow in the sacrificial love of Christ, and toward the intimacy that says, “Be yourself! Even your 2:30 a.m. stomach flu self!” To grow in the complete safety of marriage, we need time and space from the opinions and the suggestions of others, even when they are wise and helpful. We need to make marriage mistakes and see the grace of Christ work in them . . . on our own, as a couple.
Second, give kindness and understanding.
Don’t start from the assumption that your mother-in-law is out to get you. Put the best perspective on every little bit of her involvement in things, because usually it’s from a heart of love. Leaving and cleaving is hard for in-laws too. The experience of leaving and cleaving for parents of married children is a process also, not an instant product of wedding vows. It takes time and practice, a lot of confession and absolution, and genuine affection shared among one another.
Third, appreciate that every person has wisdom to share.
We have a gift given us when we can tap into the wisdom of our parents, our in-laws, our church family, our siblings, and our friends. We need more than just our own limited ideas to leave and cleave well. On the same note, we can appreciate and believe that even bright new couples have wisdom and can handle whatever life throws at them. We can offer support and step back, waiting to be asked for input and experiences.
Most important, we can bring all our relationships, our questions, our challenges, and our joys to our heavenly Father in prayer and to Christ Jesus in His Word. We cannot see through the cultural idea muck without it. He is working in every single one of our relationships, and He is able to make the difficult ones better and the wonderful ones more alive with His grace and mercy every day.
It’s honestly a biblical idea to love, honor, and cherish every person in your life, so don’t forget your mother-in-law. She is a child for whom Christ died too.