Reader Question: Do I HAVE to See My In-Laws This Christmas?

by | Dec 12, 2016 | Extended Family, Family | 35 comments

Drawing boundaries around abusive in-laws at Christmas: and managing extended family relationships when they hurt you.
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Do you HAVE to spend time with extended family this Christmas–especially if that extended family is always trying to undermine your family?

It’s Monday, and on those days I try to answer a reader question. But I’ve had so many this time of year on similar topics, and so instead of answering a specific issue, I think I’d like to write more of a general guideline on how I think we should handle extended family at Christmas.

I’m going to do this in two parts: today I’m going to talk about how to draw boundaries and how to decide when in-laws have overstepped and you may need to stop contact for a while. And tomorrow I’ll talk about what to do when extended family isn’t abusive or bullying–but they are just plain unpleasant.

So let’s look today at how to handle abusive parents.

Drawing boundaries around abusive in-laws at Christmas: and managing extended family relationships when they hurt you.

Nobody Needs to Subject Themselves or Their Children to Abuse

Seriously. You honestly don’t have to! I know that one of the biggest stressors in a family is having to pack up the kids at Christmas and travel to Grandma and Grandpa’s house–if you know that once you get there, you’re going to be given a lecture, or the children will be treated inappropriately. And you feel small and angry and helpless and somehow unable to get things back on an even keel.

Families can become abusive even if they weren’t that abusive when you were growing up. Here’s why: Many parents’ biggest aim is to be able in some way to control their children. They want their kids to think like them, to have the same priorities and opinions, and to become a validation for everything that the parents believe.

It could be that while you (or your husband) were growing up you performed that function well. You did agree with your parents. You did go to the same church happily, share the same political beliefs, saw the world the same way. But then you left home and your world got bigger, and you found that many of those beliefs and opinions weren’t working for you anymore.

That’s when your parents’ behaviours may have started to change, because you were stretching your wings. They may have started to insult you, to question your salvation, to berate you, etc.

Sometimes parents change, too, because of things that are happening with them. Maybe they’ve become depressed or have other mental illness issues. I know of one family where wine was absolutely forbidden when the kids were growing up. But after all the kids left home, the parents started to drink. And now the dad is a really ugly drunk, and whenever people get together for holidays, alcohol becomes a major factor.

If your parents are overstepping their bounds and demanding (through lectures, manipulation, or guilt trips) that you act or believe a certain way, then they are being abusive. This does not have to be tolerated. 

What are Examples of Abusive Behaviour?

I know a lot of people will say, “but how do I know?” How do I know if they’re actually overstepping the line?

Here are just a few examples:

1. The family completely dismisses the spouse and is always talking about an ex-girlfriend or someone else that they like better. They buy Christmas presents for everyone but the spouse. They don’t talk to the spouse. They “reminisce” with the son (or the daughter) about all the fun they used to have before the spouse came into their lives. The motivation for this is usually to keep the son or daughter in their grasp, and prevent the spouse from having influence.

(this is different than a sister who may have kept up a friendship with an ex-wife, for instance, but still talks to the new spouse. Just because someone is still friends with an ex doesn’t mean that they are undermining the current wife or husband. The question is: do they try to engage with the new one or not?)

2. The family “grills” the couple on where they go to church and gives lectures or books to read or other things about why they are spiritually wrong. They won’t take no for an answer. If they’re challenged, they say, “we only care about your heart.”

3. The family pressures the couple, through guilt trips, to take on obligations that shouldn’t be theirs. For instance, they may be pressured to lend money to a sibling, or to have a sick relative move in with them. This is all the more likely to happen if you’re the couple who looks like you’re doing everything right. You’ve just bought your own home, you’re trying to work to get ahead, and now you’re the one who is targeted, right when these extra obligations would hurt you the most. It’s common in families for the “black sheep” to get all the attention and the extra money, while those who are acting responsibly are made to feel guilty if they don’t share what they have with those who are irresponsible.

4. The grandparents take the grandchildren aside and try to tempt them with things that you have specifically said are wrong. They try to give the children food you know will hurt them or will undermine what you’re trying to do. They try to get the kids to watch shows you don’t want them to see. If they’re older, they try to give them alcohol.

5. The family constantly criticizes the spouse and tries to “correct” their mothering, their housekeeping, or anything. It can also work the other way, where the dad criticizes the son-in-law’s career choices or other types of things, making it clear that they are not accepted.

All of these things constitute parents deliberately undermining the marriage and trying to prevent the couple from being able to “leave and cleave”–from being able to make decisions on their own.

How Should You Act Towards Parents Like This?

We are told to honour our parents, absolutely. But once you’re married, your nuclear family is your main concern and your main responsibility. You do not need to bankrupt yourselves for parents or extended family, and you do not need to subject yourselves to criticism.

