The MIL-DIL "Stew" - Part 5 - Boundaries Are Good!

In the last post, I mentioned that boundaries are good ~ a healthy part of in-law relationships. I wanted to dig into that a bit more.

Boundaries bring clarity and provide safeguards against hurt feelings or misunderstandings. It is up to both MILs and DILs to clearly communicate where they have placed their personal boundaries.

In Mothers-in-Law vs. Daughters-in-Law, author Elisabeth Graham tells the story* of her mother-in-law Esther's cold feelings toward her after she married her son.

"After our wedding she simply pretended I didn't exist," wrote Graham. "While we were at work, she came to our house unbidden and took our laundry home to wash. She rearranged our cupboards and moved items of decor around, just as she had done for Bill his whole life."

How terrible! I thought. But then Graham continued, "Esther enjoyed this freedom only because we allowed it. Bill didn't see it as a big deal, and I didn't want to hurt her feelings, so we said nothing."

Later, Graham and her husband moved into a duplex that their in-laws owned, and the visits became more frequent and interruptive. But Graham did nothing to resolve the conflict, giving Esther permission to continue overstepping boundaries. She says, in retrospect, that she now sees how she could have "kindly and respectfully" put their relationship on healthier ground; but events escalated until years later, with the addition of children and "Gramma" challenging for their attention, things got much worse.

"...I realized the extent of the damage being done to my marriage because of my lack of boundaries with Esther." She concluded that her only option was divorce to free herself from the "tyranny" of her mother-in-law." But it was, she thought, her fault for not setting up boundaries, and she sought God's help. In the process, she learned how to set well-placed and wise boundaries.

After reading Graham's book and various other sources, I believe there are some key things in-laws can do.

How to Set Boundaries:

  • Pray before setting any boundary. Ask God to show you your faults. Unhealthy relationships usually "take two." And ask God to help you see the other in-law's position clearly. (Matthew 7:3-5)
  • Operate from a spirit of unity, not selfishness ~ just wanting your own agenda. Annie Chapman, in The Mother-in-Law Dance,** calls this "Setting boundaries without building walls." (Ephesians 4:2-3) Be sure that the boundary will add to the relationship, not just make you feel better.
  • Wait until your emotions are right. Set aside any bitterness, anger or revenge. Ask God to give you a tender heart. (Ephesians 4:31; Hebrews 12:14-15)
  • Be careful how you communicate your need for boundaries, if necessary (not critical or unkind or judgmental). (Ephesians 4:15, 32)
  • But note: You may not have to even discuss the boundary. Consider how you might be able to adjust your own behavior to eliminate the problem. (For example, if a DIL always drops her kids off on Saturday afternoons, make plans from time to time to not be home... adjust your availability. The same would go for a MIL who feels she can drop in every Friday night, when that is the DIL's Date Night with hubby.)
  • A few issues: (1) Holiday boundaries can be tough. It can get complicated. But I like what Graham says: "Daughters-in-law play a key role here. Most husbands acquiesce to their wife's wishes when it comes to holiday plans ... A daughter-in-law is giving her husband and children a valuable gift when she chooses to honor traditions on both sides of the family." As families grow, it's usually wise to limit celebrations to immediate family, and then plan other special events with the extended family ~ but not on the actual "day" of the holiday.
  • (2) Financial boundaries are also tough, and parents should not interfere with their children's decisions. This is one area that in-laws can help when invited; but not step in, otherwise. On the other hand, older MILs may need financial help, but it is still wise to ask, unless they are debilitated.
  • (3) The best advice on boundaries to MILs? "Get a life." Don't depend on your children or grandchildren to bring you the joy that can be yours as you live a great adventure with God. Then, when they enter your life for events and get-togethers, it's a bonus!
If an in-law will not respond to you in a healthy way, don't let it change your goal to be a committed Christ-follower.

Annie Chapman tells the story of her competitive MIL with sadness. "...she never offered me her love and affection, not even when she was dying," she said. "Even though I've never felt such pain and rejection, I eventually came to realize that she was the one to be pitied. She voluntarily cut herself off from someone who truly cared about what happened to her... Being a Christian, I was able to fight through the hurt feelings in order to keep my eyes on the goal. I couldn't let how she behaved change who I wanted to be."

You can set boundaries and still be a nice woman. Really! Chapman writes: "We train others how to treat us," and she quotes Matthew 7:12: "...treat people the same way you want them to treat you...." Boundaries ~ general guidelines for relationships ~ lead to healthier interactions.

Some practical "guidelines" (some, from Chapman's book):
  • Don't go to the in-law's house unless invited.
  • When invited, it's still a good idea to call right before you leave.
  • Never enter a house (or a room in a house with a closed door) without knocking first.
  • DILs - don't assume your MIL will always be a ready babysitter. (And don't lay on a guilt trip if she says, "no.")
  • MILs - don't call your DIL's house after the dinner hour (except in emergencies).
  • Don't overstep financial boundaries. MIL's (and FILs) should only offer money if the SIL asks for it. Let him be "the man" to the DIL.
  • MILs - don't side with your son against the DIL. (It's not a good way to bond!)
  • Don't overstay during family visits.
  • Be careful with bringing food without asking.
  • It's not usually wise to offer unsolicited advice ~ it may be crossing a line.
  • MILs, work hard ~ maybe with the DILs mom ~ to coordinate holidays so your children won't feel stressed; and don't make them feel guilty over making you feel "alone" if they choose to spend time with others.
Boundaries sometimes take time to set up, but they are valuable in "oiling the machinery" of relationships. Ask God for wisdom, and then try to establish healthy boundaries that will ultimately bless everyone involved.

Next week: Part 6 - Blessing Your In-laws

* Mothers-in-Law vs. Daughters-in-Law, Elisabeth Graham (Beacon Hill, 2010), pp. 84-87, 93
** The Mother-in-Law Dance, Annie Chapman (Harvest House Publ., 2004), pp. 57-58, 63-65

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