In-laws or Outlaws?

The relationship dynamics between spouses is challenging enough. When we add children, siblings, parents, in-laws, grandchildren, and grandparents, life can become very complicated. As you reflect on these relationships, it may surprise you how significantly these relationships impact your marriage relationship.

Your marital relationship should always take priority over your respective families of origin. Extended family pressures may cause stress between you and your spouse. If they do, establish some healthy boundaries with your extended family members. This may feel uncomfortable, but will meet the overall goal of prioritizing your spouse.

Here are some helpful guidelines for maintaining healthy, positive interactions with extended family members:

  • Support your spouse by delivering difficult or disappointing news to your own family of origin (especially turning down family events).
  • Establish a positive tone when you come together. Greet your family members in a way that makes them feel special. Years ago, a very sweet lady, Amelia, mentored me (Angie). Every time I went to her house, she and her husband stopped whatever they were doing and exclaimed with glee, “Angelita’s here!” Their warm, excited greeting always made me feel special. I decided this was something I wanted to extend to my own family. I immediately began cheerfully greeting Ed and our sons with an exuberant hug whenever they entered the house. Our adult sons now have homes of their own, but they can still count on a delighted Mom and Dad ready to greet them joyfully!
  • Face family challenges together. Support your spouse in ways that will demonstrate your interest and care. Avoid minimizing, dismissing, or ignoring your spouse’s concerns. Often, listening to your spouse’s anger, discouragement, disappointment, sadness, or fear is the best action you can take. Be a safe person with whom your spouse can honestly share.
  • Remember that you cannot control the way your extended family interacts with you and your spouse. However, you can control the way you respond to them. Seek reconciliation when disagreements occur. You and your spouse may hope family members will change undesirable behaviors, but the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior so change is unlikely. If it becomes necessary to set protective hedges, pray for God’s love, grace, and forgiveness as you set appropriate boundaries.
  • Speak positively about your spouse and don’t share marital problems with family members. It is easy to seek support from family members when you are frustrated, but after the conflict is resolved and you and your spouse have moved on, your family may have difficulty forgetting the hurt your spouse caused you. If you need to share marital frustrations with someone, choose a trusted, same-sex friend; or seek church or professional support.

Your relationship with your children and extended family could potentially bring you endless joy or tremendous stress and disappointment. Make your marriage a priority. Unite on all family decisions. Pray for God’s help and wisdom as you face challenges together.