Inlaws or Outlaws?

Maintaining relationships with our parents usually is beneficial. But problems arise if factors like the following are present:

  • One spouse relies too heavily on the parents to help in decision-making, leading the other spouse to feel insignificant.
  • One spouse looks to the parent, not the partner, to get his or her emotional needs met, leading the partner to feel ignored.
  • One spouse reveals details of marital conflict with his or her parents, leading the other spouse to feel betrayed.

Let’s take a closer look at these and what you can do about them.

1.      Decision-making dysfunction. Couples need the freedom and autonomy to make their own decisions. Some parents are better than others in this area; many wait for their adult children to ask for advice, but others try to inject unsolicited wisdom. The latter are often deeply caring people who want the best for their children, but their behavior communicates a lack of respect and trust in the judgment of their child and his or her spouse.

Family history can make this difficult water to navigate. Some spouses are used to asking their parents for direction; others make decisions more independently. If you and your mate have different habits on this score, conflict may result.

If you’re frustrated because your spouse consults with his or her parents on decisions more than you’d like, the two of you need to work through this issue. If you feel threatened by your spouse’s behavior, share that diplomatically but honestly. Talk about how the two of you would like decision making to work. Would you prefer that the two of you make choices without getting input from either set of parents? Are there some decisions you’d ask one set of parents about, but not the other?

Be aware that asking for parents’ advice can be a slippery slope. It may leave them feeling the door is open for them to give you input into other areas, or even to “correct” decisions you’ve already made.

Credit each other and your in-laws with goodwill toward your marriage unless they’ve demonstrated otherwise. Sadly, some in-laws don’t seem to have a vested interest in the success of their child’s marriage. If this is true of you, you and your mate may want to recommit yourselves to “leaving and cleaving.” You may also need to seek professional advice to determine how best to establish and maintain appropriate boundaries with your in-laws.

2.      Emotional apron strings. If your spouse gets his or her emotional needs met in his or her relationship with parents instead of with you, there’s a problem. You may even feel as if your spouse is having an affair.

Sometimes this problem begins when a wife feels frustrated over her husband’s seeming lack of interest in conversing about her day; she starts talking with her parents instead. Sometimes the husband is the frustrated one; it’s common for mother and son to have long or frequent conversations that leave the wife feeling ignored. Neither scenario is appropriate.

Respect for each other is the key. In this situation, respect might require that the spouse maintaining an overly close relationship with his or her parents will decrease that contact in order to show love for the spouse. For example, a son whose mother is too close might say, “Mom, let’s limit our conversations to once a week about general things.” Or he may simply make the change himself, explaining it only if his mother asks him about it. In either case he would do well to save discussions of his goals and disappointments for times with his wife; these are the things that build intimacy in a marriage.

This is not to suggest that children and parents should cut off their relationship under the guise of leaving and cleaving. But your primary human relationship now is with your spouse, not your parents. Your commitment to God comes first; then your bond to your spouse, then to any children you might have, then to your family of origin, and then to extended family and friends.

3.      Betrayal. It’s a common story: After a fight with his or her mate, a spouse goes “home to mother” or calls the parents on the phone and spills the details.

This is detrimental to a marriage. It communicates disrespect to your spouse and makes it hard for the parents to maintain a healthy relationship with him or her.

Even if you and your spouse reconcile within hours or days after your argument, family members may not know that. They might carry that memory of the fight you had, have a hard time believing that everything is okay, and remain suspicious of your partner.

Expecting parents to referee your conflicts isn’t realistic or wise. It would be hard for them to be objective about your marriage. The best thing they can do when you come to them in the midst of an argument is to send you home to work it out.

One exception would be conflict that involves violence. Getting to safety is the first priority. Taking time to be apart and see your parents can give you an opportunity to think and establish a plan to repair the marriage. It’s not helpful to just go home to Mom and Dad to vent, however.

If you have an “apron strings” problem in your marriage, keep the following tips in mind as you talk with your spouse about it.

  1. Pray for wisdom and insight about what to say and how to say it.
  2. Tread lightly when it comes to criticizing your in-laws. Your spouse knows more negative things about his or her parents than you do, whether or not they’re expressed. Even repeating a complaint your spouse has made about his or her parents could be taken as an offense by your mate.
  3. Approach your spouse when you’re both rested, fed, and healthy. Right before falling asleep at night is not a good time to have this conversation.
  4. Remember that you’re a team. Because you’re committed to each other, you can work through this even if you don’t agree on the details — like your in-laws’ intent, how to best meet your spouse’s needs, or exact limits to place on parent-child conversations.
  5. If parents need to be confronted or informed, agree that their own child — not the son- or daughter-in-law — will do the talking. Protecting your marriage is a priority; the newest addition to the family doesn’t need another reason to be dissected by in-laws. Each spouse needs to know that he or she will be protected by the other, even if husband and wife disagree and the in-laws are meddlesome.

