I read your RELEVANT article on honoring parents when we are adults. I was wondering if you have any practical tips for honoring parents when a circumstance is difficult?
My husband and I live near his parents and see them regularly. Although we’ve been married six years, and both just turned 30, there are times when his mom becomes a bit of a ‘helicopter parent’ and treats him like he’s a little boy again. As if he needs to be a ‘son’ first and a ‘husband’ second. It stresses him out for sure and I’m looking for ways to support him in this. We’ve had several (kindhearted and respectful) conversations with her but not sure if they resolve much. We’re a bit baffled on how we might help her see us as adult children instead of just kids that need to do nearly everything with the family still. Any thoughts?
– a Baffled Daughter-in-Law
I grew up hearing some truly alarming stories of difficulties my parents had with their own in-laws. My mind is etched with tales of my late grandmother refusing to eat a pork roast my newlywed mom had cooked. Legend has it that she shuddered and sniffed: “I never eat pork, it’s so like human flesh.” My mom was devastated and poured her heart out on the phone to her own father on the phone. Recounting the jibe about pork being like human flesh, my ever witty grandfather came back with: “well, how would she know?”
Jokes aside: navigating relationships with adult parents can be incredibly tricky, and when one adds a spouse and then children into the mix, things become even more complex. I want to commend you and your husband for your desire to honor his parents, for the loving conversations you have had with her so far, for the prayers you have prayed and are continuing to pray. It can be hard to remain warm and welcoming and prayerful in a situation where you feel criticized and the other party lets you know they are disappointed with how they are being treated – even though you’re doing your best.
So first thing: good job. God sees your heart in this, and I believe he blesses your desire to honor them.
My second thought is this: I think there are some significant limits on what we are able to “help people see”. We can explain as lovingly and clearly as possible, but sometimes people can remain at an impasse. She may not want to “see”. She may not be able to see, due to a hurt or different worldview or radically different perspective on things. You did not mention whether your husband was an only child or the eldest son, but if he is – I hear that can have a big impact too.
So what do you do then?
I take great comfort in the words of Romans 12:18:
If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.
If it is possible… God knows a peacefully resolved relationship is not always possible. It might be that we try and try and pray and pray and do everything right – and healing a breach might not be possible.
but: as far as it depends on you, live at peace. I love that the Scriptures are clear about delineating healthy relationship boundaries. Healthy relationships depend on more than one party – and so as far as it depends on you – do what you can do keep it peaceful. The fact that you and your husband are on the same page about this is a huge help (sometimes I get letters from people where the wife feels the Mother in Law is interfering, but the husband seems unaware of or unwilling to address the problem. My advice there would for the couple first to figure out what they want from their relationships with the in-laws).
So often if a couple is having a hard time with a parent who they feel is overly (and unhealthily) involved in their family affairs, they fall into the trap of allowing the parents to set all the relational expectations – and then they believe that honoring the parents means trying to meet as many of those expectations as they can. The parents are often disappointed because their children aren’t “honoring their wishes”, and they interpret their disappointment as disrespect. So, for example – a mother in law might simple assume that her married, adult son is spending thanksgiving with them, or coming over for every Sunday dinner – but fail to actually invite the couple, or to give them a reasonable space to say no, not this time without the threat of The Great Dump Truck Of Guilt being heaped upon them.
In that circumstance, though: the adult children are not disrespecting the parent. The parent is just disappointed, that’s all.
My practical advice for you is this:
- Create your own boundaries as a couple. Figure out what you and your husband CAN and WANT to do to honor his parents and include them. As a family unit, prayerfully decide the ways in which you feel you could honestly and openly welcome them into your lives and home. You set the terms of what you both feel you can, in good conscience, do. I think it would be healthy to reach a space when you can say that you are CHOOSING every interaction and visit you have, instead of trying to just minimize the number of times you disappoint her and being driven by guilt.
So, for example – decide if you would be happy to have lunch once a month/once a week. Tell her you’re often invited to lunch with other young families after church on Sunday but you still want to make time to have lunch with her because she’s important to you – so ask her if you can write a date down in the calendar in PEN, and tell her you are really looking forward to it.
Have you and your husband decide how much phone conversation or texting you are willing to do – and have him call her regularly. If she calls at inappropriate times, I would say it is okay to let the phone go to voicemail on occasion – but then he must call her back when he has time to talk, and make a good effort to really listen 🙂
Cloud and Townsend’s book on “Boundaries” is so helpful for things like this. Say yes and no to what is healthy for your family, and then stick to that. If you decline one of her invitations, you do not need to apologize profusely or promise to make it up to her, NOR do you need to give her a reason why you can’t go. People who are invading your space then often feel that they have the right to evaluate your reason and see if it’s “good enough” to justify the no. I find it better to say: “Thanks for the invitation, but we can’t this time! Sorry to disappoint.”
* Help your mother in law with the language of disappointment if you feel she is pushing too hard or starting to hover. “Mom, I know you’re disappointed we can’t come over tonight. Thanks for understanding, and we are looking forward to that Sunday lunch…”
* Ask her some questions: about her own relationships with her in-laws. About her favorite memories with her children. And if you have the openness of relationship to ask directly, maybe you might even be able to say: “I know we aren’t always to spend the kind of time with you that you would like us to. You are important to us, though, so I was wondering what some of the most important things are that you would appreciate from us?” Who knows what might come from that?
I hope this is of some practical help. If it is possible, and as far as it depends on you, I hope your relationship with both your parents remains a peaceful and rich one.
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Photo Credit: Grant MacDonald “Vine and Brick” (copyright from Flickr Creative Commons), edits by Bronwyn Lea.