Vacationing With the In-laws? Ummm…..

A couple of times during this series on in-law relationships I’ve mentioned the dangers of comparisons. Consider these real-life situations (with changed names):

  • Jennifer and John admitted to friends recently that the majority of their conflicts are over in-law relationships. Specifically, Jen hears regular comments from her mother about much more time the grandchildren spent with John’s parents than with her.
  • Martin’s parents live closeby while Anna’s are out-of-state. Anna’s parents feel that because of their close proximity to the kids, Martin’s parents should be willing to sacrifice Thanksgiving and Christmas in exchange for living nearby and sharing so much time together throughout the year.
  • Melanie learned from Greg that his parents planned their first extended family reunion in several years during the week of her younger sister’s high school graduation.  When Greg called to explain this to his Dad and Mom they responded by saying that while they were sorry about the conflict, they expected that their annual participation in Melanie’s family vacation would certainly warrant her making Greg’s family reunion a priority this year.

Please try to remember that comparisons are frequently rooted in jealousy or rivalry and can produce ongoing tension. As an in-law I have dealt with disappointments over decisions my married children have made. But I’ve found that often the tables turn and next time the decision may go in my favor. Allowing resentment or jealousy to fester is not only sinful but also damaging to my family. Humble and honest dialogue with our married children and their spouses, and perhaps with our in-laws, can be helpful and redemptive. However, time and again over several decades of being intimately involved in the lives of numerous families, Benny and I have watched in-law relationships go from bad to worse when married children are put in the middle of parental rivalries. On the other hand, we have also watched in-laws partner to protect their married children and their grandchildren from jealous tension by making requests rather than demands — then resisting the temptation to react sinfully when disappointed.

Two more thoughts for you to consider:

Anticipate challenges and expect grace. One friend commented to me that this series has tempted her to want all of her children to be single so she won’t have to share them! Letting our kids go is fraught with challenges. Additionally, having married children requires blending an adult raised in a different family culture into your own. Add unspoken expectations, selfish demands or suspicious attitudes to the mix and…look out!…where there is smoke there will be fire.

In-law relationships are often challenging but God’s grace is available to all. Some years back I whined to the Lord that it would have been helpful if there was at least one little chapter in the Bible devoted to this relationship. When should I express my concerns to my married children and when should I be silent? And surely God knew that most adults would love to have Him lay out fair rules for the holidays! The thought that quickly came made me feel pretty foolish….

Much of the Bible speaks of relationships; I just needed to cry out to Him for help to apply the clear teachings throughout scripture that apply to every relationship in my life. Flawed people seeking to apply biblical truths will not inoculate families from conflict. It certainly hasn’t ours! And loving our children’s spouse and his/her parents doesn’t necessitate becoming close friends or sharing holidays and vacations. But it does require governing our hearts with a healthy sense of self-suspicion about what is motivating us when desires become demands and competition sets in.

Last, don’t resent sharing. From the time our kids are little we teach them to share everything. Then when they become young adults we are the ones who have to share…them.

A note to parents of sons: sometimes sharing isn’t equitable. This is commonly true with sons. The old adage, “A son is a son till he takes a wife, but a daughter’s a daughter all of her life” can play out in heart-testing ways in many families. Generally, married daughters are more committed to staying connected to their parents than married sons. When a daughter wants to hang out with family she typically drops by her mom’s house, not his. Because she talks to her mom more often, her mother-in-law doesn’t know to offer to babysit for that upcoming event so, of course, she’s happy to take Mom up on the offer. If we parents-in-law don’t carefully guard our hearts against temptations to feeling overlooked or slighted, we can become bitter toward the person with whom our child fell in love and/or her parents.

Some time ago one of my New Girls communicated some guilty feelings over  her and the kids spending more time with her mom than with me. She acknowledged that she rarely calls or drops by and wondered if I was resentful over the inequity. I told her that while I love any opportunity to see her and the kids, I understood why she was more comfortable hanging with the women in her family than with me. Wasn’t it the same with me? While I have loved Benny’s mom for decades and she has been a model mother-in-law in many ways, the simple fact was that if given the choice I would usually choose putting my feet on the furniture at Mom’s.  How could I expect my daughter-in-law to feel any differently?

The truth is I love her dearly and I know she loves me. She proves this every day by caring for my son and grandchildren; being patient with things about my son that could have used more parenting help prior to their marriage; sharing holidays with our loud and large family without complaint; and even thinking to ask me how I felt about her heading to Mom’s first.

Maybe the in-law situations you are facing are far more weighty than having to figure out how to handle Thanksgiving. Perhaps hostility and manipulation characterize your relationships and you have no hope for change. Or maybe some of my thoughts seem simplistic and insensitive. Please know that’s not my intent. As I mentioned in an earlier post, my comments aren’t meant to speak to every situation.

But here’s the good news: the gospel does speak to every situation. There was absolutely no way a totally holy God and utterly sinful people were ever going to get along. Yet God made a way. Perhaps He hasn’t called you to “be close” to your in-laws. That’s not the standard that everyone must reach. In-laws can be warm or politely superficial and still honor God. Some in-laws talk about personal things happening in their lives while others don’t. I know in-laws who go on trips together and others who would rather stay home than do so, and not because they don’t like each other. And even those who have several married children have differing relationships with each.

Whatever the case, the gospel is applicable. Jesus Christ made a way for sinners and God to have a relationship, so He has the power to help people with lesser differences obey biblical commands to love, forgive when needed and be kind to one another — even if they never share a vacation.

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