If you’ve never had problems with your in-laws, skip this article. But too often I hear sad stories of relationships that need a fresh touch. Most of the young couples I run into didn’t realize they were marrying the entire family as well as the individual when they took their vows. That was a tough lesson for me to learn. My proper —and affluent —northern in-laws were horrified that their son married someone from the hills of Kentucky, and they were quick to remind me of that background.
One of their favorite topics of conversation expressed concern about all the “hillbillies” moving into their area. Once, on the way to visit an uncle with Don’s parents, we stopped for gasoline next to a family with a dirty car. Don’s mother frowned and said, “Well, would you just look at those hillbillies!”
At the time, my tactics weren’t very effective: I’d usually just offer one of my stern teacher looks and change the subject. After all, a Kentucky saying summed up my challenge: “A person convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.”
Sniping and Backing Down
Over the years, the sniping slowed. I’d like to think that it was my refusal to get into an argument or my consistent dinner invitations (I noticed they didn’t have any trouble eating “that kind of food.) But in reality, I simply developed more self-respect and they backed down.
It did take a while to get to that point. I remember one Sunday afternoon early in our marriage when Don’s mother asked, “Well, what little wifey things did you do this week?”
Just a few days before, I had made chocolate chip cookies with lots of pecans. Don had devoured them, saying, “These are my favorites!”
Wanting to show her that I was taking good care of her son, I chirped, “I made his favorite cookies.” She smiled, “Oh, peanut butter.” I shook my head. “No. Chocolate chip.” She sat straighter. I’ve made cookies for him all his life. His favorite kind is peanut butter!” I had the good sense to shut my mouth right then, but you better believe Don heard about that little scene later! Then I asked, “Why did you tell my chocolate chip is your favorite cookie?”
In his typical peacemaking way, he chuckled and said, “Well, chocolate chip is my favorite cookie that you make, and peanut butter is my favorite of the ones my mom makes.”
Decisions and Expectation Adjustments
Even in the short time I’d been married, I’d learned that I wasn’t going to change Don and get him to come around to my way of thinking. So I made two decisions: One, never to mention cookies in front of his mother again. And two, not to expect the worst each time we visited her. After all, if we expect the worst, we’re going to get it.
That was a rather remarkable conclusion for me to reach. After all, I know how to fight; I’m from Harlan County, Kentucky. When I was speaking in Charleston, South Caroline, my host asked his friend, who is also from Kentucky, if he knew anything about my birthplace. His friend nodded. “Oh, yeah, I’ve never met your speaker, but I can tell you this: If she’s from Harlan County, she’s a scrapper!”
And I am. (Can you imagine what I’d be like without the Lord?!) I try not to take undue pride in my feistiness, but I know how to stand my ground. In fact, when I was a high school teacher in the Detroit area, the only time I raised my voice was when I needed to break up a fight. I’d yell my name: “Break it up; it’s Aldrich!” And the students would break it up! I’d grab the two offenders by the arms and march them down to the office. The other students would say, “Boy, you don’t want to mess with her. Did you see how she grabbed those guys?”
Learned By Example
But that toughness doesn’t help one bit when it comes to building a relationship. And that’s something Don taught me by his example as he dealt with my folks. Sure, Don’s parents said some rude things, but I have to confess that my own parents weren’t thrilled about welcoming the grinning Scotsman who showed up to “steal” their daughter.
In fact, one afternoon the summer before we were married, my parents were particularly standoffish, and I later asked Don, “How could you be so nice to someone who’s trying to ignore you?” He just grinned and said, “Sandy, I’m going to love them now because they’re your parents. One of these days I’ll love them for themselves —just as they’ll love me. In the meantime, we’re going to get along.”
By the time we’d been married even a short time, Don’s sense of humor and determination to be interested in whatever interested my parents moved him solidly into their hearts. In fact, after Don’s cancer was diagnosed, and we talked about the possibility that he might die, he said he wanted to be buried in my family’s plot. “Your mother helped fill the void my mom’s death left,” he told me, “and she’s going to have a rough time when all this is over. Just don’t let her spend a lot of time at the cemetery. I won’t be there, anyway; I’ll be with the Lord.” To this day, they still miss him—just as I do.
