Navigating In-law Relationships

Every marriage is a cross cultural relationship. No matter how similar our backgrounds, there are always different ways of doing things that can feel very foreign to us.

Entering Foreign Territory

When doing pre-marital counseling (and even post-marital), one conversation that always comes up comes from navigating the relationship with in-laws. For most of us, trying to be family to a family that has long had its own patterns is uncharted territory. We feel foreign and awkward because they do things differently than the way we grew up. Where we feel out of place, we usually desire that they be more like our family (you know, doing things the right way, the normal way, my way). The funny thing is that, in most cases, your spouse feels the same way about your family. 

We Know our Family

Most of us have a decent relationships with our own families.  If we’re going to be honest, we prefer our family's patterns not because ours are better, but simply because we’ve navigated their terrain our whole lives. We know how our parents tick. We know the ins and outs of our siblings and what they like and do not like. After a lifetime of trial and error, laughter and tears, we’ve been able to build a relationship that is unique and flowing in a way that outsiders simply do not get. And then all the sudden we get married and we’re asking our spouse to get with the program and learn how things work? This leads to a lot of stress, tears, frustration, and arguments.

Not Wrong, just Different

One of the toughest things I had to learn early in my marriage and relationship with my in-laws was that their family patterns were simply different. The way they interacted, the things they did--they seemed foreign and odd to me. It was like we spoke different languages and I was the one expected to learn on the fly. At least, that’s how I perceived it. And my spouse experienced my family similarly. 

Newlyweds can expect to have to work at blending the histories and patterns of two different families in a new, single pattern. The family dynamics, time demands, boundaries, and  expectations of in-laws all vary, and no single family does it the right way. So you are going to have to forge new patterns all your own. And that almost certainly means re-negotiating the family rules with both sets of in-laws. Your patterns will be something different and unique from the families you grew up in, and that will be okay. 

Navigating Foreign Territory

The following list are some takeaways that I’ve learned over the years:

  1. When you marry, your spouse becomes your new center of gravity.  So make sure that the needs of your spouse come before your family.
  2. Realize that this is a package deal. When you say “I do” to your spouse you are also saying “I do” to their family too. So have patience as you learn and grow and build new relationships with new family members.
  3. Recognize that your family is just as awkward to your spouse as your spouses’ is to you. Give your relationship time. It may never feel perfectly right, and that’s okay, but what you’ll learn is how to best be in a relationship with them when you are together.
  4. Have a realistic conversation with your spouse about boundaries with each other’s family. While we do want to remember that your spouse and their family are a package deal, we also need to recognize that our spouse now comes before our parents and siblings and limits may need to be set.
  5. Take care to manage your own family. My wife will always be the leader when we talk to her family, and vice-a-versa. My wife should never have to be the one to put her foot down when it comes to my parents, nor should it ever come to me to confront my in-laws with an issue. You are very much co-partners and leaders in the marriage but when it comes to family issues the “leader” should always be of blood.
  6. Show grace and love. Regardless of how odd the relationship is or how foreign the things they do seem, always approach with thankfulness, love, and grace. And realize that they probably will change a little to help accommodate you--but you’re in their space and so you must give more than take.
  7. Appoint boundaries--and do it early. Sitting down with family and laying the boundaries out on what this relationship is going to look like is not only awkward but could easily invite unwanted tension. Yet you also need to be open with your family to let them know when they’ve crossed the line. I’ve found that more often than not, the ones that are doing the harm do not actually understand their behavior is problematic, so have a loving conversation over coffee with all parties. Thank them for their love, kindness, and generosity, but also let them know when lines have been crossed.
  8. You two are partners and should always be a unified front. Your spouse will know how to talk to her family in a more effective way than you can. But while it’s important for them to take the lead when it comes to their parents/family it’s equally important that you be there so to not only support and encourage but to show that you two feel the same. A simple conversation with your spouse on how to best navigate family conflict is a valuable place to start.

These suggestions are not exhaustive by any means, but I pray they help you navigate the sometimes treacherous territory of in-law relationships. In Christ we are equipped to love others and we can be thankful for the gift that our in-laws gave us in our partner. 

It’s only natural that families talk and act differently. In the end, we always fall upon love and grace in our relationships with others. Galatians 5:22-23 reminds us that love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, self-control, and faithfulness are fruits of the Spirit that we receive. We would be wise to keep these in mind when navigating the sometimes tumultuous foreign waters of our new family.

About the author — Rev. Kelly Vander Woude

Kelly Vander Woude is always looking for something yummy to put on his smoker…and then getting friends and family to enjoy it with him. When he’s not smoking food he can be found playing and hanging out with his two kids, wife, and their dog, as well as preaching at Immanuel CRC in Fort Collins, CO. Oh…and he’s usually trying to learn some new musical instrument with the hopes of one day mastering at least one of them! You can find more of his writings at

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