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Margaret Hungwe on relationships with extended families/in-laws

By Margaret Hungwe

Extended families are the family that extends beyond the nuclear family consisting of relations like father, mother, and their children, aunts, uncles, grandparents, and cousins. In the context we are exploring these might be people living with a couple in their home or living somewhere.

Margaret Hungwe
Margaret Hungwe

An in-law is a relative because of marriage, like a husband’s sister or a wife’s father. Whether one loves their spouse’s parents or can barely tolerate their in-laws, the way one spouse relates to their in-laws has an impact into their marriage.

The bible gives us guidelines on how to relate to our parents after we get married. Let’s read the scripture Genesis 2: 24, “Therefore, a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh”

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Loyalty

The scripture clearly shows us that marriage involves leaving parents and holding fast to a husband or wife thus a man or woman shows loyalty to their parents before marriage and after entering into a marriage relationship the loyalty shifts to one’s spouse.

Honor

Exodus 20v12 ‘ 12 “Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you.”

Honoring one’s parents, unlike loyalty, does not stop because we are married. Honor is to respect and to show dignity, these attributes are not conditional that whether one had an absent parent, abusive parent, a single parent or any other condition that may exist in a parent-child relationship.

What God has given is a commandment without any disclaimers, we are commanded to honor our parents. How to deal with in-laws The dominant misconception that seems to be shared all over the world is that all in-laws are difficult to deal with. This conception is upheld by all, irrespective of sex or age.

Due to this shared opinion spouses enter into marriage armed for confrontation and ready for the “in-law wars”. In other words, because people will be holding to popular opinion more than developing their own experience, a newlywed couple may end up experiencing life through the lens of thousands of previous marriages. They may end up not giving their own marriage and respective families the opportunity to build their own relationship and story.

How to set boundaries for extended family

Information Sharing

Every couple is unique and the way they deal with their issues is different. Boundaries lines on what is acceptable and not acceptable in your home need to be set. What are “boundary lines”? These are predetermined limits that are set by a husband and wife which establish what will be allowed when they are dealing with their in-laws.

God has set national, moral, and physical boundaries to give us guidance and protection. The same must happen within a marriage, you need boundaries that protect and guide your marriage. 

An area that needs boundaries is the couple’s relational information. What information is to be shared with those outside the marriage, and with whom it is to be shared with. What kind of systems have you put in place to get help when as a couple you are failing internally to address issues, do you use members of the family, a mentor or a counsellor?

For example, in the event of conflict, at which point is the conflict to be shared with outside parties. Would you want parents involved in your marital issues? From my own experience I strongly recommend that unless a couple is dealing with irreconcilable issues, parents should not get involved a couple’s conflict.

Parents may tend to take sides, without being neutral or objective, which will affect marriages. In instances when a conflict between spouses is shared with parents, the ability of parents to let go and move on, even when the conflict has been resolved may be less than the couple itself. This creates enmity and tension in the future which could be avoided by keeping the information within a smaller circle, which excludes the parents.

Treating our extended families 

Both sides of the families should be treated equally. I often say no one fell from the sky and so the same love you have for your parents and siblings should extend to your in-laws. One spouse can not favour their side more than the other. This is not proper simply because those that are married are now one flesh, so spouse’s ought to treat their in-laws equally.

Children/Grandchildren

If boundaries are not created there is confusion created with children towards extended family. Children learn more by seeing than being told what to do. When children see that there is tension whenever extended family is around, and they notice inconsistencies in the treatment given to their relatives, this will generate reactions from them.

As they hear the comments that come from their parents towards the in laws, they also develop a reaction. This may result in them copying their parents’ attitude, they will resent their parents for mistreating their relatives. This may even filter into their own marriages and how they treat their in-laws making it a generational challenge.

Always remember that there is an unalterable spiritual principle that, you reap what you sow. The way you treat your in-laws, particularly the parents of your spouse, are seeds you are sowing to be harvested in the future. That means in the future when you ultimately shall become an in-law you will harvest the seeds you are sowing now.

A very sensitive area with in-laws is the naming of children. This is particularly sensitive in that; names speak to who and what the child is. While also addressing your children’s future, the one who names has authority over the child. Agree if you would want your parents to name your children, the decision should never be one sided.

Never agree to your parents naming your children simply because you are shy of refusing them that privilege or request. Neither allow yourself to be bound by honour to some tradition from the past. The truth is your child’s future is far greater than the traditions you grew up in, so your parent or in-laws do not necessarily have a say in everything about your children’s lives.

When you are not being transparent with your feelings towards your parents it breeds misery in your life. There is nothing wrong in being honest on certain issues that impact your marriage and children, and parents ultimately should understand this and not be overbearing with your own family.