If, after following these steps, you and your spouse are at an impasse about your in-laws, get the objective input of a therapist.

Leaving and cleaving is tricky, but doable. The love and respect you communicate to each other when you value your marriage over your relationship with your parents are essential.


Heather and Steve have been married almost four years. They love each other very much, but relationships with their in-laws have always been strained.

Heather feels Steve’s mother is overly critical of how Heather parents the children. She also gets upset over her mother-in-law’s statements about how Steve works much too hard; she sees them as attacks on her choice to be a stay-at-home mom.

Steve has great difficulty connecting with his father in-law, who seems to live for sports. When Steve and Heather visit his in-laws, Steve is especially disturbed to see Heather share her father’s sports mania — leaving Steve feeling like an outsider.

It’s normal to want to be accepted by your in-laws. But feeling that you need to be accepted can bring complications, causing you to be uncomfortable and unnatural around them.

Unrealistic hopes cause problems, too. Many parents are initially over-protective of their own child, or have expectations that no spouse can meet in the beginning.

Often new husbands and wives assume they’ll be loved and accepted by in-laws on the merit of having married the in-laws’ child. This may be the case, but it usually takes time to establish trust and respect. Just as it takes time to build other close relationships, gaining acceptance into a family doesn’t happen instantly.

After all, you’re stepping into a family with a long history of established bonds. Don’t be too hard on yourself and expect too much. If your relationship with your own parents is wonderful, the one with your mother- and father-in-law may never measure up. If your relationship with your parents isn’t good, you may be too needy and demanding in trying to make up for it.

The number-one factor in resolving problems of acceptance by in-laws is your spouse’s support. As with all close relationships, it’s an art to support your spouse without jumping into the fight or feeding his or her discontent.

Let’s say that Heather and Steve have just returned from an extended visit with his parents. She declares: “I never want to stay with your parents again! Why doesn’t your mother like me? She told me that she had you potty trained by age two and that you obeyed her without question.”

In this case, Heather is being a little overdramatic and overly sensitive. How can Steve support her without reinforcing her exaggeration or condemning his mom?

He could say something like this: “Honey, I’m so sorry that you feel hurt by the things my mom says. But I know you’re a terrific mother, and she’ll come to see that, too. She also seems to remember me as much more perfect than I was. I can remember plenty of frustration and grief, but it’s probably good that she doesn’t remember all the tough times. I’ll always support you in finding a time to share your feelings with my mom. I really think she likes you and can’t help but love you as time goes on.”

Or imagine that Ken has the complaint. “I don’t want to spend more than one day at your parents’ house ever again,” he says. “I always feel like a third wheel. I know your dad hates the fact that I don’t enjoy sports. You and he seem to be in your own little ‘sports world.’ What am I supposed to do, spend my time helping your mom in the kitchen?”

Heather might respond by reassuring Ken along these lines: “I’m so sorry that I haven’t been more sensitive to your feelings of being left out during those times. You’re right — sports has been the major thing dad and I share. I know even Mom has felt a little left out when we obsess about it. Let’s see if we can think of ways to connect when we’re at my parents — all of us, including my mom. I know my dad primarily cares how I’m loved and taken care of, and there’s no question about those things in my mind. Please give me a little sign if I forget it next time.”

When it comes to dealing with an in-law who doesn’t seem to accept you, here are the main principles to remember:

  • Learn to support your spouse without getting hooked into taking sides.
  • Encourage your spouse to share his or her feelings directly with you.
  • Keep a sense of humor.
  • Show your spouse that he or she is number one in your eyes.
  • Don’t take things too personally.
  • Remember, building a relationship takes time.
  • Forgive, forgive, forgive.
  • Remember that you’re loving your spouse by honoring his or her parents.

One more idea: When confronted with what feels like a no-win situation involving an in-law, use the “drop the rope” theory. Imagine a rope, the kind used in a tug-of-war. If you find yourself provoked, see that rope in your hands. You can choose to continue yanking on it — or drop it. Dropping it may sound as though you’re giving in or giving up, but it’s actually very empowering. It’s also much more effective than tugging back and forth.

For Ken and Heather, a solution may look something like this:

  • They discuss the things their in-laws say and do that tend to trigger anxiety and anger.
  • They agree to act as “buffers” for each other against possible hard spots.
  • They commit to forgiving any offense quickly.
  • They plan to give the relationships time to develop.
  • They start working as a team.
  • They can even see some humor in learning to drop those “invisible ropes.”

As a result, each of them feels more loved and supported. That helps them enjoy getting to know and appreciate each other’s parents.