Unfortunately, the only way to properly honour them in this situation is really, really hard: you have to be open and honest and tell the truth. 

That’s going to be a very, very difficult conversation.

You may be tempted to make up an excuse, or even lie, by saying something like this, “I’m sorry we can’t visit this Christmas; my husband got called in to work at the last minute.”

That is not honouring your parents and it isn’t honouring God. And it won’t help you with the problem in the long run!

The only right thing to do is also the hardest thing to do, and it means having a conversation where you say something like this:

Mom and Dad, we love you and we want to honour you. We want to continue to have a relationship with you. However, we can’t do that right now because you (constantly criticize us; dismiss my spouse; try to get the grandkids to disobey us). As such, we’ve decided that for our own peace of mind we won’t be visiting this Christmas. We hope that we can re-establish a relationship, but it will have to be when you promise not to (criticize, run a guilt trip, etc.)

I think it’s best to do this on the phone or in person. If they start to question you (which they will) and then yell (which they may), then it’s okay to say, “I don’t think this conversation is going anywhere, and I don’t want to talk to each other this way, so I’m going to hang up.” And then hang up, and block the number if necessary.

You can also write a follow-up email detailing the kinds of behaviours that are bothering you, so that it’s in writing and everyone knows.

That’s really, really a hard thing to do.

I get it. But unfortunately, I don’t think there’s any other way to do it other than being honest.

Listen to Your Spouse

Finally, and this is a really important one: listen to your spouse. Often parents are being abusive and we just plain don’t see it. But our spouse does. And maybe a mother is treating a daughter-in-law inappropriately, or a father is treating a son-in-law inappropriately, and we don’t see it.

If your spouse is being hurt by your family, you need to listen to that. Don’t dismiss it. And then it’s your responsibility to make it better. You be the one to talk to the family. You take the initiative to protect your spouse.

Just Remember: Unpleasantness is Not Abuse

One final warning: just because you don’t like a certain branch of the family doesn’t mean they’re being abusive! And just because people are unpleasant doesn’t mean you should cut off contact. Tomorrow we’ll talk about 10 ways to handle unpleasant relatives at Christmas.

But I know many of you are dealing with honest to goodness abuse and adult bullies in the extended family, and it’s okay to stand up to them and say, “our family will not be participating with you this year because we won’t be treated like that anymore.”

That’s called boundaries. And boundaries are, indeed, biblical. Jesus doesn’t want other people trying to manipulate you. He cares when you’re treated like that. And the book of Proverbs is all about not subjecting yourselves to “fools” like this.

Other Posts You May Like:

When your husband won’t “leave and cleave”

Dealing with the In-Laws at Christmas

Now let me know in the comments: Have you ever had to deal with abuse in the extended family at Christmas? Did you ever have to enforce a boundary? What happened?

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Sheila Wray Gregoire

Author at Bare Marriage

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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  1. Holly

    Yes. So very hard to do. Especially when the family ties can feel more like a bungee cord! … Hard to recognize the bullying, manipulation, and guilt trips at times. And especially hard when the family members will not recognize it themselves when you have tried to talk about it, then they make you feel “unwelcoming” and “controlling”, um okay. Jesus commands us to love each other but He never condones abuse.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Yes, that’s so typical. Once someone tries to enforce boundaries when an abusive and controlling person is involved, that abusive person will often react by accusing you of being the one who is controlling (simply for no longer submitting to their attempts to control). That’s why it’s so important to get our identity right in Christ. When we know that we are rooted and grounded in Him, and when we know that we are loved by God and that He cherishes us and wants to know us and lead us, then it’s so much easier to stand up against those who are trying to hurt us. But when we don’t know God, we have no anchor to stand on. So I’d always recommend that we get rooted in Christ first before trying to make a firm stand with our families!

  2. Tiffany

    What about when the abuse is to a sibling? My mothers husband is horrible to my brother and it really stresses myself and my husband out. We don’t want to cut my mom out and stick up for my brother constantly but it’s still hard.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Oh, that’s really tough. I guess I’d say then that you may need to stay just to protect your brother. How old is your brother? Is he still living at home as a minor? In that case, it may be necessary to make your mother sit down with a counsellor and go over what she’s allowing in her own house. But if your brother is an adult, perhaps talking to him and giving him permission not to go home for Christmas? And even planning a Christmas for you guys and your brother without your mother and her husband? As long as you explain to your mother very specifically why you’re doing this?

