Lydia and I married in 2005. Since then we have never lived more than seven miles from my wife’s parents. My father-in-law and I have also worked on the same church staff since 2004. While some may view my relationship with my in-laws as a little too close for comfort, it has been a tremendous blessing for my wife and me and our now three children. But I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked, “So, what’s it really like living so close to your in-laws and working with your father-in-law?” I often feel like I’m expected to provide them with some lowdown, insider information, but I usually respond, “It’s great,” because it is.
As a Google search of “in-law jokes” reveals, relationships with in- laws are infamous for their strenuous nature. This strain is often rooted in the fact that well-established strings of dependency upon parents are not properly severed following the wedding. My father- in-law officiated our wedding, and as a wedding gift, he scripted our vows (it wasn’t by coincidence that my vows were twice as long). In my vows, I promised to be the primary caretaker of Lydia since she was now under my headship (Gen 2:24; Eph 5:23). This transfer of headship from parents to husband, commonly referred to as leaving and cleaving, is easier said than done.
Much like a tightrope walker on a high-wire (minus the dramatic falling to one’s death aspect), honoring parents following the “I dos” requires a skillful balance that most newlywed couples lack. As any married couple can attest, it’s tough to walk the tightrope of leaving parents without withdrawing from them, and at the same time being willing to accept their advice without being overly dependent upon it. (Of course, parents face analogous challenges from their vantage point.) Balance will inevitably be lost, resulting in built-up tension, hurt feelings, and strained relationships.
My relationship with my in-laws is not perfect and apologies have been exchanged through the years, but I get the distinct impression our relationship is healthier than most. I attribute our close and simultaneously comfortable relationship primarily to the godly wisdom of my in-laws. Yet, I also feel my wife and I have implemented some basic principles that would be helpful for all couples whose in-laws are the same people from whom they borrow sugar in a pinch. If you find yourself living in close proximity to in-laws, here are six suggestions that will serve you well as you seek to maintain a flourishing, Christ-honoring relationship.
1. Avoid Being Too Reliant
A level of reliance upon in-laws is to be expected; they are family, after all. Nonetheless, it is easy to become overly dependent when they live in close proximity. This reliance can manifest itself in numerous ways (e.g., free meals, financial gifts, borrowing things, and, as much as I personally hate to include it, built-in babysitting). We must be careful not to take advantage of their graciousness. For this reason, guard against developing an unhealthy reliance. A steady articulation of thankfulness to in-laws is not only appropriate, but it also serves as a continuous reminder that our in-laws are truly a blessing.
2. Protect Your Spouse
Generally parents are quicker to forgive and forget the shortcomings of their children than those of their child’s spouse. Consequently, children should establish boundaries in terms of what they say about their spouse to their parents. Discernment should be exercised before conversing with parents over contentious issues (e.g., marital quarrels, finances, spouse’s weaknesses). Don’t forget that Dad still owns that shotgun he threatened to use while you were dating! Additionally, whenever there is an issue that needs to be addressed, each child should deal with his or her own parents. In so doing, the child acts as a buffer between the parents and the spouse. This approach minimizes the awkwardness of an already awkward situation, and it helps prevent parents from building up resentment against their child-in-law.
3. Schedule Time Together and Apart
Striking a healthy balance regarding the amount of time you spend with in-laws can be tricky. Because it is our tendency to spend too little or too much time with our in-laws, keeping a somewhat regular schedule of when you will see each other can be beneficial in establishing overall expectations for the amount of time spent together. With our family, we spend every Tuesday evening having dinner with my wife’s parents. But on the weekends when I’m home more, we typically do not schedule time with her family. Carving out time together as a family of five allows us to bond as our own family, separate from in-laws. This practice of keeping a schedule also protects against too many unexpected drop-ins!
4. Separate Work and Home
Amazing possibilities abound when your parent-in-law is the same person who can ruin your livelihood by firing you! Working with one’s in-laws will ideally not be a stressor on your relationship; rather, it will result in a deepening of your relationship. From my experience, I would give two pieces of advice to those working for or with a parent-in-law. First, avoid discussing shop when together outside the workplace. It’s too easy for work-related discussions to hinder you from fully enjoying time together as a family. Second, strive to be a model employee who is a blessing to their supervisor. In so doing, you will not only avoid placing you and your in- laws in uncomfortable positions, but you will undoubt- edly enhance your relationship.
5. Avoid Holiday Catastrophes
Some of my fondest memories growing up involved spending the holidays with my parents and siblings. As fate would have it, my wife also enjoyed spending the holidays with her family. This scenario is where most newlyweds find themselves: in the precarious position of meeting two sets of expectations. It is therefore important for newlyweds to reset everyone’s expectations. Doing so will minimize confusion and disappointment. Taking the advice of our premarital counselor, we decided during our engagement that we would rotate the holidays between our families. If we spent Thanksgiving with my parents, Christmas would be spent with hers. The following year, locations were flip-flopped. One temptation when living near one set of in-laws is to think it’s okay to spend more holidays with the family living further away since you see them less often. You want to be careful not to penalize parents for living closer. Whatever your holiday routine is, it needs to be fair to both families.
6. Pray for Your In-Laws
It should go without saying that we need to be faithful in praying for our in-laws and our relationship with them. The devil is in the business of destroying families; if he can use a poor relationship with in-laws to drive a wedge between you and your spouse, he will not hesitate to do so. Without question, prayer is always your greatest weapon when seeking a healthy relationship with in- laws and as you fight for your family’s overall prosperity.
(1) For a helpful treatment on this topic, see Wilford Wooten’s “Holidays and the In-Laws,” Focus on the Family (2006) [on-line]; accessed 19 February 2012; available from http://www.focusonthefamily.com/ marriage/communication_and_conflict/inlaw_relationships/holidays_and_the_inlaws.aspx; Internet.
About the Author: Blake T. Ring (Ph.D. The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is the Pastor of Evangelism and Education at Ninth and O Baptist Church in Louisville, KY. He and Lydia married in 2005 and they have three children: Will (5), Riley (3), and Emery (2). Blake is a fan of St. Louis Cardinal baseball, Fighting Illini basketball, cookie dough, jogging, and orphan care.
[Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in The Journal of Discipleship and Family Ministry 2.2.]