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How to handle an interfering mother-in-law

By Mitchell Munyaradzi Gumbo

The mother-in-law and daughter-in-law relationship is one of the most complicated human connections. It comes with a built-in conflict before the relationship even begins: two radically different views of the same man.

Mitchell Munyaradzi Gumbo
Mitchell Munyaradzi Gumbo

One woman always will see him first as a man; the other always will see him first as her child. One will say I carried him throughout his toddler years, one will hit back and say I now carry him daily.

One will say I cared and nurtured for him while he was growing up yet the wife will say I am nurturing him now and his needs have since multiplied now that he is an adult.

Sadly and yet ironically, the conflict is premised on love. It starts with love, our first love. Couples often come together with a feeling of newly discovered love, but the passionate and absorbing bond with a parent is the infant’s first experience of loving, and of being one person of a loving pair.

Though romantic relationships are very different from “blood” relationships, the biochemistry and neural signals that bond infant and parent are the very same ones used to bond us to a mate. The parent/infant pair in many ways behaves like lovers.

A mother and baby lock together in a mutual gaze, each looking back to the other looking at her – an activity called “eye love” which is also practiced by romantic lovers as they gaze at each other in mutual admiration.

This early intimacy leaves a legacy that impacts on every subsequent intimate attachment, including marriage. A parent-in-law may be loving, but this love is rarely unconditional. A parent’s conspicuous and continual assessment of a son’s or daughter’s spouse, combined with vulnerability (“How will my child’s marriage impact on my special relationship?”), form the bedrock of the ancient conflict between in-laws.

The person who wants to be both a loyal spouse and a loyal son or daughter can experience a dilemma that can rock a marriage to its roots, and this is one reason it is important to understand the intricacies of in-law relationships.

The other issue is the issue of financial support. The young man goes to college, graduates magna cum laude and gets a high paying job at around 22.

For the 3 years till he gets married, he would be looking after mom so well, mum is his first girlfriend whom he buys stuff for. Then he marries! Along comes a new woman in his life who demands his all. That withdrawal of benefits has been known to cause friction between his mom and his wife.

In popular culture, sungura kingpin Alick Macheso sang a scorcher to that effect called “Shedia” in which he mimics a troubled daughter in law. The mother in law in the story later confesses that she misses the bacon which her son used to lavish her with. The elderly woman feels that her daughter in law is the one causing her sad predicament.

It is advised that couples come up with financial plans to garnish their parents. After all, we are expressly exhorted by Scripture to “Honor your father and mother”—which is the first commandment with a promise—”that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth” (Ephesians 6:2-3).

Part of honor is ensuring that these elderly ones are adequately garnished. The words of St Paul on 1 Timothy 5 v 3 – 8 “ Give proper recognition to those widows who are really in need. But if a widow has children or grandchildren, these should learn first of all to put their religion into practice by caring for their own family and so repaying their parents and grandparents, for this is pleasing to God.

The widow who is really in need and left all alone puts her hope in God and continues night and day to pray and to ask God for help. But the widow who lives for pleasure is dead even while she lives. Give the people these instructions, so that no one may be open to blame. Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.”

A person’s parents should not go on charity while he/she is alive. Christianity is not averse to pragmatism, the writer understands the harsh economic times we are in hence the need to come up with a plan to garnish. Ideally the man should put his wife on the forefront of serving his parents and the woman should serve his wife’s progenitors. That has been known to thaw the ice and build rapport.

CHANGING RELATIONSHIPS

I talked to a genial old lady who said “The key thing to remember,” Sue told me, “is that your son’s left you and joined with his wife. This is what he’s supposed to do, and anything you do to interfere with that process is against God’s will. No matter how hard this is,” she emphasized, “accepting this fact will pay off in the long run with your children and your grandchildren” . Sadly most mothers in law do not have it figured out like Sue.

Marriage is God’s plan and those that are joined by God should not be taken asunder! Let me be radical to say, the marriage relationship supersedes all other relationships…
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 or their kids.

The concept of changing relationships, is simply this … mothers should know that as their son grows so changes also their relationship with him. During his childhood, her word is law, she is the Commander in Chief of his life but as he grows, her authority diminishes from being boss to adviser. The son has a new boss already in his life by way of his wife.

The mother therefore can’t keep choosing clothes for the son or determining what he buys or doesn’t buy. He is a man now and part of being a man means the ability to make independent choices. The mother in law needs to realize that her daughter in law needs space to run her new home in her own manner. Last thing she wants is intrusiveness in the name of love.

A mother-in-law who has failed to grasp the concept of changing relationships becomes demanding, controlling, and intrudes into the lives of her son/daughter and daughter-in-law/son-in-law becoming what the Bible calls a “busybody” (1 Timothy 5:13).

The meaning of the Greek word that is translated “busybody” in the 1 Timothy passage means “a self-appointed overseer in other men’s matters.” Overseeing is what some mothers-in-law are engaged in, or at least accused of. This kind of behavior is annoying, very frustrating, and contrary to God’s plan for the family.

Obviously, the dynamics in such a situation are frustrating. A mother-in-law may do these things because no one else in the family has given her boundaries. Therefore, she becomes an overbearing “bully.” Perhaps she does not even realize how intrusive and controlling she is. To her it may just be “loving.”

Reader, if that is the case in your marriage, perhaps a heart-to-heart talk will clear the air. If she does understand what she is doing and does it on purpose even after she has been asked to stop, then there is nothing that you are going to be able to do to alter that.

What can we do about reacting to a woman who acts in the way a meddling mother-in-law does? We can make a choice not to allow her to take away our peace of mind. We may not be able to change the way others behave, but how we respond to their behavior is our choice.

We can allow the actions of other people to get to us, or we can choose to give it over to God and allow Him to use this to strengthen us spiritually. It is our own response to this type of situation that fuels our frustration. Only we can stop wearing ourselves out emotionally by allowing an interfering mother-in-law’s actions to be the arbiter of our own peace. Her behavior is not our responsibility; our response is.

As an aside, the writer urges people to move away from parents’ houses when they get married. That alone cuts in-law strife by close to 75%. A man and woman leave their birth families and begin a new family, and they are to love and protect each other. A husband who allows his mother or his mother-in-law to interfere with his marriage is not living up to the commandment given to husbands in Ephesians 5:25-33.

Boundaries need to be set and then held regardless of the resistance encountered. The reality is that people treat us the way we allow them to treat us. If we permit them to trample the sanctity of our family, then that is what they will do. No one, not even our extended family, has the right to invade the privacy of our home, and it is the responsibility of the husband to guard that privacy.

He should take the lead in gently—but firmly—explaining to his mother that what she is doing that is over the line and assuring her that such behaviour cannot be tolerated. He should remind her that God has given him the responsibility for his family and to relinquish any of that responsibility to her is to disobey God.

He should also assure her that he and his wife still love her, but that the relationship has changed and he is in charge now. That is God’s design for the family, and that is the way it will be. Then the couple must stand firm in their resolve.

Mitchell Munyaradzi Gumbo is a male Social Psychology student with a keen interest in Human Behavior and Interpersonal Relationships. He explores these and other issues by way of “The Mitchell Gumbo Debates” on his Facebook wall

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Twitter – @mitchelgumbo
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