4/6/11

The MIL-DIL "Stew" - Part 4 - Those Expectations!

One of the best pieces of advice I ever received regarding in-laws is "Let go of your expectations." I found that once I did this, I could relax and cultivate a fresh new relationship.

Expectations in relationships can equal pressure and stress ~ and not the good kind!

Often our expectations for MILs or DILs come from cultural influences in our lives. For example, the stereotypical mother-in-law on television sitcoms and in many movies is the "mother-in-law from hell." I think of Marie on the sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond! Perhaps experiences in our past also color our expectations. Maybe you saw a poor example of in-laws ~ a lack of love or respect, perhaps ~ and you believe all MIL-DIL relationships are that way.

I love what author Elisabeth Graham says about in-laws: "Your in-law is not stereotypical. God doesn't create stereotypes. She is an original design who has been molded by both positive and negative circumstances, all of which were allowed by God to equip her for her life purpose. The fact that she is your in-law means God has a specific purpose for the two of you being connected by marriage. You both bring things to the table that the other needs. The adventure (nightmare?) comes in finding a way to exchange these things without destroying each other.... A faulty in-law relationship is never one-sided. Both parties bring 'self' to the table. Both have unrealistic or negative expectations ... But to enter the relationship expecting trouble is a sure way to find it. *

What are some of the expectations MILs or DILs might have?

  • The holidays often cause expectations to rise to the surface. Where will you spend the holidays? Whose family will you see, and for how long? What about gifts? How much is expected? How much is too much or too little? Is it a matter of quantity time or quality time? Oh, the expectations!
  • Some DILs believe that MILs should be seen but never heard and consider anything a MIL says as "interference," while the MIL yearns to share her experiences.
  • Some MILs want the DIL to treat her as another mother, but the DIL isn't comfortable with that and prefers to develop a simple friendship.
  • Some DILs expect MILs to drop everything and babysit. Some MILs expect to have the freedom to "drop in" anytime. (Neither is a respectful attitude.)
  • Some MILs expect that DILs will parent like they did, when the DIL just wishes the MIL would give her the benefit of the doubt that she's a good mom.
  • Some DILs expect that the MIL will not "spoil" her children in any way, while the MIL wants to express extravagant love within reason.
The list could continue. But the point is, expectations are as varied as the two women involved.

I've found five things that help with expectations:

First, practice good communication. The Bible encourages us to speak the truth in love to one another (Ephesians 4:15a). Be honest, but sensitive. Think of how you would want someone to speak to you. Speak with respect and kindness about what is important to you, but don't be selfish. Romans 12:10, says, "honor one another above yourselves." Don't expect that your in-law will see things the same way you do, so listen and seek to understand. Be careful with gossip, criticism, and unkind words (Galatians 5:15); but instead, use words to encourage and build your in-law up (1 Thessalonians 5:11).

Second, set appropriate boundaries. "Boundaries" is not a bad word. They help us care for ourselves or others with wisdom, prevent enabling behaviors, and keep us or others from getting hurt. Love seeks to prevent harm (Romans 13:9b-10) and it overcomes evil with good (Romans 12:21). So define boundaries (or parameters) you would appreciate concerning holidays, visits, time with grandchildren, financial issues, privacy, etc. Learn when to say no, and how to say it with love and respect, considering the other person's feelings. DILs, perhaps you can establish a private password with your spouse, to signal when to end a visit with in-laws. Keep your private life private. Be careful not to vent about your marriage or your relationship frustrations in a Facebook status ... in-laws may be reading!

Third, be willing to stretch. Realize that your way isn't the only way. Don't judge your in-laws (Romans 14:13); instead, accept the extended family (Romans 15:7). Take time to discover your in-law's heritage (cultural roots) to better understand and accept the way they are. Don't expect perfect relationships, but work toward positive ones. Bear with each other's differences, and forgive, forgive, forgive! (Colossians 3:13). Deal with non-negotiable circumstances with grace, and try to help your in-law with the burdens she carries (Galatians 6:2) Open your home to her as a gift of hospitality (1 Peter 4:9). And serve your MIL or DIL as you are able, and as your schedule allows (Galatians 5:13b). Barbara Graham, a columnist at grandparents.com, says, "The heart is a generous muscle, and there's enough love to go around."**

Fourth, develop trust. MILs, follow your DIL's rules for her children. If she sees that you are working with her and not against her, she will trust you more. Keep confidences. Don't tell your grandchildren to tell your DIL anything that is issues oriented; speak directly to her about any concerns. DILs, create an atmosphere that assures your MIL that you are not speaking negatively about her behind her back (James 4:11). She has to feel she can trust you, too. Practice loyalty within the family and in the way you project your in-law to others.

Fifth, pray for your in-law. When we pray, as we are instructed in the Word of God (James 5:16a), we open ourselves to the wisdom we need.

As you have probably noticed, many of these scriptures are the "one another" verses (another version here) that we apply to our relationships ~ and there is no reason why they should not be applied to our in-laws!

Issues with expectations often are attitude problems at the core. I love Graham's story* about a young woman who hated Mother's Day because she didn't want to buy her mother-in-law a Mother's Day card. She felt the cards were all too sugary and nowhere close to describing her nasty MIL. But one year, as she stood in front of the card rack, she began to cry in frustration. She prayed, "God, help me find a card for her."

The still, quiet voice she heard in response told her to buy her mother-in-law a card that she wished described her.

She did so, and she did the same thing on her MIL's birthday, and the next Mother's Day, and the next birthday, and so on. And then one day she realized that the cards describing her dream mother-in-law now described her actual mother-in-law.

"She had changed. Or I had changed," she said. "Or maybe we both changed! I don't know. I just know that somewhere along the way, she had started to become like the woman my cards described."

So my advice to you is, "Let go of your expectations, and concentrate on loving your in-law in as many practical ways as you can."

To review ... remember to:
  1. Speak with love and wisdom.
  2. Set appropriate boundaries.
  3. Stretch a little and serve as you can.
  4. Work hard at trusting and being trustworthy.
  5. Pray for your in-law!
And watch God do His perfect work in your lives.

Next week: Part 5 - Boundaries Are Good

* Elisabeth Graham, Mothers-in-Law vs. Daughters-in-Law (Beacon Hill Press, 2010), pp. 26-27, 31.
** http://www.grandparents.com/gp/content/expert-advice/family-matters/article/mother-in-law-daughter-in-law-relationship-rule.html

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