Intrusive Parents

Here are some questions to start us off on this theme, ponder on them honestly and objectively, looking at both sides of your two families. Do you feel that there is undue influence on you or your spouse individually or as a couple from your in-laws (parents)? When it comes to the way you run your household or spend your money are there any incidents in which they have sought to influence your thinking as a couple in an excessive way?

To what extent do your in-laws influence the way you discipline your children? Do you recall any incidents they have overruled your decisions when you were absent? These are just a few of the ways in-laws can be intrusive and bring harm to your marriage. If some of the questions above resonate with you have you perhaps considered what your spouse feels?

Could it be your spouse views these incidents as intrusions into your marriage? Is it possible that your spouse sees your behaviour as betrayal? Each incident that is a betrayal, creates tremendous anger and will drive you and your spouse apart.

Who communicates these boundaries?

Once you have agreed on boundaries and ways of handling the situation, then you have to look at communicating these to your parents. At this point your honour for your parents becomes the guiding principle. The decision about the issue is made based on your loyalty to your marriage and partner, but your communication is built on your honour for your parents.

A very effective way of communicating with your parents and relatives, is to sit down with them as couple, and let the child or relative speak to their kin in the presence of his spouse. Tenison and questions might arise once the message is conveyed, but the fact that there is agreement towards this and that you both stand with what you have agreed must be communicated as clearly as possible. Stand your ground respectfully and be consistency they will become fine.

Sometimes it is easy for a spouse to speak to their own parents and relatives about the new expectations and boundaries. Under such circumstances you may have to ask for assistance from someone else who is outside the immediate situation. This may be someone from the extended family or one who has got a sound relationship with your parent(s), such as an uncle or aunt or a family friend or spiritual leader.

This person may help mediate the communication process. There is no prescription that can be given on this, and situations and circumstances will differ from family to family. However, what is critical issue is to make sure that you have communicated your positions with respect and love.

Sometimes parents do not immediately conform, and some may use emotional blackmail to make you feel guilty for having set these new boundaries for them. You must stand your ground respectfully and with consistency. When your parents seem to be violating the boundaries you have communicated to them, you have to nip it in the bud.

If you indulge them, the day you revert to the resolved positions it will only bring animosity, confusion and emotional injury to them and yourselves. They may also blame your spouse for creating the rift they will be feeling because of the decisions, whereas, it is your vacillations that are bringing the confusion and tension.

Once you have set the boundaries for your in-laws you must be resolute you must now keep to them. 

Genesis 2:24″A man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh”. 

The scripture teaches that the two, the man and woman, must leave to cleave. They must leave their parents so that the two, can be one flesh. This points to God’s expectation for marriage. That the authority of the parents over the new family should be dealt with by the two leaving their father and mother. 

You need to ask yourself some honest questions:

Have your parents always controlled you and so you have just allowed it to continue into your married life?
Do your parents use guilt and emotional blackmail related to the past to manipulate you?
Do they speak of how they suffered and worked in the past, as they made your present, while trying to control your future?
Do you fear displeasing your parents more than displeasing your spouse? 

None of these situations will ever produce a godly or happy marital relationship. God is the best parent and the best model for parenting. As we read the Bible, we see His character. The revelation that we get is that He doesn’t use manipulation, domination, guilt, or fear to help humans make the correct decisions in their life. He wants to motivate us by love for Him and others (Matt. 22:37-40).

That means we must understand that the legitimate power and place of a parent, is found and exercised as a parent is acting like God. So, in order to handle situations where our parents are not acting in a godly way, we must ask God to make the changes necessary in us. We must pray that the Lord gives us a God given perspective of our relationships, as spouses and as children to our parents. This is the only way that our marriages can be all that God intends them to be.

Marriage makes two people one, that means you must protect your spouse as much as you protect your own body. Never allow any member of your extended family to speak bad about your spouse. You must never gossip about your spouse with your relatives or show approval when they backbite your partner. How you react and respond to such sensitive situations, determines how your relatives see your marriage, and in the event that your spouse discovers that you do not protect them from such assaults the effect will be detrimental to your marriage.

God has created us with the purpose, and this purpose is connected to those around us, particularly our spouses and relatives. Understanding the power of the various codes that hold us to these relationships, as well as our obligation to each of these relationships is critical.

We are called to be loyal to our spouses, to respect our parents and care for our relations. The balance for these relationships requires God’s wisdom and strength. It is in prayer and the word of God that we can obtain strategies for the managing our relations with our extended families.

Margaret Hungwe is a transformational speaker, an author and teacher of the word of God, an MBA graduate fondly known as sis Mags. She is the founder of Woman of Substance International a non-denominational ministry that is centred on Proverbs  31 v 30 ‘ a woman who fears the Lord shall be praised’.

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