  3. Sara

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for this. Growing up in an abusive home and being in denial of it for years, it has taken having kids of my own being treated “less than” by extended family to be honest about abusive family. It’s especially difficult and confusing when the abuse is wrapped in a religious package that can look so good on the outside. Religious narcissists often are also very good at gas lighting. Which only adds confusion upon confusion. Thank you for writing this article that provides clarity, not the normal “But they did so much good for you. Don’t you think you’re overreacting? You need to be thankful that your home life wasn’t worse!” Again, I very much enjoyed reading.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Sara, I’m so glad it helped! And religious abuse is very real. People can use doctrine to try to control as well, and to tell you that you’re somehow “ungodly” if you’re choosing a different form of Christianity than your parents did. The main thing is, “we must obey God rather than man!”, as Peter said in Acts 5:29. You prayerfully ask God what is right for your family, and you follow Jesus’ heart. That’s the main thing.

  4. Wanda

    Wow. I always knew something was not right with my in laws and you just described every situation perfectly. My husband doesn’t usually see it. They called me “hey you” for the longest and everyone laughed about it. They beg us for money and favors because we are the only responsible ones. My MIL pulls my kids aside and tells them to ask me to let them stay with her (we already agreed that’s not happening and she knows it). She will wait until my husband is in another room, usually with his dad, and target me asking questions or telling me my husband said or did things I know aren’t true (like trying to get me to agree). It’s exhausting. There always seems to be an “emergency” around holidays, birthdays, mother’s day etc where they try to manipulate my husband into giving them his attention instead of on our family. They lie about having serious illnesses. It’s caused so many problems. My husband finally created distance, but he often lies instead of confronting them so the situation has not gotten any better.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Wow, Wanda, that does sound like everything I’ve written! How emotionally exhausting that must be! I think in your case you just need to talk to your husband about it, and maybe even sit down with a counsellor or third party to talk this through. And have a lot of sympathy for your poor husband! He may be participating in the drama, but he obviously grew up in a really rough family. And it is very, very, very hard to admit to yourself how horrible your family is and to really distance yourself. It takes a big emotional toll. So have patience and a lot of sympathy, and maybe instead of insisting that you cut off contact, ask him things like, “how do you feel about your mother trying to convince the kids to ask to stay over?” Or “why do you think your parents always have emergencies at the holidays?” Like ask him questions more. I hope and pray that you both cling hard to one another, cause that’s really rough!

  5. Melissa

    My own family is wrestling with drama in our ranks right now. I wouldn’t call it abusive but there are definitely some unhealthy behaviors going on that come out in force at the holidays.

    We deal with control issues on both sides of the family in different ways. In the beginning of our marriage it was really bad and every single holiday during the year was a source of stress, anxiety, and conflict. It took time for us to set boundaries and let certain individuals know that the way they were acting toward us wasn’t okay. It’s gotten better for us, but we can’t control other people and when it’s family and we all live near each other it affects all of us.

  6. Eliza

    So what if parents were abusive via overbearing discipline when their own children were young but are not abusive towards their adult child or grandchildren now, but adult child, even after years of therapy and their apologies, is triggered and suffers major mental health issues just from their presence? (Oh, and what if they live on the other side of the country so the only alternatives are grueling two-week visits or not seeing them at all?) How do the spouse and grandchildren maintain a relationship in that case?

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Wow, that’s a GREAT question! I think I’d say that until you are really healed and able to emotionally handle it, that you separate from the situation. I think that’s okay. And if they want to reach out and come and visit you for an afternoon, they’re more than welcome to. But you should not have to subject yourself to two week visits if you’re not emotionally able to handle it.

  7. alchemist

    My father’s parents used to do nr 1 and 5 with my mom and my middle sister all the time. My father never did anything about it. It really hurt my mom. Luckily they are both dead. Unluckily I think my dad ignoring the situation and refusing to see that his mother was a mean, bitter, unfair, hurtful old woman all those years really hurt their relationship. They are not in a good place with their marriage right now.
    It’s very frustrating and makes me very sad and anxious.

    • sunny-dee

      Yeah, my dad’s sister (after my grandparents died) constantly criticized me, my brother, and my mom. This happened even if we weren’t there; my dad may go over to, like, help my uncle fix his car or something, and my aunt would be off and running about how horrible we all were. It seriously damaged my dad’s relationship with my mom and my brother and they are still working through it. It wasn’t just my aunt attacking and my dad not intervening, which was bad enough; my dad actually listened to and accepted whatever my aunt said (she was much older and had taken care of him as a child), so he would then turn around and criticize us for whatever failing he believed we had.

      It may not be right, but a few years ago, I just cut off all contact with my dad’s family. No holidays, no Facebook friends, nothing. Honestly, I feel a lot more peaceful, but maybe I should revisit that.

