Do you feel like there’s a “tug of war” going on between you and your spouse, your parents, and your in-laws? And do you feel like somehow you’re caught in the middle? This in law tug of war can be a serious one.
When you marry, you can’t imagine getting caught up into this type of tension. But it’s actually not unusual at all.
Pastoral counselor, Bret Legg points to this parental and in law tug this way:
There “is a tug-of-war between ‘leave and cleave’ and ‘honor your parents.’ This tug-of-war is experienced by every married person. We’re all raised to honor our parents. And that obligation doesn’t end just because you get married. Yet, because you’re married, you’re called to separate from your parents and put a greater priority on your relationship with your spouse.” (From the Normalmarriage.org article, “How to Better Live With Your In-Laws: Tug-of-War”)
The In Law Tug
But how do you do that when there are so many different “loyalties” to consider?
“Why it is so difficult to find a comfortable arrangement with parents, in-laws and other members of your extended family? The idea of leaving your childhood family to unite with your spouse sounds perfectly reasonable. And you’d think making a fresh start free from outside interference would be a joyful adventure.
“In practice, though, this process often seems more like you’re forming a new mega-family. It’s one that includes parents, in-laws and, come to think of it, your spouse, too.” (Ingrid Lawrenz, from article, “In Law Tug of War”)
And really, when you think about it, you really are! You and your spouse were both members of two independent family units. Now that you are married, you need to form a new family unit where you are partners with each other. All other family units are to take a back-seat. It’s the “leave and cleave” principle that the Bible talks about.
The Leave and Cleave Tug
“But, before spouses can form their own independent family, they have to renegotiate relationships with parents and extended family. And since those bonds took years to form, the process of breaking away to create a new family isn’t complete after the first year, or the fifth. It’s an ongoing task.” (Ingrid Lawrenz, from article, “In Law Tug of War”)
That’s so true! Each holiday, special event, and each year escort in new challenges. And this is especially true once you have children who enter into your family unit. As Brett Legg further points out:
“The second tension is a tug-of-war between loyalties and boundaries. Before getting married, your loyalties were to your parents, your siblings, and your friends. But after you say, ‘I do,’ your number of loyalties increases. Now you have a loyalty to your spouse, and your spouse’s parents.
“And then there’s you kids. And none of the old loyalties went away. Yet, despite these loyalties there’s a need for boundaries in these relationships. Boundaries define how much a person is allowed to encroach on another’s territory. Boundaries define how much you get to control and how much others get to control.”
These boundaries should first be established before children come onto the scene. (And if you have stepchildren, it needs to be done right away, as well.)
That is because:
“Many couples find themselves caught in a Family Tug of War, with opposing in-laws jockeying for prime position and grandparents who want to run the show. Even the best of us can end up with a tit-for-tat mindset. ‘The kids see more of your family than mine.’ This is either because we want to keep the peace with our own parents, or we feel genuinely hard done by because our spouse has joined his or her family in pulling on the other end of that rope.” (Laura Leavitt, from the Just Mommies article, “In-laws and Outlaws: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”)
So, you need to find a way to be loyal to each other. That, above all human loyalties needs to be established first and foremost. It’s biblical, and it’s the right thing to do. But you also want to be loyal to your parents and in-laws. (That is, to the degree that you can.) But in order to do this you may need to establish some boundaries with them.
To help you in this mission, below are a few insights. The first is from the Focus on the Family article, “How to Better Live with Your In-Laws”:
“The first principle that applies here is that, if you’re a Christian, you owe your in-laws behavior that’s consistently Christian in character—as you do anyone else. This doesn’t ignore the reality that if your in-laws are ‘difficult’ people, are controlling and manipulative, are emotionally or mentally dysfunctional, or don’t share your faith, this may be a particularly hard challenge. The problem is that they’re not just anyone. They’re connected to your spouse through genetics, history, and complex psychological dynamics.”
