Do I have to be friends with my mother-in-law?
I have been seriously dating a wonderful young man for over a year and a half. We have discussed marriage and are dating with that goal in mind. I recently lived with his parents for three months and had a really difficult time: Despite many good qualities, his mother is very controlling, micromanaging, paranoid and particular about everything (e.g., never leave the garage door open for more than 10 seconds, wash your hands, every little thing being done exactly how she wants it done, “did you make sure to close the garage door?” etc.).
I know it is “her house, her rules,” and I cannot fault her for that. I also know she was not treating me differently than she treats her own children. My boyfriend has said that despite feeling like she doesn’t like me, his mother has told him that she does like me. I (and all of her children) am more than capable of getting along without being smothered with her micromanaging. I have never had anyone treat me like that before and it mean, “I like you, approve of you, and trust you to be capable.”
I cannot see myself being friends with her and would not want to be friends if she were my peer. That bothers me a lot, because growing up, my mother was her mother-in-law’s best friend, and I assumed every mother-in-law relationship was like that. However, his mother really stresses me out and makes me feel never good enough. You cannot choose your family, but you do have a choice about who your in-laws are. Is it OK not to want to be friends with one’s future in-laws or to want to spend a lot of time with them? Will she ever learn to let go and not be so controlling? Please help!
Thank you for writing. As a daughter-in-law, I can relate to the difficulties you’re facing with your boyfriend’s mother. As a mother, I can relate to your mother-in-law’s difficulties with you. And as a daughter of Eve, I can understand why the situation you described was so difficult for both of you. James tells us why we have such a hard time with other people: “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you?” (James 4:1).
Our conflicts with others stem from the sin that originates in our hearts.
Still, our circumstances can greatly magnify our sin. Benjamin Franklin once quipped that “guests, like fish, begin to smell after three days.” His witticism makes a valuable, if blunt, point. It’s worth considering how the length of your stay may have affected your Potential Future Mother-in-law (PFMIL). Whenever we are guests, we must be careful not to overstay our welcome. That’s true whether it’s a dinner party, a game night, a weekend visit, or a drop-in next door. Certainly there are exceptional circumstances where the command to love our neighbor and care for those in need (1 John 3:17, James 2:16) trumps our preference for privacy and family alone time. But there is prudence in not taking advantage of one’s hosts.
The call to hospitality applies to the one giving it as well as the one receiving it. Insofar as your PFMIL is a believer, it sounds as if she may have failed to extend to you the grace she’s been shown in Christ. But I would ask, did you stay too long? Living with your potential in-laws would create challenges in even the best of circumstances. To remain under their roof for so long was to invite the very challenges you encountered. Add to that the expectation that your relationship with PFMIL would be like your mom’s with her MIL, and you can’t help but be disappointed. The friendship that you assumed was a routine part of marriage is actually quite rare. What a gift your mom had!
My experience with my PFMIL was full of awkward, tense and disappointing moments that I have observed to be common. (Steve and I talked at length about this first meeting on The Boundless Show, Episode 39.) Now that I’m a mother of sons, I’m beginning to understand how hard it was for her to make room for me, the new woman in her son’s life. It’s a major transition — one I hope I’ll have lots of grace to make when the time comes.
While writing this column, I’ve spent the past few days trying to watch how I run our home, looking for any evidence that I’m like your boyfriend’s mom. In a lot of ways, I am. I have strong opinions about how things should be done: the right way to load the dishwasher, the proper time for getting up in the morning, the best practices for grilling meat, and the list goes on. But how could it not? I’ve spent the past 17 and a half years managing our home. I’m the Chief Operating Officer in all things domestic. And I love my work. I imagine it will be tricky welcoming a new woman who is brand new to the job into intimate friendship, offering to help her grow, all without being critical of her inexperience. Tricky, but not impossible. That’s where grace comes in.
Moms need to extend grace, knowing that we were once novices who weren’t quite sure how to boil water or separate whites and colors in the laundry room. And given the demeaning of housework and the devaluing of home economics in our broader culture, it’s likely young wives are even less prepared to take on this essential work than in generations past. I will need to give lots of grace. But so, too, will the women who marry our sons. The women in the position you’re in will need to give grace as much as they’ll need to receive it. The transition is huge.
If you marry, your husband’s charge will be to “leave and cleave” the family of his youth in order to form a new family of his own (Genesis 2:24, Matthew 19:5, Ephesians 5:31). This is a dramatic shift in how he will relate to his mother and father. God will still require him (and you) to honor his parents (Exodus 20:12, Ephesians 6:2), but there will need to be a distinct break with old patterns. In that process, she may change, but what if she doesn’t? Will you be OK honoring her as your husband’s mother and the grandmother of your future children? I think the question that would be most helpful for you to pray about is: Will you submit to God’s sanctifying work in your life, whatever the source?
I think it would be tragic if you never wanted to be friends with your in-laws or spend time with them. I hope that whomever you marry, you will pray for God’s grace in your extended-family relationships. This is important for your marriage, especially once grandkids arrive. Good friendships, however, aren’t guaranteed or even required. Depending on the difficulties between you, it may be wise to limit your time together. How close you are and how much time you spend together will be affected by many factors: geographical distance, availability, shared interests, personalities, common faith, even spiritual maturity, to name a few. Your potential friendship and the extent of your relationship should remain a matter for prayer, faith and hope — prayer that God will act; faith that He can revive even the most difficult relationships; and hope that, for the sake of His glory, He will.
Whatever the circumstances, the transition to marriage is always challenging because it’s always undertaken by fallen people. Thanks be to God that when the people involved are believers, they have the power, through the Holy Spirit, to extend grace. I pray this will be the case in your relationships. May you give to those who are difficult what they don’t deserve, because in Christ, that’s what God has given you.
Copyright 2014 Candice Watters. All rights reserved.
About the Author
Candice Watters is a wife, mom, and Bible teacher. She is the author of Get Married: What Women Can Do to Help it Happen, co-founder with her husband, Steve, of Boundless.org and co-author of Start Your Family: Inspiration for Having Babies. They have four children and blog at FamilyMaking.com.