My husband and I grew up 30 minutes away from one another. Every weekend my family would make the drive from our small town to the city we now call home, and we passed his family’s house countless times. (Of course, I never knew he lived there until our paths crossed four years ago.)
Thinking about the man I wanted to marry someday, I always imagined and hoped that he would be a family man who loved his family as dearly as I loved mine. More than that, I prayed that his feelings would be mutual because I knew that family would play a big role in who we would become as a couple.
After years of experiencing the complexities of relationships, I began thinking I should marry a man whose family lived far away. It seemed that, in many relationships, in-laws often found a way to complicate situations and create unnecessary stress. I had countless conversations with young brides who were at their wits end with their mothers-in-law. I figured that if I could marry into a family that lived far away, then my husband and I wouldn’t have that problem. I knew marriage would require a lot of work, so that would be one less thing to be concerned about.
When I met my future husband, I quickly learned that his family also lived in the same city. Of course, my parents had moved over a few years earlier, meaning all parties now lived within mere miles of one another. I wondered if I should seriously consider dating him. Rather than throwing in the towel, I decided first to see the relationship he had with his parents, so I agreed to meet his and he mine. I still doubted it would be possible to maintain a healthy balance of peace and unity due to the close proximity, but it was worth exploring.
Every year around the holidays, people ask if we have travel plans. When I tell them that both of our families are local, I receive looks of sympathy as if it must be a nightmare. Their responses are almost always the same: “How do you balance that? Does that make it difficult? I couldn’t stand having my family/in-laws in the same town.” The sympathetic looks then turn to surprise when I tell them our families love one another and often spend the holidays together, all in one place. It really throws them for a loop when they hear how well my parents and my husband’s parents get along.
Sometimes I think we’re the exception. Maybe we just got lucky, maybe we’re an anomaly. But the truth is that we’ve worked hard to have healthy family relationships. After all, you don’t trade in your family when you get married—you expand it! After a few short years of hard work, here’s what we have learned:
1. Get your priorities straight. Sure, she may not cook like your mom, and maybe he can’t fix everything as quickly as your dad, but your parents have had a good 20 years of practice. Now, it’s your turn to put into practice what you’ve learned.
But when you run to your parents for help before running to your spouse, your actions can create resentment, doubt, and insecurity. Comparisons can be dangerous and harmful to your marriage and, more than that, can be damaging to your in-law relationship.
You promised “for better or worse” and—for better or worse—you guys will figure it out, just like your parents did. Many things will compete for first place in your life, so make sure your spouse knows that, next to God, he or she is your number one priority.
2. The decision is yours. You and your spouse should make decisions based on what’s best for the both of you, not your parents’ wants and desires. I’m not saying you should never again seek wisdom from your parents, but the final decision should belong to you and your spouse.
Your parents should not decide where you live, how many kids you have, where your kids go to school, what church you attend, or where you work.
Remember, your parents aren’t the ones living with the results. Also, you and your spouse are not your parents—learn from them, but do so with the apron strings untied.
3. Pay your way. My dad once told me that if I ever took anyone’s money, I had to take their advice. When people pay for your expenses, they have a say in your life decisions. This is the beauty of adulthood: when it’s your money, you decide how to spend it. Your parents have done their job raising you, so take responsibility for your own expenses and do so wisely.
When my husband and I go to dinner with our parents, we never expect or assume they will pick up the tab. In fact, we should probably pay for everyone; it’s the least we can do for the years they have financially invested in our lives. We have found much freedom in paying our own way and not relying on our families.
4. If you can’t say anything nice… Early in our marriage, my husband and I decided that we would never speak ill about one another to our families. We promised that we would keep our secrets our own, as our parents don’t need to know everything. Some things really are better left unshared.
Instead, we do our best to build each other up to our parents so that they hear and witness the good things happening in our relationship. We want our parents to be for us—both of us. We want them to support us and encourage us together as a couple. And we want them to see the best in both of us.
5. Set boundaries. Overstepping boundaries can create major discord in a marriage and can devastate the hopes of having a good relationship with the in-laws. You shouldn’t have to sever ties with the people who raised you in order to maintain a peaceful union, yet many new couples struggle with this one.
I believe the key to great family ties and authentically enjoying being around one another is to set clear boundaries. The best place to start is to discuss the issue with your spouse. Share your thoughts, be willing to consider the other person’s perspective, and compromise.
Maybe you need to agree on how long you’ll stay at family gatherings; maybe that means you don’t attend every single event. Maybe you come up with some sort of secret signal, so you both know when it’s time to head home.
It may mean having an honest conversation with your parents. If that’s the case, don’t force your spouse to be the “bad guy”—your parents will forgive you more quickly and be less likely to hold a grudge.
Do whatever you have to do to draw healthy boundary lines. It’s worth it for the sake of your marriage.
Two become one—that’s God’s design for marriage. It’s not “me and mine” and “you and yours,” it’s “ours.” All of it. Decisions, money, family, time—it all belongs to you and your spouse. Protect your marriage, love your families, and you’ll eventually find the right balance. It may take some time, it may be hard work, but the sooner you get on the right path, the richer the blessings that await.