Additionally, Concerning Boundaries Dealing with the In Law Tug
I gleaned a few suggestions that Ingrid Lawrenz had to say on this subject (from a past Marriage Partnership Magazine article titled, “In Law Tug of War”). I found them to be insightful. And I hope you do too:
• “To limit confusion and minimize conflicts, it works best if each of you is the primary spokesperson to your own parents when it comes to working out differences. Also remember to keep your relationship with each set of parents separate and positive. Avoid making comparisons. One set of parents does not need to know everything the other is doing. They don’t need to know how much time you spend with them or what they buy for you.
• “Try to be your spouse’s biggest fan. It’s not uncommon for parents to view an in-law as someone who has taken their ‘baby’ away from them. If they hear about your mate’s every little failure, it’s only natural for them to want to take your side. However, don’t hesitate to turn to parents for help if serious problems arise such as drug, alcohol or physical abuse.
• “It is your responsibility to accept your in-laws for who they are. They may be very different from your parents. But different isn’t the same as wrong. And each time you and your mate work together to resolve a family conflict, you establish yourself as a respected adult in the eyes of your parents and in-laws.
• “It helps to remember that before God you are responsible for how you talk to and behave toward your in-laws. You are not responsible for how they talk to or treat you. God simply asks this: ‘If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.‘ (Romans 12:18)
• “Your mate is the only family member you can actually choose. But your mate’s family comes as part of the deal. Living in peace with your in-laws is no joke. But it can be one of the most rewarding relationships you’ll ever invest in.”
Additionally, Concerning the In Law Tug:
Below is another suggestion given by Brittney Davis, in the Marriageroots.com article, “Establishing Healthy Boundaries with Your In Laws.” It is founded on the principle, “If you can’t say anything nice…” It’s one that my husband Steve and I have lived by in our in-law relationships. And it has worked well for us. Here’s what Brittney wrote concerning their experience:
“Early in our marriage, my husband and I decided that we would never speak ill about one another to our families. We promised that we would keep our secrets our own. Our parents don’t need to know everything. Some things really are better left unshared.
“Instead, we do our best to build each other up to our parents. It’s important that they hear and witness the good things happening in our relationship. We want our parents to be for us—both of us. We want them to support and encourage us together as a couple. And we want them to see the best in both of us.”
This is great advice, from Ingrid and Brittney!
To gain added insights, I encourage you to read the Crosswalk.com web site article dealing with conflict with in laws:
In closing, here is an additional article that I believe you will find it helpful as well to read:
Cindy Wright of Marriage Missions International wrote this blog.
If you have additional tips you can share, please “Join the Discussion” by adding your comments below.
More from Marriage Missions
Filed under: Dealing with In Laws & Parents
5 responses to “The In Law Tug Of War”
(UGANDA) I have a situation that I’m not quite sure if it’s normal or should I have to worry about something. I’m in need of help desperately.
My husband and I have been married for a couple of months. I don’t have any In law problems. Yep, they aren’t all perfect, they are human so once in a while I know we will step on each others toes, but to me my in laws are like family. His siblings are my siblings so I know that I sometimes get in a fight with one of my siblings and we forgive each other. Seeing in laws as family has really helped me with regards to the relationship I have with them.
On the other hand, my husband hates family. He doesn’t like his family, says hurful things to my siblings, and my little daughter. It’s really difficult for me because I don’t know whether I should side with him or not. I never pass comments about his bahaviour in front of people but I do talk to him calmly about it when we get time together. My husband is manipulative and abusive. I know it. I see it in my marriage. I know how it feels for the rest of our family members when he does this. But question is, what do I do? I’m praying yes, but problem is whilst praying and waiting, what should I do?
The only options I see is that I should keep him away from my family. And when he goes to his parents I should not go with him because I can’t handle the treatment he gives to family members.
And it’s not only family, but freinds too. We never have visitors because when we had, he spoke to them so awfully that they stopped coming.
Please help me someone. I’m all out of resources. My heart beats faster everyday, headaches from all the stress. I’m even beginning to feel like I’m going into depression.
(US) Dear Stresses Out, You need to talk to a Pastor, a Pastor’s wife, or Counselor. Cry out to the Lord, and tell Him all that you are going through… ask Him to guide you to the right person(s) to talk to. If you are in a church, please go to the Pastor and try to get your spouse to go with you to counseling. You are in a very hard place. I do not believe it would even be wrong, if you move out. Because abuse is not good. It is dangerous. And if you have children, you must think of them too.
