“Julie, you’ll never believe it!” exclaimed Susan. “Tom wants his parents to come live with us!”
“Whoa, Susan,” Julie replied. “Slow down. Tell me what exactly is going on here. What did Tom say?”
Susan took a deep breath. “Well, the other night we were talking about our finances, and the kids, and how things are really tight right now. He thought it would be a good idea for his parents to move in with us to share some of the expenses. Maybe we could even charge them rent, or the kids could stay with them instead of going to day care. Julie, I just can’t believe it!”
Julie wondered why Susan was so upset. After all, having extended families live together wasn’t exactly a new idea. “In Bible days, multiple generations lived together all the time,” Julie said. “Just because we don’t usually do it here, I don’t quite understand why you’re so freaked out.”
The resentment in Susan’s voice was clear. “Well, it would be just one more way for his mom and dad to try to influence our decisions.”
“Oh! The issue is about boundaries and leaving and cleaving.”
“Oh, yeah,” Susan said with sarcasm. “We have a real problem with the ‘leave and cleave’ thing.”
Susan and Tom aren’t the only couple to have a problem in this area. Genesis 2:24 says, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.” The King James Version calls being united “cleaving.” This refers to God’s invention of a unique bond between husband and wife that’s not to be compromised by their relationship with their parents.
Does this mean that we cut ourselves off from our families of origin? Not if they’re reasonably healthy. Maintaining relationships with our parents usually is beneficial. But problems arise if factors like the following are present:
- One spouse relies too heavily on the parents to help in decision-making, leading the other spouse to feel insignificant.
- One spouse looks to the parent, not the partner, to get his or her emotional needs met, leading the partner to feel ignored.
- One spouse reveals details of marital conflict with his or her parents, leading the other spouse to feel betrayed.
Let’s take a closer look at these and what you can do about them.
1. Decision-making dysfunction. Couples need the freedom and autonomy to make their own decisions. Some parents are better than others in this area; many wait for their adult children to ask for advice, but others try to inject unsolicited wisdom. The latter are often deeply caring people who want the best for their children, but their behavior communicates a lack of respect and trust in the judgment of their child and his or her spouse.
2. Emotional apron strings.
If your spouse gets his or her emotional needs met in his or her relationship with parents instead of with you, there’s a problem. You may even feel as if your spouse is having an affair.
If you have an “apron strings” problem in your marriage, keep the following tips in mind as you talk with your spouse about it.
- Pray for wisdom and insight about what to say and how to say it.
- Tread lightly when it comes to criticizing your in-laws. Your spouse knows more negative things about his or her parents than you do, whether or not they’re expressed. Even repeating a complaint your spouse has made about his or her parents could be taken as an offense by your mate.
- Approach your spouse when you’re both rested, fed, and healthy. Right before falling asleep at night is not a good time to have this conversation.
- Remember that you’re a team. Because you’re committed to each other, you can work through this even if you don’t agree on the details – like your in-laws’ intent, how to best meet your spouse’s needs, or exact limits to place on parent-child conversations.
- If parents need to be confronted or informed, agree that their own child – not the son or daughter-in-law – will do the talking. Protecting your marriage is a priority; the newest addition to the family doesn’t need another reason to be dissected by in-laws. Each spouse needs to know that he or she will be protected by the other, even if husband and wife disagree and the in-laws are meddlesome.
If, after following these steps, you and your spouse are at an impasse about your in-laws, get the objective input of a therapist.
Leaving and cleaving is tricky, but do-able. The love and respect you communicate to each other when you value your marriage over your relationship with your parents are essential.
After Susan and Julie talked, Susan realized why she felt threatened by the idea of her in-laws moving into her home. It was because she believed her mother-in-law wanted more contact with Tom than Susan was comfortable with.
As Susan and Tom talked about it, she became less defensive. Tom was able to listen more easily and understand her heart. In turn, his own heart softened. He began to evaluate how much time he spent with his mom – and what he could do about those apron strings.
From Focus on the Family’s Complete Guide to the First Five Years of Marriage, published by Tyndale. Copyright © 2006, Focus on the Family. All rights reserved. International copyright secured.