      • Sheila Wray Gregoire

        Wow, so sad! I’ve had something similar happen in my extended family–one woman believed everything her parents said was gospel, and it really undermined what she thought of her spouse. Really a tragedy.

        Great reminder of where our loyalty should ultimately lie!

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Oh, that’s really too bad. WHY do people do these things? I really don’t get it. Life would be so much better if everyone were just civil and nice to each other. Is that really too much to ask? Sigh.

      Yes, I can see how that would really hurt your mom. And it likely hurts you as a newlywed to see your parents struggling. I’m sorry.

  8. Mary

    My MIL has constantly caused problems and issues between my husband and I during our 11 year marriage. She always makes her comments when no one else is around and if she is ever called out on it (which is rare), she just says I am overly sensitive, she didn’t mean it like that or she doesn’t remember saying it. I have asked my husband many times to not leave me alone with her but it always happens and her comments continue. We have recently moved to the same town as her (not my choice) and it is causing a lot of issues. The holidays are a time of stress for me now instead of enjoyment and I really resent my husband for allowing her to be around us. She is good to my children, however, but she always causes huge fights between him and I because of her comments. I am sad because I find myself just wishing away this happy month instead of enjoying it.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Mary, that’s really a hard one! Can you try to respond to her comments? Like, if she says something that is super offensive, can you turn it back to her, like, “Are you saying that I do X?” She might get huffy, but if she says something hurtful, repeat it back.

      Then, it’s absolutely okay to get up and leave the room and go to where other people are. It really is. Sometimes when people say mean things we’re so flabbergasted that we almost rendered mute. We don’t know what to say because it seems so STRANGE. People don’t talk like that normally. That’s why sometimes repeating back can be a very useful tool because she is forced to defend her statements or walk them back. I think it’s also okay to put limits on things, like saying, “I will happily go to Christmas dinner at your mother’s house, but for other events I’d like to stay home,” or something like that.

      • Mary

        Thank you for responding! I appreciate your advice. I was wondering what you would suggest even when it’s not the holidays. Now that we live in the same town, she wants to come to my kids games each week and this creates a lot of one on one time for her and i. My husband coaches so he doesn’t have to talk to her much but I am stuck for hours. She is suddenly around for every holiday and we have to celebrate with her, then his dad and hopefully then my family. Her comments are always veiled and my husband rarely confronts her. All I have asked is that I not be with her without him present but the ball games create a very big problem. Thanks for any helpful advice. It is greatly appreciated.

  9. Ashley

    My mom is in a really difficult situation with her brother that I would classify as abusive at times. He says really hateful things towards Christians and those of us who have different political beliefs. He will say horrible things on facebook, etc. The reason this is hard for my mom in particular is that he is my grandparents live-in caregiver, and she is needed throughout the week to offer additional care for their needs. She cant just not see him or communicate with him. And I don’t think she would want to rob herself of the last few years with my grandparents because of him. So difficult.

  10. Anonymous This Time Around

    Having gone through the constantly critical mother-in-law experience with a husband who didn’t see it, I want to add encouragement for any wife going through this to speak up for herself. Sometimes you can talk to your husband until you’re blue in the face, and he just doesn’t see what you see because he’s used to the family dynamics and dismisses the issues. If he won’t stand up for you, do it yourself. Be kind, but firm — setting reasonable boundaries like you suggest, Sheila!

    When I finally reached my breaking point and said something, my relationship with my MIL got so much better. I let her know that I did not appreciate the ongoing “I’m just trying to help” approach she took toward me (which was clearly an effort to exert control) and painted a picture of the kind of relationship I wanted to have. Thankfully, by the time she passed, we had grown to respect and admire one another, and some of her last words to me were thanking me for being a good wife to her son.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Oh, isn’t that an encouraging story! That’s wonderful. I’m glad that you were able to turn that relationship around. Sometimes all it takes is someone speaking up for people to realize that what they’re doing is not helpful at all.

  11. Mary

    Now here’s a tricky one for you Shelia, and I hope you can offer some words of wisdom! …
    I had that very difficult conversation with my parents and one of my sisters just over 2yrs ago now. My dad and that sister are text book narcissists and there were multiple problem areas. We drew our line in the sand, called out the problematic behaviour and abusive patterns, and made some space between us for a little while. That was all fine and good, and it certainly cleared the air and gave us some breathing space.
    BUT… to these people, appearances matter. A lot. It is excessively important to them how the family unit is perceived by others, particularly their church contacts. Instead of respecting our independence and addressing the issues, they have instead tried to just blur it all into the background and stick the facade back into place, all the while continuing (behind our backs) to undermine and slander us (particularly my poor husband) to anyone who will listen.

