Friday, February 27, 2009

A Delicate Relationship

Recently I was part of a gathering of moms, listening to a speaker elaborate on lessons she learned from a difficult relationship with her mother-in-law. Her simple and powerful message used the biblical tale of Ruth and Naomi as a model of the kind of relationship we are aspiring toward.

Truthfully, Naomi sounds embittered by her life experience of losing her husband and two sons while living in a foreign country to escape famine at home. Yet Ruth went home with her and committed to care for her, to the extent that Naomi's friends said of Ruth, "She is better than seven sons." Pretty impressive for this insular culture that prized sons as one's inheritance, and was essentially closed to foreigners.

Painting by Guy Rowe

At the conclusion of her message, the speaker opened the room to questions. A palpable tension settled on the room as moms began to ask for wisdom on how to deal with different situations they experience. Hesitantly, then with growing urgency, they shared.

One wished to overcome her mother-in-law's emotional distance. Another tearfully described a situation of other grandchildren receiving preferred treatment over her own child. A third didn't feel the mother-in-law ever supported her marriage to the son, yet wanted to honor her by allowing her to know her own grandchildren.

As the other moms nodded and murmured in agreement to these questions, I realized that a woman's relationship with her husband's mother is indeed a delicate one. The tears and shaking voices were obvious indicators of the depth of emotion involved on the part of the young moms.

There are no easy answers to the hurt feelings and difficult interactions related that day. However, sometimes a little perspective changes our interpretation of a situation. Just as we learn along the way in parenting, so too do parents learn along the way in becoming in-laws.

I can only imagine from my point of view, that it must be difficult to be replaced as your son's number one girl, and to be bound in a legal relationship with this younger woman regardless of any opinion you may have on the matter. We were encouraged that a difficult mother-in-law probably has the best of intentions, or may be unsure of boundary lines in the relationship. Or she may be acting out of hurt on her own part from something that occurred long ago, possibly before the son was ever married.

Artist Unknown

In any relationship, we have the best chance of growth when we address problems and miscommunication simply and directly, and before they have a chance to fester into deep wounds. But in the end, there is only one person in the relationship that we can control, and that is ourselves.

Change is hard. People resist making changes in the ways they interact with others, even when that change is positive. So it's healthy to expect a little pushback when you begin to implement some God-honoring attitudes. But be persistent! Again, the only one we can really change is ourselves, and even that requires God's strength. The Holy Spirit is the real change agent, and as long as we obey God, then we will be blessed. Even if that difficult relationship never becomes what we wish it could be.

Regardless of whether we are considering in-laws, blood relatives, friends or acquaintances, all relationships require God's wisdom and help in order to function best. Fortunately, God's Word has quite a bit of insight for us, about the attitudes he expects us to have in our relationships with one another:

  • Live in harmony with one another. Romans 12:16
  • Care for one another with equal concern. 1 Corinthians 12:25
  • Be kind to one another. Ephesians 4:32
  • Show hospitality to one another. 1 Peter 4:9
  • Do not pass judgment on one another. Romans 14:13
  • Be at peace with one another. Mark 9:50
  • Humbly treat others as better than yourself. Ephesians 5:21
  • Bear with one another, and forgive one another. Colossians 3:13

Imagine, if we demonstrated all of these attitudes perfectly, what improvement we might see in our difficult relationships! But even good change comes gradually, so perhaps today is a good time to pause for a moment to reflect on which one of these attitudes God might be speaking to you that he wants to develop in you more strongly. You might be amazed at the difference one small change can make in your relationships, with your mother-in-law (or daughter-in-law) or anyone else.


  1. This is so awesome! Very nice post. And, one that's needed. My own relationship with my mother-in-law has turned into a beautiful flower even though it started as a dormant seed. Ruth has a lot to teach us.

  2. What a great post!

    I love all of the verses you used - I needed that this morning :)

    Hope all is going well!

    Blessings to you,
    Kate :)


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