It’s amazing what a different perspective can offer when it comes to in-laws. Mama Farley loved telling about the mother who was asked about her son’s new wife: “Oh, she’s so lazy. She expects my son to help her with the dishes and to baby-sit and go grocery shopping with her. I just don’t know how long he can keep that pace up.”
The visitor shook her head. “Oh, she has the most wonderful husband! He helps her with the dishes, and he’s happy to baby-sit and goes grocery shopping with her. He is just wonderful. She’s fortunate to have gotten such a good man.”
Here are a few reminders to help you build the relationship you want with your in-laws:
• Refuse to argue.
Here’s where we have to look to the Lord as our example. Remember, he won people—not arguments.
Again, Don provided a godly example for me as he refused to get upset when one of my relatives would tell him how he ought to do something. Don wouldn’t argue; he’d just smile and say something such as “Hey, thanks! I appreciate your interest” or “I’ll think about that. Thanks.” Of course, I teased him that he went ahead and did what he wanted anyway, but he’d remind me that it takes two people to have an argument.
One of Don’s major roles within both families was to be the peacemaker. And if he couldn’t win over the opposing parties with logic, he’d try emotion: “Hey, life’s too short to argue,” he’d say. “Let’s figure out a way to solve this.”
His peacemaking skills have been greatly missed. In fact, the last Aldrich dinner I hosted before Jay, Holly, and I moved to New York was a stark reminder of the void he had left as two of the relatives got into a shouting match and wound up leaving early. I wasn’t much help. All I could do was cry as I asked each of them not to go. If Don had been there, the argument wouldn’t have progressed to that point. Never had he allowed anyone to leave our home angry.
• Keep praying.
What if every day we included the Lord in our relationships with our in-laws? What if we began the morning by saying, “Lord, this day is yours. I am yours. Help me act like it.”
The Lord already knows we’re upset over some of the statements folks make, so we might as well talk to him about them. Remember 1 Samuel 17 when David faced Goliath? In verse 47 he said, “It is [the Lord’s] battle, not ours.” But often we forget that and try to make every battle our own.
• Guard your mouth.
Remember; you never have to ask forgiveness for those sharp things you don’t say. Consider 1 Kings 19. Elijah was depressed. He’d just come out of a major spiritual victory but was mentally exhausted and physically tired and hungry, so he overreacted and thought he was the only one still fighting the Lord’s battles. Look at how he was ministered to —the angel gave him healthy food and water and ordered him to sleep. Only then was he ready to hear instructions about the next step.
•Schedule time with your in-laws.
Don and I lived halfway between both sets of parents, so it was rare that any of them showed up unexpectedly. But we’d already decided that we needed to keep in touch on a regular basis so they wouldn’t be demanding. (Neither one of us did well with the “you never call; you never write” routine.) And it worked! Since they knew we’d either be at their house every other Sunday or have them to ours, they didn’t pressure us. If your in-laws live in the same city, you may have to set some loving boundaries early.
• Don’t go looking for trouble.
Remember, if you expect the worst, you’ll get the worst. Let some things roll off your back. When Marlene and Kirk were moving into a larger apartment, her father supposedly came to help. Instead he scolded her in front of the movers because the bed frame was dusty. Marlene stammered an excuse about letting it go during the moving process but said that she had planned to polish all the furniture when it was set up in their new home.
Meanwhile, her husband was furious that the father was scolding a grown daughter. But what could have been a bad situation was turned into merely an irritation because they dared to be strong enough to shrug it off. It was a one-time occurrence. But if this had been the father’s habit, it would have been appropriate for Kirk to quietly take him aside and remind him that Marlene was a grown woman and that her actions were no longer a reflection on him.
Remember, Jesus has promised us his power, his peace, his purpose, his presence—and trouble. But even as he promises us trouble, he promises to be with us: “Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
• Release your mate from having to choose between his mother and his wife.