    Particularly in the last year they have started gradually drawing us back in to all the family events (which is, in itself, fine. We didn’t want to cut them off, we just needed some healthy boundaries) and we have just been making Christmas arrangements. We have a Secret Santa (Kris Kringle?) for the adults in the family, but I have just been informed by my other sister that all of the siblings are putting together to send our parents on a luxury holiday as an extra Christmas present. We have been told exactly what we are expected to contribute to the holiday, and it will cost us a few hundred dollars.

    We NEVER spend that kind of money on gifts for each other or the children, and my in-laws would be embarrassed if we did! It goes against everything we know and believe in to hand out hundreds of dollars to reward this kind of horrible behaviour, and yet it will cause untold friction on Christmas Day if our names are not in the card, along with the voucher we are supposed to present. And there is an official ‘gift time’ when presents are formally presented. It will be excruciating and explosive if we hand over a nice little gift hamper of Christmas treats and photographs of the grandchildren, while the rest of my siblings present envelopes of expensive gift vouchers for luxury goods and experiences.

    My instinct is to just roll over… it’s only money. However, my husband is particularly hurt at the moment by a new wave of slander that my father has directed against him. Never to our faces of course. And he would deny it strenuously if confronted. And the rest of the family would side with him. How on earth do we manage this??

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Hi Mary! Wow, don’t families get into awful situations?

      Here’s my quick take. Your siblings did something without consulting you, and then they say that you “owe” them money.

      That is completely and utterly backwards and wrong.

      Your husband is hurt because of how your family treats him.

      So I would say: Your husband is your #1 priority. You need to stick up for him! And there is no way that you should be spending hundreds of dollars on your parents if that was not originally in your budget. Just because siblings say “you owe us this money” does not make it so. Yes, it will be uncomfortable, but perhaps by standing up they will see that they can’t afford it without your help, either (or they will afford it, and put themselves at a financial disadvantage).

      But you can say to your parents, “we were not informed of this gift beforehand, and we were not able to pay that much this year.” And leave it at that.

      It is very wrong and passive aggressive to make decisions for you without your input and then expect you to abide by those decisions later, and it is perfectly okay to say, “That’s unfortunate that you assumed we would be able to pay this, but it is not in the budget right now.” Don’t even apologize, because you have nothing to apologize for. You could say, “Next time, I would hope that you would consult me first.”

      Why don’t you sit down and talk to your husband and kids about what they would prefer to do this Christmas, and then make the decision as a nuclear family? Maybe you could just leave town and do something, just you! But you do have the right to make that decision, and you aren’t being treated well. I think the big thing here is to honour your husband and make him your #1 priority. If appearances matter that much to your family, then perhaps by you sticking to your guns they will begin to see that they must change their ways!

      • Mary

        Thanks Sheila! You’re right – this was my instinct but they have a way of turning logic upside down & I find myself questioning my sanity and wondering if I really am a bit unreasonable or inflexible. It’s a very toxic dynamic and I still find myself getting drawn into it at times like this. Looks like we will have to draw the line yet again.
        We have arranged to spend the following day with my husband’s lovely (non-passive-agressive) family. That has really helped my mindset going into this- at least we can relax and enjoy a ‘proper’ Christmas then!

  12. Anonymous

    What do you do when your in laws have a boundary problem but when you ask your husband to please defend you he feeds you to the lions? This happened in the first decade of our marriage over and over again. No matter what happened he would always care more about his parents’ feelings than mine. His mother was very mean to me when just the two of us were together. I finally asked him to talk to them with me after reading the book Boundaries and what happened was he wouldn’t do it. He told them some things about how I needed space when I wasn’t there to talk about it with them and then sent me to talk to his mother alone (I was pregnant and sick that day). She proceeded to tell me how everything bad that had ever happened to her since knowing me was somehow my fault. No matter what I say to my husband he hears it the way he perceives it not how it is presented and he has always refused to put me and my feelings before his family of origin.
    It has been very hard for me to let that go as it didn’t end well and resulted in a strained relationship for many years. I could site examples but I don’t really want to air the dirty laundry. I want to move past it all but I am having a hard time forgetting all of the times that my husband abandoned me emotionally in favor of his parents. You can edit this if you want to because I don’t want my family to know that I wrote this.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Hi there,

      I’m so sorry that you’ve gone through this! It really does sound like this is more a marriage issue than an in-law issue. For marriage issues, I often find that what you really need is a third party to help you through. Is there a mentor couple that you can talk to? Maybe ask them to have coffee with you and ask them to listen to an issue you’re having with your husband and to pray through it with you and give you some advice? Or a counsellor that you can talk to together?

      Or perhaps just sit down with your husband because maybe he honestly isn’t hearing you, and be very direct. “I feel hurt when you don’t stand up for me with your mom. Can we talk about how we can both honour your parents but also make sure that I feel like I’m your #1 priority?”

