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by Jacob Ninan

The in-law problem in marriage is age-old issue, and the number of jokes about it is an indication of how serious it is and how frequently if affects people. It occurs in many forms such as:
  1. The husband’s mother ill-treating the daughter-in-law
  2. The husband’s parents demanding that the daughter-in-law should conform to their ways
  3. The husband’s mother not wanting the couple to have their privacy or freedom
  4. The husband pleasing his parents more than his wife
  5. The wife running to her mother to share all her problems and the mother advising her not to allow her husband to dominate her
  6. Older parents demanding that the couple should obey them
  7. The husband or wife secretly supporting their parents financially
  8. The husband’s mother asking her son to run errands for her
  9. Older parents commenting negatively to their son or daughter about their spouse
  10. Older parents commanding the young couple how to or how not to run their lives
  11. The husband’s parents demanding more ‘dowry’ from the daughter-in-law
  12. Older parents visiting their children for long periods and creating tension
There are, of course, many other forms of behaviour among in-laws that cause heartaches all around. This seems to be a special area of problems among Indian couples because we take pride in our strong family ties. Among Christians it is not unusual to hear pastors proclaim during a wedding service or reception that this is a wedding not only between the couple but also between the two families, two communities, two cultures, two language groups, etc., as the case may be. I suggest that this approach to marriage gives us a clue as to why the in-law problem is so big.

What Does God Say?
God’s simple instruction for marriage is, “a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh” (Gen.2:24). The three crucial phrases here are ‘leave his father and his mother’, ‘be joined to his wife’ and ‘become one’. It goes without saying that what God says to ‘him’ is also applicable in the same way to ‘her’. In the context of the in-law problem, what we need to note is that without leaving father and mother, it is going to be extremely difficult to be joined (cleave) to the wife/husband or to become one (in body, soul and spirit). What God hopes from a marriage is to start a new family after separating from the old family of origin. When the new family does not, or is not allowed to, cut the umbilical cord from their family of origin, both these families are going to face continuous tension, just as in the physical case of a baby and his mother.

This situation is made worse when the culture treats the new bride as coming into the bridegroom’s family, leaving her family of origin behind! The husband’s parents expect the daughter-in-law to now become a part of their family and adapt to their culture, instead of realising that the new couple has started a new family which is separate from their own. This new family is going to be different from the families of origin because the members of this family are two individuals who have concepts and desires for their marriage which may be very different from what their parents had! They are also living in more modern times than what their parents were used to, and so their commitments to work, church and social interactions are different, the value of money has changed, many new gadgets and lifestyles are now possible for them, etc. Any expectation that the new couple should simply conform to the traditions and expectations of the older generation is simply unrealistic.

This ‘leaving’ does not necessarily imply physically leaving their parents, nor does it imply that the new family can forget or neglect their parents. Staying away from the parents has its own advantages (and disadvantages) for the couple, but in many cases staying together becomes a practical necessity too. ‘Leaving’ essentially means shifting of loyalty from the family of origin to the spouse and the new family. One’s spouse becomes the most important person in life, and even when children come, this priority is to be maintained. Leaving also makes the new family responsible for making all decisions concerning their life, even though they may seek for advice from others including their parents.

There is a leaving from the side of the new couple, and there is also a letting go from the side of the old parents. If either of them does not happen, there is bound to be problems for both.

“Obey Your Parents”
This is a favourite verse that old parents use to try and obtain compliance from their children (Eph.6:1). Unfortunately, since this is the beginning of a new chapter, many may miss the context, and treat this as an independent verse. The earlier passage in Chapter 5 addresses instructions for husbands and wives, and the continuing passage in Chapter 6 addresses slaves and masters. It should be clear that the verse quoted here is addressed to ‘children’ and should not be applied to grown-up men and women who are married and who may have their own children. In a physical or legal sense they are still children to their parents. But once they are grown up they are expected to make their own decisions and cannot be expected to obey their parents as if they were still small ones dependent on the parents.

Honour Your Father And Mother
Leaving the family of origin does not imply forgetting the old parents or neglecting them just because the young couple has formed a new family. This is taken care of by God’s commandment for all of us to honour our parents, irrespective of whether we are young or old. This means to show respect to them in the way we talk to them or treat them, to take care of them in their time of need physically, financially, medically, spiritually or socially, and to be willing to recognise that they have wisdom that comes from long years of life in this world. We do not have to agree with them at all times, or to do whatever they suggest (or even insist on). We need to be honest enough to recognise their mistakes (especially if they have abused or neglected us) so that we can put away wrong attitudes and practices which we may have picked up from them.

If old parents truly want the best for their married children, they have to ask themselves if they recognise that it is a new and different family which the children have set up and if whatever they (the parents) do and say is meant for encouraging them to leave the parents, be joined to each other and to become one. The new couple can learn how to become more and more one with each other, while balancing their independence from the control of their parents with their obligation to honour their parents.

-- Published in the Light of Life magazine, February 2014

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