One of my cousins turned every visit with her in-laws into a crisis. All the way home, she’d analyze aloud every word and every look her in-laws had given her that day, much to the exhaustion of her husband. He always felt she was putting him in the middle of the nonexistent argument —hardly the basis for tender feelings. Women especially need to be careful about this.
• Get a proper perspective.
Our view of any situation will color the way we see it. I remember a Reader’s Digest account from years ago of a tourist in a southern state who was driving in the country when he saw a man sitting in a wooden, straight-back chair, from which he would bend over to pull weeds. The driver chuckled, shaking his head, convinced that the stereotypical image of the lazy southerner was true. He turned the corner then and glanced back to laugh again at the gardener. Only from that angle did he notice the crutches propped against the chair. The man wasn’t lazy after all but a determined survivor. What a difference a new angle gives us.
What if we looked at the situation from the in-law’s view? Pamela said that the day her little boy developed a crush on his first-grade teacher she understood how her mother-in-law must feel that some other woman replaced her in her son’s heart. That new perspective strengthened the relationship between the two women.
• Find those things you can sincerely praise.
Remember that criticism destroys while encouragement builds. Phyllis decided to handle her critical mother-in-law’s visits with grace, so she set out each time to find at least two things she could sincerely compliment. One morning, she gave the older woman an impromptu hug and said, “You’ve raised an incredible son. Thanks!” To her amazement, the verbal sniping slowed down after that.
• Be honest with yourself.
In family situations, there’s what counselors call the presenting problem and then the real problem. The presenting problem is what appears to be the barrier, while the real problem is something more foundational.
I remember a letter to one of the advice columnists from a mother-in-law. She said, “My daughter-in-law takes good care of my son and grandchildren, but I can’t stand it that she doesn’t rinse the soap out of the dishcloth and hang it up to dry. She just throws it into a corner of the sink and leaves it. How can I get her to stop this?”
I like the columnist’s answer” The one thing she does wrong is leave the dishcloth in the sink? What’s your real beef?”
If you’re always complaining about some relatively unimportant but irritating habit of your in-laws, ask yourself what the real problem is.
• Offer an unexpected gift.
Take this advice and run with it! On Don’s thirtieth birthday, I sent his mother thirty sweetheart roses with a little note and said, “I’m so glad you had a baby boy thirty years ago today. After that, she always introduced me as “my daughter-in-law, the one who sent me the roses.” Every one of her friends had already heard about my creative gift!
• Honor your in-laws.
Exodus 20:12 says, “Honor your father and mother. Then you will live a long, full life in the land the Lord your God will give you.”
Honoring does not mean letting them order you around, pry into your personal finances, tell your kids to get haircuts, or rearrange your cabinets each time they visit. It means honoring their position. Once the child becomes an adult, it’s important that a new relationship be built —more “friend to friend” than “Parent to child.” Our goal is mutual respect and friendship.
• Remember that you are the parent.
After Karen became a widow, her father-in-law complained about her keeping the two children in a Christian school and, as he said, “shielding them from the real world.”
It crossed her mind to tell him to back off, but instead, like Hannah in 1 Samuel 1:15 —when the priest Eli accused her of being drunk —she quietly answered the charges.
“I know you’re concerned as a loving grandfather,” she said. “But I’m the one who must stand before God and give an account of how my children have been raised. For now I’m convinced that it’s best they remain where they are.”
• Visit other relatives together.
I really give Don credit here. One Thanksgiving, he agreed to take a trip to visit my relatives in Kentucky. He insisted that we take my parents with us. What a fun time that proved to be. My dad rode shotgun and told stories all along the route. Near Corbin, Kentucky, he pointed out the spot where, as a 23-year-old army sergeant, he’d been hitchhiking home in late 1944. He’d been let off from one ride and meandered toward a shady tree to wait for the next car to take him closer to Harlan where my mother was living with her parents, my beloved Papa and Mama Farley.
As he approached the tree, he saw that a sailor was already waiting. That pleased Dad; he would have someone to talk to until they got rides. Of course, since the other man had been under the tree first, the unspoken code was that he would accept the first ride.
