Relating to controlling in-laws is one of the trickiest problems a marriage can face.

Since we no longer have a traditional rite of passage in which a young person officially enters adulthood, marriage often ends up serving that role by default. Sometimes, though, even marriage doesn’t trigger an appropriate emotional separation from a parent.

If parent and adult child are enmeshed in an unhealthy way, there can be runners of that vine throughout the marriage — gradually choking it to death. A prime example: the married daughter who still allowed her mother to balance her and her husband’s joint checking account!

It helps if both sets of parents give the new couple their blessing—thereby affirming the newlyweds’ independence. While this may seem unnecessary with today’s career-delayed first marriages and blended second or third marriages, it’s a valuable gift for any husband and wife.

If you believe an in-law is trying to run your life, consider how the following principles might help.

Honour — but don’t necessarily obey

Scripture directs us to honour parents Deuteronomy 5:16; Matthew 15:4. Their wisdom, years of sacrifice, and role in the family are reasons to respect them in our hearts and our actions.

Obeying parents, however, is clearly time-limited. If we’re still trying to obey Mum and Dad, we’re not leaving them and cleaving to our spouse. While it may be difficult to defy their spoken or unspoken wishes, there may be times when it’s necessary.

Take, for example, the question of where to live. Some parents attempt inappropriate — though sometimes well meaning — control over their adult children in this area. Promises of houses or land (“Adjoining ours, of course!”) or simply taking the children hostage emotionally (“You can’t move our grandchildren away from us!”) can result in significant generational strain. This and other issues must be dealt with quickly and directly, lest the marriage suffer the consequences.

Maintain mutual respect

Healthy parents have many opportunities to do this. Decisions about grandchildren, finances, careers, and many other important issues are chances to honour adult children’s autonomy.

The need for respect goes both ways, of course. Healthy sons- and daughters-in-law attend responsibly to their new duties, making sure issues like money and child care aren’t dumped in their parents’ laps—on purpose or by default.

Sometimes spouses need to ask for their parents’ respect — even if it’s uncomfortable to do so. If a controlling parent is sharing private information without permission, raging verbally, or otherwise acting inappropriately, it’s up to the adult children to ask the parent to observe safe relational boundaries.

Check your assumptions

Especially when a first child marries, it’s common for all involved to have immature expectations. Visions of “one big happy family” can quickly turn to disillusionment, as each generation operates from its own perspective.

Assumptions lead to misunderstandings. Parents shouldn’t assume that because they’ve always liked a particular brand of car, their kids will want to buy the same. Husbands and wives shouldn’t assume Mum and Dad will do all the cooking at Christmas.

Be open to mediation

When things break down on either side of the generation gap, a third party may be helpful. While not trying to provoke a feud, spouses should solidly back each other and respond as a team. Mediation should be God-honouring and principle-centred, and should support the marriage.

For mild or short-term conflict, one side might let the other choose a trusted minister or other third party that all can agree on. In the case of more complex, severe, or ongoing conflict, the services of a professional counsellor will be valuable.

Some participants may see mediation as embarrassing or meddlesome. Encourage them to view it as a chance to cooperate for the good of the entire family. If total agreement isn’t reached, that’s okay; the goal isn’t a merger of the generations, but a partnership between them.

Dealing respectfully but firmly with a controlling in-law takes fortitude, especially on the part of the son or daughter whose parent is the offender.

© 2006 Focus on the Family. All rights reserved. Used with permission. From "Focus on the Family’s Complete Guide to the First Five Years of Marriage" a Focus on the Family resource published by Tyndale House Publishers.

Rob Jackson

Licensed Professional Counsellor in private practice who specialises in intimacy disorders, including sex addiction and codependency. He also speaks nationally on a variety of topics, including intimacy with God and family.

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