      I hope that helps! I’m so sorry that you’re going through this and dealing with this. I know Christmas often makes it worse!

  13. Anony

    Thank you so much for writing this. I know everything is in God’s timing, but wow, I sure could have used this article 23 years ago. My husband just hasn’t seen, taken seriously what I (and our best friends) told him, and/or done anything about all the many ways his parents and grandmothers have treated me all these years, in spite of evidence. I’ve been openly accused of infidelity twice (laughed off as a joke when confronted), widely gossiped about to extended family (which is then denied), had my every instruction regarding our daughters’ food sensitivities ignored (to gross discomfort and pain on my daughters’ parts), had our special needs daughter openly and repeatedly mocked, had her actual medical need for sleep and regular bedtimes ignored (which caused her to have increased seizures), had our struggling-with-math daughter told that she needs to be in public school because I’m the reason she’s struggling (in spite of the fact I hold two teaching degrees!), been told to my face (and in front of medical personnel) that I’m a problem and make really bad decisions, been flat out blatantly excluded from family discussions (as in told to leave the room because it doesn’t concern me), blamed me for my older daughter getting burned (I was in the room of about 15 adults but talking to someone else when she pulled someone else’s cup of super-hot coffee down onto herself), and even worse, blamed me for my younger daughter having birth trauma and winding up with cerebral palsy and epilepsy as a result. Refusal to make plans more than a couple of days in advance, even for major holidays. Spontaneously calling (usually on a Sunday morning when we’re in church) and telling my husband to meet them someplace for dinner then getting whiny and manipulative if we have other plans. Having my FIL say, “Well, I guess I’ll be slumming it” as he sits down next to me at a restaurant. FIL pitching a fit because I wanted to spend Thanksgiving with my mother when she was on hospice, when he knew perfectly well that we had spent the past 21 Thanksgivings with him.

    Our best friends have seen some of this, and the husband has tried to talk to my husband. I’ve tried to talk to my husband. He gets upset that I’m upset. He says he doesn’t see it, but that’s because they never do it around him. He has confronted them only a couple of times about things, but then they just push it off on me: I misunderstood, they were just joking, I’m too sensitive, or even worse, I’m lying. Usually he gets upset, says he’ll deal with it, and then does nothing because he hates confrontation.

    It has gotten somewhat better over the years, but only because the grandmothers and his mother have died. They are good people, upstanding citizens in the community, well thought of by everyone. They have been very kind to me on occasion, like my MIL coming to stay a couple of days with us to care for me after our second miscarriage, hiring a house cleaning service for a few months after our special needs daughter was born, and caring for both girls (ages 4 and 2 at the time) when my father died so I could focus on my mother. But overall, 95% of our relationship has been very hard for me. They are religious and good people, but my husband doubts they are truly saved, which explains much of their behavior and just makes it all the sadder that his grandmothers and mother have died.

    It’s been hard, very hard sometimes, but I have strived all these years to return good for evil, to never disrespect them in front of our daughters or even at all, even when discussing with my husband. Oftentimes I have been physically ill from the stress. Most of all, I’ve learned to trust myself to the One who judges rightly. I’ve trusted that maybe they could be won to Christ by love (or at least had burning coals heaped on them). I know I’m not perfect, and I know I’m harboring bitterness, although I fight it. But this hurts so very, very much. I so wish I had a good relationship with them. It truly, truly grieves me. I know that someday this will make sense.

    Anyway, bless you for writing this. I pray it reaches and helps many. It has helped me to understand that maybe I’m not overly sensitive. Thank you.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Wow, what a story! I’m so glad you shared it. And you really DO NOT sound overly sensitive at all. It sounds like you’ve had so much to deal with at the same time as you’re coping with parents’ illnesses and special needs children, when you could really use some help! I honestly will never understand why some people treat family like this. I just will never, ever get it.

  14. Lucy

    In-law’s! Lord help me to be a great in-law. For the last 15 out of 25 years I’ve avoided my in-laws with the guilt of “honor your parents”. My husband’s first wife left him three times for other men. I know it takes two in a marriage. For many years while their children were minors, she was regularly invited to every family function, even the family reunions. Well things didn’t stop when the children came of age. Now in their late thirties, the ex is still fully entrenched in my in-laws life and she is more the daughter-in-law than i. Christmas is the worst! Every year there is a big family celebration at the in-laws. The entire local family attend – including the ex! I have had loving conversation with my in-laws, as has my husband but they have not set boundaries and continue to allow her to be a part of their lives regularly.

