“We believe that those who marry are to leave their parents’ primary care to cleave to their spouses, and godly parents will facilitate rather than frustrate this God-ordained process (Gen. 2:24; Mark 10:6-9).” This sentence is found in the middle of the Theology of Marriage statement held by my church. Good in-laws can be a wonderful blessing to a marriage. Intrusive controlling in-laws (no matter how well intentioned) are a constant detriment to a healthy marriage and an ongoing source of friction between husband and wife. It’s amazing how many Christian children’s Christian marriage to a good Christian spouse have been destroyed by Christian parents who didn’t know their place. “Cleave and leave,” the act of leaving your parents' care and guidance to join yourself in covenant union with your mate, is one of the easiest biblical concepts to understand. So why is it so hard for many to practice?
From a parent’s perspective, we attach ourselves to our children from the moment they are born. We invest ourselves in raising them, caring for them, and wanting to see them succeed in every way possible. So, there is a natural inclination to want to continue to give them guidance and help. It is hard to see that process as anything but beneficial and needed, just as when our son or daughter was fully in our care. And, if our child’s spouse sees our care and concern as anything else, they can easily be painted (intentionally or unintentionally) as misguided or even hostile.
Yet, parents must let their child’s primary allegiance go to the child’s spouse. In fact, they must not only allow it, they must encourage and facilitate it. To fail to do so, to try and sway or manipulate your child, or to try and maintain any level of control is sinful, destructive behavior. “Sinful”? I know that’s harsh language, but if we want to seek God’s will, that means submitting to God’s will—we fulfil God’s Word when we help our children leave our side, leave our care, and become one flesh with their spouse. Moving your child’s primary allegiance and affection from you to his/her spouse doesn’t mean you can’t still give advice. It doesn’t mean you can’t help your child in positive, marriage affirming ways. It certainly doesn’t mean that you don’t love your child. It does, however, mean you are obeying God’s design for marriage and family.
Parents, if you have married children, consider the stress you will be placing upon your child and his/her marriage if you are forcing your child to choose between his/her spouse and you in any area of life. Also, ask yourself, do you want to have a relationship with your child and your child’s spouse, or do you want to have a relationship only if it is on your terms?
Husbands and wives, as you navigate the spouse/in-laws relationship, it is vitally important for your marriage that healthy, mutually-discussed and mutually-agreed-upon boundaries are established and maintained between the couple and each set of in-laws. If those boundaries are set up from the beginning, they will be easier to maintain. However, if in-laws are causing stress in your marriage, no matter how long you’ve been married, you must establish firm boundaries.
But be ready. The first time you have to tell a parent “no,” expect a reaction. Boundaries are usually pushed and tested. There may be hurt feelings. Guilt may come from the parent the boundary is imposed against, or guilt may come internally as you feel guilty for having to draw that proverbial line in the sand to protect your marriage. But for the sake of your covenant relationship healthy boundaries must exist!
Parents, be a blessing to your child and his/her spouse, but be willing to listen when they tell you “no” or ask you to step back. Husbands and wives, love your parents, but remember if your first love is God then it will be reflected in your spouse being your primary love in this life. It’s not easy to let go, but godly parents and godly children will if a marriage is to be what God intends. Obviously, there are always case-specific circumstances, but as a general rule, God’s design of “cleave and leave” is what will make a marriage and relationships with in-laws flourish.