Tips for Navigating Difficult In-Law Relationships – Part 1

It’s very common for married couples to experience conflict with their in-laws on one or both sides of the family. Sometimes this can be a minor annoyance; other times, it’s a major source of stress. Whatever your situation, it’s challenging to navigate these complex–and sometimes difficult–relationships.

In-law conflict is almost inevitable for every marriage. The good news is, it’s possible to navigate it successfully while continuing to enjoy relationships with both of your families. Let’s dive into some of the things you and your spouse can do to ease the tension between your marriage and your extended families.

Present a united front

When you said, “I do,” you promised to be a forever team. You symbolically became one on the altar when you became husband and wife. And while you each married into a new family, God is clear on what He expects husbands and wives to do when they are joined:

“Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” – Genesis 2:24 (ESV)

Part of effectively presenting a united front as a married couple is “leaving and cleaving”–in other words, your first loyalty now lies with your spouse, not your family. And as close as one or both of you may be with your relatives, that means you side with one another first–not your mom, your dad, your siblings, or anyone else.

Agree from the beginning of your marriage that you’ll always be a team. Then, when conflicts and difficulty arise, you can look to one another first as you tackle those issues.

Agree to support one another in the face of criticism

Part of presenting a united front means being vocally supportive of each other when one of your family members is critical. We often see problems come up when a mother- or father-in-law criticizes their child’s spouse. But the problem is compounded when their adult child is silent.

The truth is, sometimes moms and dads have a hard time transitioning out of the “parent” role, even after their kids are grown and married. They might think your spouse can’t take care of you as well as they did–and unfortunately, they might be vocal about it.

Let’s say your mother is critical of your wife’s cooking. Maybe she can’t imagine how your wife could possibly be as accomplished of a cook as she is. Or perhaps she think you shouldn’t have to take shifts in the kitchen. You could say something like, “Actually, I think she’s a great cook. I love how we approach meals,” or “I like pitching in. I’ve learned that I’m a pretty good cook myself.”

Using humor to defend your spouse can also be a light-hearted, but effective, way of getting your message across. You could say, “Mom, you’ve gotta share your favorite recipes with us! It’s so hard to come by food like that these days.”

It’s so important for you to speak up if one of your parents is lambasting your spouse for any reason. Don’t let it slide, and whatever you do, don’t join in.

Avoid comparing your spouse’s unique strengths and weaknesses to those of your parents (or other family members), and don’t take critical remarks to heart. Chances are, your mom or dad is having a difficult time adjusting to the changes in your life.

Be kind, but firm. In time, they’ll see that you are loyal to your spouse and they’ll gain more confidence in his or her ability to care for you well.

Put it into practice

Have you and your spouse ever discussed presenting a united front or defending one another when an in-law is rude or overly critical? In the coming week, talk with your spouse about ways you can better support one another when conflict arises with either side of the family.

Next week, we’ll share more tips for navigating difficult relationships with your in-laws in part 2.

Do you and your spouse have difficult in-laws on one or both sides of your family? How do you work together to handle issues when they come up? Have your strategies been successful? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below.

25 Comments

  • Karen says:

    This is written as if the parents are always the ones at fault. Not true! How about assuming it is a two way street and the young couple could make an attempt at forming a positive relationship?

    • Barbara Genung says:

      I totally agree …. this article only handles part of the situation’s perspective. Many newly-married couples say and do unthoughtful things to their parents. Many are overly sensitive and immature, causing stress all the way around. The parents who raised their children in the admonition of God (and many who did not) only wanted the best for those offspring in all areas of their lives; they sacrificed for life-times …. communication skills involve both sides.

  • Michael Van Dyke - Living Hope Church in Mn. says:

    My mom and I have not spoken in 4 years now because I did this when she verbally attacked my wife over perceived slights we knew nothing about. We left her house that day hurt and stunned. Never had she done that in all our years of marriage. Two days later she called me privately in an attempt to persuade me to her side. I told her then my wife is the most important relationship in my life. I told her she is still mom and I love her but if this was truly how she felt about my wife she would have to give her the opportunity to have a say. I also told my mom regardless I would always have her back over yours. She did not like this at all. She has not squared things with either of us. We have tried to make contact, but have been unsuccessful. I am confident I did the right thing. My wife and our relationship has strengthened over the years because of this stance. I am always open for reconciliation with my mom, but do not believe it will happen. I am content with that.

