How To Keep From Becoming an Outlaw In-Law

Do you have a difficult relationship with your son’s or daughter’s spouse? Conflict between married couples and their parents have occurred since Adam and Eve became in-laws. It is a delicate balancing act when a grown child marries and must address the wishes of both his/her spouse and parents.

What can in-laws do to create an emotionally healthy relationship with their married child and their spouse? In this article, we will discuss 3 suggestions to be a helpful and supportive in-law.

Many in-law relationships are loving and harmonious. Others experience varying degrees of conflict. Problems occur when adult married children and their parents have differing opinions, desires, and needs from one another.

Common differences include visitation frequency between in-laws and their married children, holiday scheduling conflicts, financial spending/management disagreements, and differences of opinion over housekeeping and child discipline practices.

These common differences become conflicts when the married child’s parents express their disapproval in hurtful ways. These can include:

–being unfriendly and unloving to your adult child’s spouse

–leaving your child’s spouse out of family activities

–making critical comments to your son or daughter-in-law

–being overcontrolling towards them

–trying to turn your child and their spouse against one another

The Cause of This Problem Is Poor Boundaries

Relationship boundaries protect us from being manipulated and violated by others. Poor marital boundaries allow people outside the marriage to intrude and interfere in ways that cause problems between husband and wife. Husbands and wives need to reinforce these boundaries towards anyone outside the marriage that attempts to breach them. This includes doing so towards one’s own mother and father, if necessary.

We have previously discussed relationship boundary issues here and here.

In-laws must know that their insistence on dishonoring their married children’s boundaries can DESTROY their married child’s marriage.

The following letter was written by a wife who chose to divorce her husband due to her in-law’s continued disrespect of their son’s marriage boundaries.

My ILs eventually contributed to the death of my marriage. [1]

“Well, after almost 20 years of marriage, I’m just done. My ILs [in-laws] have treated me badly since the beginning, and for a while, I had the optimism of someone newly in love; I thought we could overcome that. Because true love conquers all!

Except….. it doesn’t. And after years and years of bad treatment, and watching my husband refuse to address it because “If we just ignore it, it’ll eventually go away,” I finally realized that I’ve fallen out of love with him. I can’t be in romantic love with someone who is content to stand by and watch while I’m an open target for his family.

It’s not fair to me to have to put up with this treatment. It’s not fair to him to have me force him to go NC [no contact] with his family against his wishes.

I am really sad. I never thought this day would come, but when I told him I wanted a divorce, and that his failure to protect me from his family was a large part of it, he understandably cried. And then still did nothing. No attempt to lay down the law with his family in one last-ditch effort to save things between us. I’m so sad, but that helped underscore that I made the right decision.”

3 Strong Suggestions To In-Laws

i. Your Married Child and Spouse Deserve To Be Treated As Adults

Your child is now a married adult. They deserve to be treated as such. The way you related to them when they were younger is inappropriate now. You must relate to them from an adult-to-adult perspective instead of an adult-to-child one. Not doing so should cause them to rebel. I say “should” because rebelling is a normal reaction to marking and protecting one’s boundaries. Unfortunately, not every adult child will rebel. The result is often inappropriate in-law interference in the marriage.

Note: I use the word “rebel,” meaning to take a stand against outside efforts to disrespect one’s boundaries. One can rebel in a firm but respectful manner, as in saying, “We love you but we are not going to give you a key to our apartment.”

ii. Respect Your Adult Child’s Marriage

Marriage these days is hard enough without unneeded outside interference. In my experience as a marriage counselor, many in-laws want to make their adult child’s marriage into the image of what THEY, the in-law, want.

What worked for you may not work for your adult child and their spouse. Personalities are different; society is different and the times are different than when you were your adult child’s age. Your child has found a spouse and pledged to spend life together with this person. Please respect their choice, even if you do not agree with it.

Your adult child and their spouse deserve to try and make their marriage work on their terms, not yours.

iii. What Is Your Purpose In Interfering?

Here are some common reasons for in-law interference:


You are lonely and want to use your grown child to meet your need for companionship and social relationships. This often occurs in an ‘empty marriage,’ where either one or both spouses are physically &/or emotionally unavailable for one another.

Sense of Loss

Your now-adult child was your whole purpose for living when they were growing up. Now that they are married and have their own life, you feel abandoned and without purpose.

Refusal to Consider Your Child as an Adult

You have convinced yourself your adult child is not capable of functioning as an adult without your help. The result is you continue to feel the need to take care of your grown child’s day-to-day needs and support.

The truth is they can meet their own needs, as well as the needs of their spouse. No, they may not do so as adequately as YOU did when you were their age but this is not the issue. You kept a spotless house; they are a slob. You cooked gourmet meals; they cook Hamburger Helper. As long as they, in partnership with their spouse, meet the basic needs of the family, everything else is a matter of personal choice and opinion.

Helpful Solutions:

What can you do to focus your attention on other useful areas and help people who really need it? Here are some ideas:

-Work on strengthening your marriage.

-Get involved by joining local activities (e.g., community theater).

-Volunteer and volunteer some more.

-Discuss your struggles with a counselor.

-Read up on “empty nest syndrome.”

Take control of your life and allow your grown child and their spouse to take control of theirs.


Jesus taught God’s intended natural progression of growing up.

Matthew 19:4-5

“Haven’t you read the Scriptures?” Jesus replied. “They record that from the beginning ‘God made them male and female.’” 5 And he said, “‘This explains why a man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one.’ (NLT)

Notice: A man is made to leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife. The word “joined” is also translated “cleave.” The term is a Hebrew word meaning to bond firmly together and was often used to represent gluing or cementing [2]

NOTHING, including in-laws, are to come between husband and wife. Jesus said as much in the very next verse, Matthew 19:6,

“So they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate.”

Since a man is to leave his parents and be joined (cemented) to his wife, and in doing so they become one flesh, NO ONE IS TO TRY AND CHANGE God’s ordained blueprint for marriage.

This blueprint applies to women as well. A woman leaves her parents and is joined to her husband and this makes the two of them one. No one is to try and separate this divine ‘gluing’ together.


In-law relationships can be helpful and even relationship-saving to a younger married couple. Handled poorly, in-laws can destroy a marriage. Your motivation should ALWAYS be to help strengthen your adult child’s spouse and their marriage. Always seek to meet the needs of your adult child’s marriage first and foremost.

The words of God from Ephesians 4:29 are most helpful here:

“Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” (NIV)

The same verse in another version:

“When you talk, don’t say anything bad. But say the good things that people need—whatever will help them grow stronger. Then what you say will be a blessing to those who hear you.” (ERV)

Your grown, married child has his/her own life now. While it is good for you to be a supportive part of their family it not helpful for you to try and control it in any way.

For the Family,

dr. bill walker


[1] _the_death_of_my/

[2] MacArthur New Testament Commentary, The – MacArthur New Testament Commentary – Matthew 16-23.

Dr. Bill Walker

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