    I understand that she has not remarried (but continues to date AND brings her boyfriends to the family events) and she does not have her parents alive, thus the need for connection somewhere. However, I feel my in-laws have chosen their daughter-in-law and I will not be apart of their disrespect to my husband and myself.

    I have young adult children and regularly remind them to make that phone call for Mother’s Day, birthday’s, etc. They are fine young men and are grateful for the reminder. When they are in town they always go visit their grandparents….without me.

    What adds to the dysfunction, is my little family goes over there every Christmas eve, it’s my husbands birthday, and I sit at home alone…because, I too do not have family. I don’t believe I should keep my family from enjoying family traditions, just because I have issues with them.

    I don’t believe my in-laws are abusive, but disrespectful to both my husband and myself. Am I doing the right thing?

  15. Thetiredmissus

    Oh man. You have my husband’s family to a tee! It is exhausting. We actually had my bil and sil over for a party last night, and after they left, our other guests were shocked at how rude my bil was. He actually told a friend of ours, “I like you! And I don’t like many people! I don’t even like (myself and my husband.)” My parents in law constantly go to my nephews events, ball games and such (my fil even coached their team one year) and I can’t recall a single time that they have offered to come see our kids or take them to go do something fun. They’ll babysit, occasionally and grudgingly, but if we want our kids to have any contact with their grandparents, we have to go to them. My husband feels like he has a responsibility to take care of his mother and grandmother, (who lives with them) because he’s a decent man, and told his dying grandpa that he would look after her, but this was before we even met.

    He is starting to see, though – for years they only criticized him and put him down, but they’re starting to drag me into it, too, and he is starting to see how terrible their behavior is. My inlaws are also racist as all get out. My fil has dropped the n word several times in front of my kids, and my nephew has gotten in trouble for using that word at school because he doesn’t know any better.

    The most difficult part about all of this is that his family is passive aggressive. No one ever talks about problems, and this is how my husband grew up, so it’s a monumental effort for him to get out of that mindset. I’ve seen them be sweet to someone’s face and then as soon as that person leaves, tear them to shreds. I can only imagine what they say about us when we’re not there. So, all this passive aggressiveness makes is reeeeeally hard to have an open discussion about the abuse. Again, hubby has put up with it for years, (and actually violent physical abuse from a former stepfather)so he’s just used to it.

    I’m sorry for writing a book here, but this is a huge issue for us. My sweet husband is trying to do his best in a crappy situation, and actually stood up to them recently and said we could only be there on Christmas Eve this year to accommodate my family, who lives a long way away. He’s finally realized that we can’t keep on like this, but feels that an open confrontation about it just wouldn’t work because of how they are. So, any advice? Help!!

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Wow, what a difficult family! But that’s GREAT that your husband is seeing it. Maybe open confrontation isn’t always necessary. I don’t know. There are times when it could definitely make things worse. But I do think in general it’s a good idea. It could be, though, that your husband may need to talk to a counsellor a few times just to work through his feelings before he could even consider it. But that’s really tough!

      • Thetiredmissus

        Hello again! I spoke with my husband about seeing a counselor and he was actually good with the idea. I agree that he needs to talk to someone that isn’t me about it to gain better perspective on it. I have to admit I never thought of counseling, but it was like someone hit me with a two by four when I read what you wrote. Duh! Thank you for Godly wisdom. I am always in need of it, and I find your site such a wonderful place to get it. Our marriage has had its ups and downs and we really have no good, close, Godly examples of a healthy marriage. Like we like to say, we’re doing this marriage from scratch and it is SO hard sometimes! Anyway, thank you again!

  16. Barbie

    So, does anyone have advice for this situation?:

    My husband and I got married on September 3, 2016. We were engaged for about 7 months. We planned our wedding. We live in Maryland, but the wedding was to take place back home, about 5 hours away in Northeastern PA.

    We took the week off prior to the wedding to go home and prepare.

    We arrived home on August 26th. A Friday.

    It’s important to mention that my family had had some tensions at this point. My brother and his girlfriend had gotten pregnant. We found this out back in April.

    Now, fast forward several months. It’s our wedding week! Saturday comes and goes with productivity, and Sunday morning comes along. It’s time to go to church! 🙂

    My dad gets a text message from my brother. It says “Me and _____ are getting married tonight at our church. You can come if you want.”

    This comes out of nowhere. My dad tells my mom, who then tells me and my almost husband. We immediately feel hurt, attacked, etc. We are shocked. Why are they getting married now? Why now, 5 days before our planned wedding? They weren’t even engaged.

    We go to church. I try not to think of it. I’m not sure what to do. I pray. We decide to go. Be the bigger person. Don’t have regrets. My parents promised to attend the ceremony and leave immediately afterward. They don’t. After the ceremony ends, I exit and wait in the parking lot. For ~2 hours. I’m mad, hurt, and just so confused. Taking one car was the biggest mistake.