    • C says:

      Good for you. It sounds like you took your wedding vows to heart.

    • Barbara Genung says:

      It sounds like you used your “rightful ‘power’ ” as head of your home in an unkind way to your mother: “… I will always have her back over yours”. That sounds very hurtful. Communication skills were lacking on both sides of this instance. It’s sad you are “content with that”.

      • Angela says:

        He did not use any “rightful power” as you put it. He agreed to leave his parents and cleave to his wife. His mother tried to undermine their marriage and he chose to stand in unity with his wife. No communication skills lacking on his side of this situation. They have chosen to reach out and his mother has not responded. He was hurt over what happened, not content. However, in the interest of preserving and standing up for his marriage, he has chosen to let go and cleave to his wife.

    • Angela says:

      Thank you for standing with your wife. You truly did the right thing.

    • Melanie Rosen says:

      You definitely did the right thing. I have toxic in-laws who constantly stir the pot and stir up strife (they aren’t Christians). It has been a terrible battle, but standing together is the only thing way to handle it. Imagine how alone your wife would feel if you hadn’t “had her back.” No chance at true intimacy in that case.

  • Christy says:

    I am extremely thankful that my family has a good relationship with my new husband. They love him and he loves them. Not so much with my husband’s family. Some of them physically and emotionally abused him, while others are very inconsistent with how they treat him. They are fine to me, at least to my face, but talk crap to him when he’s alone with them. By talk crap, I mean they are sometimes mean to him, not about me but about him. It leaves him in an uncomfortable situation of sometimes wanting to try to keep in touch with them and other times wanting nothing to do with them, especially his mother. I understand all of this, so I try to support him in whatever his decisions and not make waves. However, if conflict does arise where I am pulled in, I will absolutely back him up whether that be to my family or to his.

  • Bonnie says:

    Please talk to the issue of adult children (with Grandchildren) cutting off their parents and refusing to ask someone impartial to mediate so BOTH can come to the table and find respect and reconciliation.

    • Roberta says:

      Gosh is so agree with this Bonnie. Children need grandparents too and my daughter n law uses our grandchildren as pawns. It’s horrible and oh so painful.

    • Barbara Genung says:

      Bonnie, this is more of a dilemma than counselors often address. Parents rightfully have “the power” to control what happens with their children, but to use them like this in cutting off the grandparents is definitely a misuse (and some have even said, “abuse”) of that right. I totally agree with you that all four (or three, if a grandparent is widowed) should communicate about this with a mediator.

  • KATHLEEN TRIEBWASSER says:

    I am in a similiar position with my son and daughter in law. They are taking the ” Leave and Cleave” way out of what is respectful, kind or loving. He has had repeated increasing verbally aggressive interactions with us, if we do not do what they want, even if they do not tell us what they want. If we keep quiet, it goes along, I feel like I get an academy award for acting every time we interact. My daughter in law has a very indulgent, neurotic, relationship with her parents, totallly spoiled, everything is all about her. They have done lots of the same stuff you share, and more. She even has asked us to not say ” I miss you to our son”, not say the death around her and our grandchildren, not included us so many times, said ” You can not come over, You need to leave” when we visit with them in California, for five days, we stay in hotel, get our own car, and none of that is good enough for her. He has become her puppet, he has totally abandoned me, his Dad, and his brother. He has broken our hearts and our family. He even said, ” We have to love and revere his wife, or he will not respect us.” We are at a really sad place. He and she, refused to let us come to our grandson’s birthday, ignored our granddaughters birthday, completely, refused to visit with us for a year or do any holiday with us, and will not ever stay in our house again, because he had a total meltdown, got physically and verballly aggressive with his brother and us, over nothing, last Thanksgiving. He has lost sight of everything we ever hope he would be, she and he are selfish children without any moral compass. I feel this message is not the one they need to hear, the messaget Honor your mother and father, needs to be balanced in this situation.

  • KATHLEEN TRIEBWASSER says:

    I feel if that Leave and Cleve, is not the most important message, that adult children need to hear. It can give them permission to control, cut off, and justify it. The 3 C’s matter more, Connection, Compassion and Courage, that is much healthier, loving, way of treating parents, family, and anyone.

