A family reunion — what could be better than enjoying the company of family members who are also my dearest friends? But even the dearest relationships take nurturing.
As a mother-in-law, I have enjoyed an ever-widening family circle. My daughter-in-law Stacy loves not only my son, but also our family, and by God’s grace, me too. But how do I keep my relationship with this delightful woman growing in the right direction? Family gatherings help. Yet these reunions can create the perfect storm for unmet expectations, even in the best of these relationships.
Wanting to create lasting memories for my family, I planned a special trip. I expected everyone to follow the mental script I’d written for each scene. I bet you can guess what we found instead. My son and daughter-in-law had not read my script, and they came with their own dreams!
Good desires easily become unreasonable expectations. What should I have known? To be flexible with my plan. Ask what others would like to do. Whatever you’re planning, don’t write the script for other people and expect them to follow your plans. Ask yourself, “Are my expectations in sync with God?” Our Father puts us into families. We can ask him to give us all we need to nurture those relationships wisely.
Do you hope to nourish an in-law relationship? Who God is and what he says in his word show us how to love well.
1. Expect God to meet you with his love.
Mothers-in-law don’t expect a son and daughter-in-law to need ongoing parenting. Yet many mothers fall into the trap of setting an internal alarm for when to expect calls and visits. It’s easy to feel replaced and forgotten when the phone doesn’t ring, or a date is not set. Have unmet expectations led you to think the worst? Here’s the truth: as we draw close to God daily, he purifies our longings and meets us with his love (Psalm 37:4).
“Our Father delights to give us what we need to love our daughter-in-law as he loves us.”
True love — the love we need — is the unfailing love God gives to us in Christ. Before the foundation of the world, God in Christ committed to love us (Romans 5:8). Jesus shows us what true love looks like. The Bible — his voice — speaks words of comfort and guidance. His Spirit — his presence — gives us the power to love as he loves. We learn that our Father delights to give us what we need to love our daughters-in-law as he loves us (Psalm 62:8; Hebrews 11:6).
In our years as in-laws, Stacy and I have had much heart-searching and relational digging to work through. What have I learned about loving her well? First, I need to remember always that we do indeed love each other. I also need to remember that sin can twist anything, even good desires and intentions. But God’s grace is more powerful than sin (Romans 5:20). I can ask God not only to show me where my good desires went wrong, but also how to change.
And God gives not only the power to change, but the power to persevere (Romans 5:3–5). God will give you the commitment you need to love well. He will help you show up to do what love requires — no matter what the other person is doing. Spirit-enabled commitment nurtures true love (Ruth 1:15–18). Jesus’s committed love for us frees us to love well without expectations.
2. Expect God not to leave you as you are.
Everyone knows that brides begin a marriage with dreams. But a mother-in-law comes into this new relationship with dreams too. Whether it’s special holiday recipes or a trip to the lake every summer, many mothers expect the new daughter-in-law to carry on some of her family traditions. Has she forgotten how a new bride looks forward to starting traditions of her own? Can two women of different generations, personalities, and backgrounds expect to relate well to one another? We naturally prefer trying to change each other.
Our differences lay the groundwork for misunderstandings. Thanks to fallen human nature, we also see faults in each other more easily than in ourselves (Matthew 7:3–5). We want our own way and battle with emotions — anger, resentment, frustration — when we don’t get it. So do we throw our hands up in the air and give up? No. If we give up now, we’ll miss out on a chance not only to know God better, but to become more like his Son (Philippians 2:4–6).
“Submit your unmet expectations to God, and you will avoid the trap of trying to manipulate those you love.”
God’s ways are different. He’ll use our in-law relationship to produce something good: life-giving change in us. Submit your unmet expectations to him, and you will avoid the trap of trying to manipulate those you love. A wise mother asks God for help to recognize her blind spots and repent quickly of jealousy and pride. She puts an end to viewing the relationship as a competition. Jesus wants to do far more than expose the ugly truth that lurks within us — he wants to deliver us from ourselves and plant his transforming love within us (Galatians 5:13–15, 22–23).
3. Expect God to do more than you expect.
Like driving without my glasses, trying to steer my family’s course without God’s wisdom can cause major damage. No matter what, I can’t see around the next curve in the road. But our Father’s infinite wisdom never disappoints. He is always sovereign, and he is always good. In love, he made you and your daughter-in-law family.
Look at what he did for Naomi and Ruth. Naomi was a mother-in-law who felt hopeless. She knew God was always sovereign — but she had forgotten that he is also always good. God never abandoned Naomi. He gave her Ruth to love. And he gave Naomi to Ruth. Ruth and Naomi weren’t perfect in-laws. We won’t be perfect either. But praise God, he uses flawed people. He’ll use you in your in-law’s life.
But God does even more. God used Naomi and Ruth’s relationship as part of his plan to save the world through Ruth’s descendent, the Lord Jesus. These women trusted God, but neither of them knew how God would use their committed-to-love-each-other relationship. And Naomi and Ruth are still impacting the world with God’s transforming love. This is great news for us — God always has a bigger story in view. Your relationship with your daughter-in-law is not only about the two of you. Hold on to the truth that God is directing your family’s course. He is doing more than you can now imagine for you, for her, for your son, for your grandchildren, and for the generations who come after you.
4. Expect God to use the pain you feel for good.
Every mother-in-law must come to grips with change. Change is good, but it also means loss. You value God’s plan for your son and his new bride to “leave and cleave” (Genesis 2:24). So why does giving up your long-standing first-place position hurt so much? I can say from personal experience that learning to deal with loss in a godly way is hard.
So what are we to do? Perhaps you feel dethroned from your rightful place. Thank God for challenging you, and hang on to this unchanging truth: your identity is in Christ. Your role in life changes many times, but you remain God’s child forever. He is not using this change to destroy you. He is growing you into the woman he created you to be. Praise him! As God works for your good in the in-law relationship, he will be glorified.
Understand your new role — to serve. Jesus taught us that his followers will deny themselves (Luke 9:23). When he washed his disciples’ feet, Jesus showed us that we do not find true greatness in exalting ourselves (John 13:12–17). Greatness comes as we humble ourselves to serve others (Philippians 2:1–11). You may ask, “Haven’t I always served my family?” But a mother serves her family like a team captain in the game, while a mother-in-law serves her family from the sidelines. She’s ready to cheer and help the injured, but she is not in the game. What feels at first like loss, though, is truly gain. God is glorified as we love, forgive, pray, and encourage our son and daughter-in-law’s marriage relationship.
Power of a Praying In-Law
Whatever your summer plans for your family, know that God is doing something bigger and more glorious than you can imagine. Through prayer, God gives a mother-in-law the great privilege of participating in his plans.
When we pray, he frees us from our misplaced expectations. He anchors our heart’s desire in himself. And he syncs our expectations with his. God is “able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think” (Ephesians 3:20) — and he often starts with our own hearts.