I am praying for you! I know that God will make a way for you! He has all the answers and knows the future. Trust in Him to guide you. Reach out for help though, there are Christians that are placed in your life, that can help you. You don’t have to keep taking this kind of abuse and live in fear. God doesn’t want that for you.
(USA) I am trying to be grateful for my in laws. They want us to be involved with everything they do. My husband hasn’t cut the apron strings and still interacts with them several times per day.
Since our separation, they interact less with him which I find strange. They think we are trying to exclude them if we want to spend holiday’s or birthdays with just us and the kids or just us at times. It’s really hard for my husband to tell his parents no-especially with my husband managing one of their buildings. My father in law was at our house EVERY day. Not some days, not most days, EVERY day.
We stayed (hubby is still there I moved out for my sanity sake) in one of the units. One day we were arguing and my father in law kept ringing the door bell and phoning us back to back because we were ignoring all calls at the time for obvious reasons. Because we ignored him, he set our car alarm off to further get our attention.
He’s not just at the building ALL DAY EVERY day, he comes to our unit every day. My husband gets mad, slams doors, huffs and puffs, but never sets boundaries. He won’t explain to them he is married now and has a family of his own to establish (we have been married going on 3 years). He won’t ask them not to call every day and not several times per day at that. First his dad calls around 8a, then his mom in the afternoon between his dad’s several calls.
His parents have separated several times, but never divorced and my parents have been together 54 years having never separated. I think my husband thinks his parents behavior is normal and separation is part of marriage.
My in laws are the one thing I don’t miss about our marrige. I refuse to live in their building, especially with my husband accepting their behavior and setting no boundaries.
My parents gave us a house and I am moving into it with him hopefully, but if not I will not move back into that apartment just because it’s free. Ain’t nothin free but Jesus and you get what you pay for.
I started not to write anything because I had to forgive myself for blaming them for a lot of our separation and my nerves. They are like the guests that never leave-EVER. I also had to forgive my husband for avoiding confrontation to a fault.
I don’t know what to do about them when we (I am standing for my marriage to be restored) get back together. They are impossible, but with God they will back off because he makes all things possible.
P.S. I am not claiming to be perfect or blameless, but I know when boundaries need to be set and they have no boundaries when it comes to our home life because it is their building and we lived rent free in it. I am not being ungrateful, I just want a life with my husband and kids ONLY sometimes. Help.
My husband’s parents divorced when he was a teenager. His Dad is an alcoholic who tried to commit suicide while my husband was the only one home with him. My husband was fifteen at the time. Throughout our marriage his dad has played on my husband’s emotions to get what he wants. Unfortunately, my husband has always defended his behavior. We have been married eighteen years and sadly I have reached a point where I can no longer try to understand. My father in law is rude, he lacks all manners and he does not care about anyone but himself.
Our wedding video shows an intoxicated father in law crying into our wedding video that this is the saddest day of his life. When I watch that video now it’s like a scary warning I failed to acknowledge. He’s the most negative person I’ve ever met and he wants everyone to feel sorry for him all the time. Shortly after we were married, I began to see that our marriage would never work with his Dad living so near. At my suggestion, my husband looked for work away from our hometown. My husband has never been aware of why I wanted to move. Three hours away still was not far enough. He shows up whenever he wants, sometimes in the middle of the night and says he is staying for awhile. My husband acts like this is completely acceptable behavior. I can’t stand the constant complaining and crying from his dad.
My husband has never even once stuck up for me or our children. It’s very hurtful to take a backbeat to someone else in your marriage, especially when it’s to someone so awful. I’ve prayed for help releasing this terrible resentment I have, but it’s getting harder to take. My husband never hears me when I try to talk to him about this. It’s like my husband and his dad are partners and I’m the third wheel.
When moving away from dangerous family, it has to be far enough away so they can’t just show up to inflict more damage. The reason for moving is to escape the toxicity and save what is most precious. A marriage is more important than a house or job which can be found in another state. The most successful marriages are where a couple is so united that no one or anything can break through the bond.