    • Maudlyn Howell-Nwaogwugwu says:

      “Leave and cleave” for me doesn’t mean power and control. It means that we both have the opportunity to create an environment understandably rich with both strength and weaknesses. Its also i.portant to understand the environment where both individuals are coming from. What were some of the messages that was learnt? Was their parent marriage a “crowded bed”? Who had the greatest influence, mom or dad? Etc, etc , etc. I was brought up in a home where the man was the aggressor both physical and emotional. I was raised with my great grand parents. They were married but the example of a healthy marriage was not present. Now, I am married and it took many difficult learning experiences to arrived at a healthy marriage. His parents (RIP) were loving, caring etc to me.

    • Muriel Walker says:

      I totally agree. This is pretty one-sided. There is precious little written on how to navigate the often difficult waters of relationships as one’s children develop their own families.

  • anny says:

    An unfaithful partner or spouse will have their social media profiles (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc.) presented as if they are single, with no strings attached with heaps of photos with their friends from their younger days. How much time does your spouse or partner spend on social media and at what times? Phoenixmdexperts at gmailcom will verify your partners loyalty to you, they sure did mine

  • Julie says:

    Balance is key. My daughter’s (ex) in-laws were totally uninterested in a relationship with her and it created a huge rift in their marriage…one of the many obstacles their young marriage was unable to overcome. We, on the other hand, helped raise our (ex) son-in-law and loved him like our own. My daughter didn’t lose an in law relationship when they divorced, but we lost a son. It’s been terribly hard to let go.

    • Joan says:

      Flip this for my son. I raised my daughter in law like my own (I’ve known her since 6th grade) and love her unconditionally. We’ve had our fair share of ups and downs, but we always manage to talk things through. My son on the other hand, has watched his wife go through so much emotional and verbal abuse with her family that he is cordial but doesn’t want any relationship with them. My daughter in law’s huge heart wants to forgive all of the horrible deeds done and build a relationship with her family, even though it’s still hurtful to her at times. I’m at a lost for words/guidance for my son and I’m concerned about the long term effects on their marriage. I keep telling him that she loves her family, even when they’re horrible and to try to just support her. It’s been very very difficult in their young 2 year marriage. I pray for the right words and for God to help her family see the damage they’ve caused.

  • Les says:

    I’ve been pastoring for 18 years, and in those years, I performed numerous weddings along with pre-marital counseling. I do teach on Genesis 2:24, Matt 19:4 – 5 (quoted from O.T.), Eph 5:21 – 33 for the husband & wife, I teach Prov 22:6, Exo 20:12, Eph 6:2 – 3 related to parents & in-laws. I understand this is difficult for parents and in-laws to let their children go when they marry into another family AND on their own. I too am a parent of 5 adult children, 2 of them married into other families and I practice these verses and they are tough but the Bible is clear about this subject. I taught our children what the Bible says about living for God and I can comfortably take Prov 22:6 “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” and they will remember what was taught. Yet, it is their responsibility to practice what we taught them and we must respect their choices in their marriage, whether they keep it or change it, it calls boundaries.

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  • Nancy says:

    My in laws use the Bible against us. We are faithful Christians and strive to live a Godly life and have raised the kids in that atmosphere. We are both divorced and remarried. In their church we are in adultly and in sin. And going straight to hell. They consider us still married to our first spouses, even though in both cases drugs, alcohol and Infidelity broke them apart. He had 4 children and his wife left them with him. I have no children previously. He never dated till me and that was 6 years after his divorce, since he was busy raising his kids, along with his parents help. He was to them and is a good Godly father. My husband has a hard time standing up to them, even though they treat him almost as transparent as me. It has caused lots of arguments and tears over the past 25 years. This past year I have decided I cannot attend any more family events. I’m ok with my husband attending, since his parents are elderly and not doing well. He stands by honoring his mother and father, and it’s the only commandment with a promise from God. so he would rarely talk back and stick up for me or our daughter. They do treat her better, but not the same as the other grandchildren. The other children have all fallen away from the Lord, except one who is a member of that church. And of course that relationship is strained too. They have reconciled with their mom and her destructive ways, which is our fault because of our sin. I have tried to be loving and humble to his family but my husband says it’s not about me but our sin. So they stand by what the Bible says about no relationship with pegans. It has improved over the years but only slightly. The only way in their eyes is to separate and repent! We have argued with them over scripture but it makes things worse. I feel I must put up this boundary for my own sanity. I know this probably hard to understand but their is a religious primitive sect group who dress and and live a very legalistic lifestyle. There’s no changing their opinions. It’s been hard on our marriage and I wish it could be different and pray for that to happen!

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