Counseling Couples Regarding Their Extended Family

October 15th, 2018 by posted in Marriage and Family

One of the main issues in the lives of couples, especially young marrieds, is in how to deal with in-laws. The problem often develops as a result of an improper understanding of God’s design for marriage, coupled with the cultural milieu in which the couple live.

The lawyer league of Italy reported that the “Mother In Law” is the number 1 cited reason for divorce in the country a few years ago.[1]

A new study from the University of Cambridge Center for Family Research and an organization called the Stand Alone Institute has found that rifts between parents and their son’s wife are among the most common reasons for family estrangement.[2]

So what is the issue?

The marriage relationship comes first. (Ephesians 5, Colossians). The bond with our husband or wife is the most important human relationship in our lives. In texts such as 1 Timothy 3:2 and Titus 2:4, Paul emphasizes to both the husband and wife that the marriage relationship comes first.

The failure to leave and cleave or failure to become one flesh (Genesis 2:24). Both in Hebrew and Greek, the word for “leave” is a very strong word. God’s pronouncement that in marriage the two become one flesh establishes the fact that there is something uniquely different about the marriage relationship that makes it more important in the overall picture of life than any other human relationship – even the parent-child relationship. Dog is not man’s best friend. This was established quickly during the time when Adam searched for a suitable companion among the animals. In-laws and their married children must recognize the meaning and implications of the statement “the two shall become one flesh” if they are to understand God’s plan for in-law – child relationships following the marriage of their children. When properly understood, this declaration makes it clear that the husband – wife relationship takes precedence over the parent – child relationship. Nowhere in Scripture is it stated that parents and children are to become one flesh. Of this relationship God says that the two are joined (glued, welded) together and that no man should put this relationship asunder (Matthew 19:5 – 6). The new family is to develop a partnership in every aspect of their lives.[3]

Leaving father and mother does not mean that adult children stop honoring their parents. However, both the couple and their in-laws must have a proper understanding of what this means. First, there is no time qualification in the fifth commandment. It does not mean that married children should stop listening to or welcoming and receiving counsel from their parents either. Proverbs 23:22 warns against this: “listen to your father who begot you, and do not despise your mother when she is old.” In Mark 7, Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for finding ways to avoid honoring or caring for their parents. One Timothy 5:8 gives one of the strongest warnings to believers: “if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his immediate family, he is denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever”.[4]  It is also crucial for the couple to realize that their marriage covenant pre-dates the law. Genesis 2:24 comes before the Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy 5:16, which speak about honoring parents. God gave the law because of our sinfulness. If there were no sin, this would not be an issue. But because there is a sin, God laid down some instructions on how to live with fallen people. What does honor mean? To honor is a good thing. But you must define what it means. If a mother were demanding time with the daughter by manipulating her, the best way for the daughter to honor her mother would be to walk her through her non-biblical thinking. It would be better for her husband to lead this conversation. What greater honor can you bestow on her than to help her think biblically? Christians must outdo one another in showing honor (Romans 12:10), and you would not be honoring her if you didn’t attempt to discuss her unbiblical thinking with her.[5]

Wayne Mack lists the following in his helpful booklet, “In-Laws: Married with Parents” (which I have previously referenced).

Leaving father and mother does not simply mean moving out of the parents’ house.

Children can move thousands of miles away from their parents and still not have really left them as God intended. What leaving does mean is that there are certain aspects of the parent-child relationship before marriage that has to be put off after marriage. This applies to parents and children alike. Some of these things are fairly obvious and some are not.

Leaving Involves Putting Off

Adult children must leave behind an inordinate dependency on their parents when they get married. Children must put off the natural, imitative, or reactionary relationship that they have with their parents. Children should not automatically do things just because their parents did it that way. Or, not necessarily do things differently just because their parents did it that way.

Does the Bible command it? Is it truly best for my family as well?

Children must put off an inordinate reliance on their parents’ approval.

God’s approval is always first priority (2 Corinthians 5:9) – then your spouse’s approval. Scripture says that when a man gets married it is good and normal for him to be concerned about pleasing his wife and vice-versa (1 Corinthians 7:32-34).

Children must put off close and exclusive confidence with parents.

This can be disastrous for a marriage. When husbands and wives share all their secrets with parents it places a wedge in the one-flesh relationship.

Children must put off the tendency to blame their parents for their own deficiencies.

Blaming parents for one’s own deficiencies (not enough love, opportunities, encouragement, etc.) shows that one has not left the parent.

Leaving Involves Putting On

Children must put on a peer or friendship relationship with their parents.

Children must accept responsibility for making their own decisions.

It is still OK to ask one’s parents for counsel, but parents should be thought of as trusted advisors, not those in authority.

Children must put on the willingness to honestly and respectfully discuss their family backgrounds with their spouse without becoming defensive.

Children must put on the determination to make their spouse, rather than their parents or anyone else, the most significant human being in their lives.

Children must be prepared to give their in-laws the same respect and honor they give their parents.

Practical Guidelines for Leaving

You must never allow your parents to demean your spouse.

Parents who speak poorly about one’s spouse should be counseled to follow Matthew 18:15 and go directly to the spouse. And – husbands and wives MUST be careful to not complain about their spouses to their parents.

You must always look for ways to build up your spouse in the eyes of your parents.

You parents will get most of what they know about your spouse from what you tell them.

You should always look for ways, and make an effort, to make sure your spouse feels included in your family’s activities.

Sometimes, without us realizing it, our spouse is treated as an outsider when the family gets together. In one family I know of, the siblings buy each other Christmas presents, but the in-law spouses don’t get anything. So, it can be awkward during the celebration as the siblings all open their gifts and share about the past, while their spouses sit on the outside.

[1] M.E. Evans, “8 Tips to Surviving Your Italian In-Laws”, (

[2] Naomi Schaefer Riley, “Drama between wife, mother-in-law at center of most family rifts”, (New York Post, January 2016)

[3] Wayne Mack, “In-Laws: Married with Parents”, P & R Publishing (September 21, 2009)

[4] Ibid.

[5] Rick Thomas, “Should I Honor My Parents or Obey My Husband?”,,

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