But as my dad got closer to the sailor, he recognized his own brother-in-law, Hurlen Farley, who was on leave too! Dad gave a whoop of recognition and ran to clasp Uncle Hurlen’s hand. They thumped each other on the back and marveled at the chances of meeting like that. Uncle Hurlen wouldn’t accept a ride without my dad, and they went on into Harlan together to provide a double surprise for the family.
• Keep the family ties strong.
After Don died, his dad—who had remarried within 6 months after his first wife died—wasn’t sure what to do with me. The first time he had to call, the man I had called Dad for more than 16 years identified himself as Bill. I wasn’t about to get tossed aside that quickly, so I quickly responded, “Dad! How good of you to call!”
He still had other struggles, though. Because of his own harsh upbringing, he had trouble verbally expressing love for those around him, even his own sons and grandchildren. I remember when the kiddos and I were back from New York for a visit. Before we left, I suggested we hold hands and pray. After my amen, I hugged Don’s dad and said, “I love you, Dad. I truly do.” He didn’t answer.
Then Jay and Holly hugged him, both saying, “I love you, Grandpa.” But they received only silence, too. I was stunned. But I let the silence roll on, and we three got into our car and headed home to New York, I made sure that Jay and Holly understood that their grandpa’s lack of response wasn’t their fault but something in his own background that kept him from saying the words. Then with a feisty set of my jaw, I took on the challenge, determined not only to do the right thing but to have fun seeing how soon I could get those words out of him.
Say “I Love You”
I called him every Saturday to give him a quick report of our life in New York and have him talk to the kids. Gradually, I got more than silence out of him as I’d sign off with my quick “I love you Dad.” Sometimes I’d hear “That’s nice” and once —miracle of miracles —he even muttered, “Me, too” as he hung up. I sat there grinning long after the line was dead!”
But the real gift came when we called him on Christmas Eve, 1988. I signed off with my usual, “I love you.” To my great surprise, he answered, “I love you, too” as he hung up. Jay and Holly raced me from their extensions in the bedroom and basement. “Mom! He said it! He finally said it!” And the three of us celebrated with a big family hug.
THE BEST EXAMPLE
Mother-in-law jokes often present the difficult relationship between a mother-in-law and her son-in-law. But family experts report that in reality the most difficult relationship is the one between the mother-in-law and her daughter-in-law.
The book of Ruth presents the most incredible relationship between two women who were thrust together this way. Both were widowed, and the mother-in-law, Naomi, decided that she would return to her own hometown of Bethlehem in Judah.
Her two widowed daughters-in-law set out with her. But when they got to the border, Naomi tried to send them back. She said she had nothing to offer them. Orpah turned back. But Ruth stayed, saying the words that would become a popular declaration in wedding ceremonies during the 1970s: “I will go wherever you go and live wherever you live. Your people will be my people, and your god will be my God. I will die where you die and you will be buried there. May the Lord punish me severely if I allow anything but death to separate us!” (Ruth 1:17-17).
Think about that!
Those loving words were spoken from a daughter-in-law to her mother-in-law! And you remember the incredible story of how Naomi taught Ruth the customs of her new culture and, in fact, encouraged her courtship with one of Naomi’s distant relatives. Because of that good relationship, both women benefited. Naomi regained her family land, enjoyed security and the love of a precious grandson born to the new marriage, and Ruth gained a place in our Lord’s lineage.
Most of us can take a lesson from that account, especially when we’re tempted to give in to the frustration of working on a relationship with difficult folks. (Of course, we’re never difficult ourselves, are we?) One final comment —remember the old saying that reminds us to guard our tongues: “You catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar.
This article came from the book, came from the book,“MEN READ NEWSPAPERS, NOT MINDS … and other things I wish I’d known when I first married,” written by Sandra Aldrich, published by Tyndale House Publishers. This has been one of Cindy’s favorite books for women to read on marriage. Unfortunately, it is no longer being printed so you will only be able to find it as a used book. This book is humorous, practical and insightful.