Fences and In-Laws

Rev. Dr. Steven Koster

February 21, 2024

They say “Good fences make good neighbors.” Clear boundaries are essential for keeping relationships healthy. As Dr. Phil likes to say, "You teach people how to treat you," which is another way of saying, "being clear about your expectations is how healthy relationships are managed." Whether it's your kids, your boss, or your mother-in-law, it's essential to name what's OK and what is not OK.

Why marriage boundaries matter

For young couples (and occasionally the not so young), setting boundaries with with parents and in-laws is a critical piece of establishing a healthy home. Sometimes parents are needy, or demanding, or simply just close knit and used to calling the shots, but if one's relationship with parents is too dependent or demanding, it can interfere with marriages. Both your spouse and parent begin to fear loss of your attention and get angry about your loyalties. People around you begin to resent each other because they all feel they deserve more of your attention and allegiance. Enmeshed parental relationships can undermine marriages with disastrous results.

Cling to your spouse

Once married, your first loyalty to your spouse. In the earliest chapters of the Bible, Genesis 2:24 lays out God's plan for marriage in terms of leaving parents and clinging to a spouse: "Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh." Your spouse is now your center of gravity and the most important human being on the planet to you. Your spouse is the one to whom you are bound until death. Your spouse is the person you are to honor always. Your spouse is one flesh with you in God's eyes, a reality into which we try to grow over a lifetime. Honoring your spouse comes second only to honoring God. Marriages can be broken or abusive, and that's a different issue; normally marriage is the relationship to which we are called to cling.

Leave your parents

We all desire parental affirmation and want to make parents happy, but their happiness is not your first responsibility. Honoring your parents is the fifth commandment and rightly important, but you are not one flesh with your parents. To cling to your spouse in marriage, you must leave some distance with your parents to focus on your new family. In new marriages especially, there is often tension between the couple that is blending together their own household over against families of origin who do not want their primacy sidelined. Some families still want first place and a vote on the decisions their children make. But parents don't get a vote--spouses need to make allowances and space for each other and make decisions together, but they should do it alone. The parent's role in their child's marriage is advisory, not participatory.

Claim your authority

Boundaries need to apply in your parenting, too. When you as an adult are at your parents’ house, for example, it’s easy to fall back into the role of the child and allow your parents to be in charge. But you need to be the decision-maker concerning your children. Grandpa and grandma don’t get to overrule your decisions about bedtime or discipline. We can value the input of extended family and even value their contributions, but ultimately you and your spouse need to set the guidelines. This is part of accepting the authority that God has given to us as parents--we care for those that God has entrusted to us.

Your default isn't always the best

How our parents did things is how we learned to do things--it's our default. How they handled time, money, difficulties, and decisions is the model we were raised under and will shape how we act in our marriage. We tend to act as we have been taught. But your spouse was raised differently and will have a different default. A whole lot of honeymoon troubles are about blending assumptions of what is the default way, the "normal" way, from how to squeeze toothpaste to how to have an argument. Recognize your default is not the only normal, and may not be best. Talk honestly with your spouse and honor one another as you forge new patterns of managing life together. If we can recognize our defaults, we can be more intentional about setting healthy priorities.

This is hard work, and work to be done without too much input from others. Resist the urge to complain about your spouse to anyone--not parents, not friends. You might disagree and argue in private, but honor and respect each other in public.

Redefining relationships in love

When marriage begins, it redefines the surrounding relationships. Parenting relationships move from having authority to being advisory. There is still love and respect, but your allegiance is no longer under their roof--it lies with your spouse. Keep parents involved in your family but don’t let them have control of your marriage. Remember your loyalty is with your spouse first.

Boundaries should be set in the context of love. When establishing healthy boundaries around your family, it is important to make sure to give your parents and in-laws appropriate respect. Affirm and value them as parents, making sure that they know that you are grateful for all they’ve done and are in your life, but be clear your spouse is now your center and decision-making partner.

Building a few good fences will strengthen your relationship with your spouse, and surprisingly, healthy boundaries will likely improve relationships with your extended family. Removing confusion and setting expectations allows everyone to settle in to the new normal.

About the author — Rev. Dr. Steven Koster

Steven Koster is a writer, speaker, and producer with Family Fire. Formerly the Director of ReFrame Media, Family Fire's parent organization, Steven currently serves at Grace Church and consults on ministry through The Joshua Lab. He also leads a hospitality ministry at The Parsonage Inn and enjoys family tree research as time allows. Steven and his wife Deb enjoy leading marriage retreats and family seminars to encourage people in their most intimate relationships. The Kosters are the parents of three awesome young adults and reside in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

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