    Anyway, my parents, future husband, and myself head home…after my parents stayed WAY longer than originally agreed upon. We have an argument. It stresses me out.

    Days pass, we move on. Probably around Tuesday I try to just get over it. I’m still shocked, but I’m getting married in a few days.

    Saturday arrives. Wedding day! Honestly, it was an absolutely fantastic day. I loved mostly everything about it and am REALLY thankful for that.

    After the wedding, honeymoon, etc., and we are back – my MIL tells me about something that happened at the wedding. My brother had drawn a large penis and other explicit sayings on my husbands car with paint chalk. The other members of the bridal party had drawn nice things, like “JUST MARRIED”, etc. He drew a penis. Thankfully, before I or my husband had seen it, she had gotten a napkin and water and erased the messages.

    Strike one.

    I was upset. Because my brother knows my lifestyle. Where I stand with sex. Etc. It was completely rude, and in my eyes, not funny.

    Time goes by. My now “sister-in-law” is having a baby shower. I’m not sent an invite, though I was supposedly invited through word of mouth? I sent presents. A stroller. Tons of clothes, a baby bible, toys, etc. I receive barely a thanks – and nothing from my brother. No text, nothing. I specifically got the stroller because HE mentioned wanting that ONE so badly.

    My brothers birthday is in October. I sent a card and a gift. No response. No text just saying “Hey, got the card! Thanks!”.

    All along, my parents have stood by my brother and his now wife.

    Anyway, late October comes. My SIL is due November 3rd.

    My parents are visiting our brand new house for the first time the last weekend of October. They’re getting ready to leave on October 30th. Apparently they had gotten word that my SIL was in the hospital and potentially going into labor. They don’t tell me.

    They drive the five hours, get home, and text me about it.

    I’m mad. I’m hurt.

    My parents, nor my brother tell me about the labor. I am not invited. I receive pictures via Facebook.

    I’m really appalled, even though I probably shouldn’t be.

    Months have gone by, I still haven’t been invited to meet the baby.

    My parents want me and my husband to come home for Christmas. To meet the baby. To see them.

    What would you do? My brother has not spoken to me since September 3rd, 2016. Our wedding day.

    I’m hurt. I’ve forgiven, but I’m not really sure I want to drive 5 hours to have a fight. I sort of wish someone cared about our brand new house. Our first Christmas as a married couple.

    Should we just stay here and celebrate together?

  17. Michelle

    Thank you for this post. Dealing with in-laws can be detrimental to a marriage if the in-laws have a hidden agenda. I am married to a Pastor and I came into his life during a time that his mother was battling cancer and has since passed on to be with the Lord. My husband and I have been married for almost four years and my sister in law and daughter have been living with us. The agreement in the beginning was that she will be gone by the end of the year and of course, that has turned into four years. She does not have a job and will not look for a job. She makes excuses every time he mentions work and/or getting a job. She is a hoarder and keeps the house a mess. When we complain about the house she talks about everybody have a weakness and cleaning is her weakness and we should love on her because we all have sin, and we should not judge her. It’s our house, and I told her that she needs to get her own house. She told me that I am evil, and that I am trying to break up her relationship with her brother and that I want him to put her out. The truth of the matter, she’s 50 and she is am able body. She’s very lazy. She just want to lay around look at television and gossip on the phone all day long. I know that she’s trying to play a guilt trip on her brother, to see how long he will put up with it and see if I will get tired and just leave. I feel like he has put his sister before me because we constantly get into arguments about the junk in the house and he start to clean up after her just to keep my mouth shut. Something is really wrong with this because we are not talking about children here, we are talking about grown adults. Please advise…!!! Thank you…!!!

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Hi Michelle! I’m going to be doing a series next week on how to have those difficult conversations with your husband, but here’s what I would suggest in a nutshell: start with asking some questions. “What is it that you want out of your relationship with your sister? How do you feel you could best honour your sister? What would you like for your sister?” Then, when he has thought about it and has some answers, brainstorm together about how you could make that happen. For instance, if what he wants for your sister is to find some purpose in life, then ask, “how can we help her find that purpose? Do you think what we’re doing now is helping her?”

      In general, get to the root of the issue, and then brainstorm about how you can treat her in such a way that your husband feels good about it. Because it could be that there are things that you could do that your husband would be comfortable with that don’t involve her living in your home. But sometimes if we start the conversation with an ultimatum and a criticism–your sister is a lazy slob and she should get out–he will just get on the defensive. And it doesn’t honor what is clearly going on in his heart to try to love his sister (even if he’s going about it the wrong way). Does that make sense?


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