Days after the birth of my son, my mother-in-law listed her grievances against my husband and me over the past years. Her guilt-ridden statements conveyed her unhappiness as well as my father-in-law’s with the lack of time we spent with them, comparing our treatment of them to my family and finally expressing fears about our unwillingness to take care of them as they age. This pattern was all too familiar.
Following each major event, there seemed to be feelings of insecurity and disappointment. In order to defend our family, my husband would engage in heated discussions, followed by short-term reconciliation. These interactions led us to encourage them to approach us sooner. As we thought the war ended, the anxiety and unhappiness built up again a few years later, followed by another round of discussions. It was a constant reminder my in-laws are not believers. Their contentment comes from their relationship with us, imperfect people, not with Jesus, who is perfect.
As I thought about the source of their discontentment, I realized a couple of issues. My husband and I come from families who value extended family relationships almost above any other relationship. It is our duty and privilege to care for our parents when they can no longer do so. From the beginning of our marriage, it has been the balance between “the two shall become one” and “honor your father and mother.” As believers my husband and I believe our marriage covenant takes priority over any other earthly relationship.
The other issue is that my in-laws left their lives to live near us without seeking out their own friends and community. During the first years of our marriage, my husband set boundaries on how much time we should spend with them, especially after we had children. He also explained to them that major decisions for our family were between the two of us. Their unhealthy dependence on us to meet their relational needs led to unmet expectations.
The email six years ago represented a turning point for me. My husband and I were on our knees wondering what our response should be as believers. We were ready to have limited contact with them to preserve our own relationship. We prayed and sought professional counseling. I learned that not all relationships are worth preserving, especially when they can cause a negative impact on us emotionally.
In our case, through prayer and wise counsel, God showed me I need to remember my own brokenness and that His grace was sufficient to cover any anger or disappointment I might feel. Through the Holy Spirit, I had the ability to forgive and exhibit the gifts of peace and joy despite this difficult relationship. Also, our decision to react in love would hopefully be a powerful witness to a God who loves us no matter how sinful we are.
Since then God has given me compassion for my in-laws. He has shown me that their deep need is to feel loved by us, and that they are amazing grandparents. God continues to restore our relationship even to the point that they lived with us for several months recently as my mother-in-law recovered from an illness. Only by the love of Christ could I have taken care of them during that time. Like any relationship, it is not perfect. I am still learning to set aside my own pride even when I feel justified in my reaction.
For example, my mother-in-law has gifts as a homemaker; sometimes her comments are directed at ways to improve the way I do things. Rather than taking them as insults, I have learned these comments come from a deep place of finding her self worth in the way she runs her home and the honest desire to pass on her knowledge out of love. There are also times when I have been expected to spend time with them even if my husband is not available. I have learned to say “yes” when I want to see them and not out of obligation. I learned a relationship out of obligation does not convey my love, but rather my guilt to please. My ultimate desire is for my love and kindness to point them towards the One and Perfect relationship.
*Note: The author’s name is a pseudonym.