I met my future mother-in-law when I was barely 17 years old. Barb was warm and welcoming, and I instantly liked her. As a brand-new Christian, Barb was a mentor to me and someone I looked up to.
But once I was engaged to her son, tensions emerged. Ben and I had unique offers in different states, with a scholarship that was enticing. Barb suggested we wait another year to make the most of the opportunities. But Ben and I couldn’t fathom being separated for another year and were willing to forgo the financial benefits to be together. It was my first realization that Barb and I might not always see things eye-to-eye.
When she and my father-in-law announced they’d be moving to South Africa just after our wedding, we were excited for them. They were following the Lord’s call on their life. I didn’t give much thought to how the distance would affect our budding relationship. We all were Christians, so everything should be good, right? I was so busy starting my new marriage and career, that building a relationship with my overseas mother-in-law wasn’t at the top of my list.
In hindsight, I wish I would have spent more intentional time cultivating that new relationship — as difficult as it was before the era of cell phones and video calls. The distance between us created a chasm that left us both on the outskirts of each other’s lives — especially through graduations, moves, and a new pregnancy.
Our first visit together after my in-law’s overseas move revealed that the relationship might not click as naturally as I had assumed. Conversations were surfacy, with deeper heart issues unshared. Expectations over holidays and extended family visits felt weighty. How many misunderstandings could have been avoided if I had carved out more time to really get to know Barb?
Notoriously Challenging Love
The mother-in-law/daughter-in-law relationship is notoriously difficult. From sitcoms on television, to mother-in-law jokes, to Rebekah complaining to Isaac about her Hittite daughter-in-law (Genesis 27:46), we consistently see conflict, strife, and division.
The irony here, of course, is that both of these women love the same man. The son of one has become the husband of the other. Now two women have a vested interest in how this man spends his time and money, where he lives and how he raises his children. Will he carry on what his mother so lovingly imparted to him? Or will he choose to forge a new path with the wife of his youth?
The marriage relationship binds us together in a new family, whether we like it or not. Maybe you’re delighted with the mother-in-law God has given you. You easily connect and have formed a friendship. Or maybe your relationship with your in-law is the most difficult relationship you have. There’s been a pattern of hurt and offense that seems impossible to repair.
Is there hope for a relationship that has so much water under the bridge?
Women Chosen for Each Other
Your mother-in-law may be far from the ideal person you’ve imagined, but she is the mother of the man you love and chose above all others. She is God’s hand-picked choice to be your mother-in-law. The ties that bind you are likely the strongest earthly relationships you will have — marriage, children, grandchildren.
“Your mother-in-law is God’s hand-picked choice to be your mother-in-law.”
Some might read what I’ve said so far and still wonder if a relationship with your mother-in-law is even necessary. Can’t it suffice to talk “through” the man in the middle and just see each other at holidays? After all, you have your own family now and are busy raising children and creating new traditions. But that in-law relationship is more important than you might think. And can yield surprising fruit as we seek to honor God as we move towards, and not away from, our mother-in-law.
Here are five reasons that pursuing a relationship with your mother-in-law is worth the (sometimes serious) investment it requires.
1. Love her to love your husband.
Daughters-in-law can create unnecessary tension in their own marriages by complaining about or criticizing their mother-in-law to their husband.
Not that there is never a valid reason to talk through a concern with your husband, but what is the tone that you use? Is it one of respect and kindness? After all, she is the one who gave birth to your husband, who fed him, nurtured him, drove him to school and endless practices, and perhaps has prayed for him more than anyone else in the world. Even if your husband and his mom don’t have a great relationship, she still deserves honor as the woman God placed in his life, and now yours.
Speaking well of your mother-in-law will help to promote harmony in the family, instead of creating division by forcing your husband to choose sides. Spending time with her shows that you value the place she has in your family’s life. In effect, we show love to our husbands and strengthen our own marriages when we joyfully invest in a relationship with our mother-in-law.
2. Love her to experience and express the costly love of Christ.
As selfish sinners by nature, we’re bound to have conflict with our mothers-in-law. We both have our ideal plans for vacation, or for the holidays, or for the way the kids (or grandkids) will be educated. Often times this leads to tension in the relationship. Or maybe the relationship has been tense from day one. Maybe even your husband has a strained relationship with his mom.
No matter the cause, by the power of the indwelling Spirit, we can show love and grace even at the worst moments. When we’re hurt, we can choose to guard our tongues instead of saying a biting remark in response (Psalm 141:3). We pattern ourselves after our merciful Savior, who freely offered us forgiveness and acceptance at the cross. When we were his enemies, Christ died for us! By his grace, we can move towards a difficult mother-in-law in love, freely forgiving the wounds inflicted, without bitterness. And we can ask God to search our own hearts for any sin that added to the tension (Psalm 139:23).
3. Love her to obey God.
In Exodus 20:12, the fifth commandment, God tells us to honor our mother and father. Even though your mother-in-law is not your own mother, she’s still the mother of your husband. And since we become one with our husband in marriage, she should be honored as if she were our own mother.
As a follower of Christ, we are not only to honor our parents, but we are to honor all people (1 Peter 2:17), because every one we know was made in the image of God. We’re not given an “out” if our mother-in-law is abrasive or our personalities clash. Instead we’re to rely on the all-sufficient grace of God to love and honor the mother of our beloved husband (2 Corinthians 12:9). This really is pleasing to the Lord.
4. Love her to find unexpected joy, peace, and friendship.
As we seek to honor our mother-in-law by intentionally seeking her out, looking for ways to love her well, we can trust God to give us joy and peace.
“God will be faithful to give us the grace we need to navigate the turbulent waters of family relationships.”
As we seek to be a peacemaker, we look for ways to honor her preferences — maybe it’s a phone call to catch up instead of text messages, or creating space in the calendar for a family dinner. As we warmly welcome this new mother into our lives, God will be faithful to give us the grace we need to navigate the turbulent waters of family relationships. He will be glorified as we lean into him to keep loving and pursuing our mother-in-law.
And you might be surprised that in the process of building your relationship, you gain a new friend!
5. Love her to become more like Jesus.
As we seek to know and love our mother-in-law, no matter what awkward family circumstances have occurred, God will mold and conform us into the image of Christ.
God will give us patience when we’re at the end of our rope. He’ll give us grace to forgive the hurtful comment. We can trust that God is using our in-law conflicts as a way to test our faith, produce perseverance, and mature us into the woman he means for us to be (James 1:2–4). He will enable our imperfect selves to rely on a perfect God for the grace to keep moving towards our mother-in-law, rather than away from her.
Twenty-two years after I said, “I do”, God has been gracious to redeem years that might have been more fruitful in my relationship with Barb. Even though Barb and I are far from having done everything “right,” I’m grateful that we persevered through hard times to a place where we have greater love and appreciation for each other. She has walked alongside me through numerous moves, babies being born, and church conflict. Her listening ear and tangible support have been a gift.
I’m grateful not only to call Barb my mother-in-law, but also a dear friend.