This verse in Romans has been a challenge to many people who have found themselves in difficult relationships. My old college roommate (I’ll call her Laura) and I used to joke that, until we got married, we had never met anyone that we could not MAKE like us. We would flip our hair back, look in the mirror together and laugh: “What’s not to like about me?” Even though we were being facetious (and obnoxious), there was some truth to our jesting. You cannot MAKE someone love you.
I haven’t found much helpful Christian writing about honestly navigating the difficulties of family relationships. Many of the articles and books I have read on the subject sum it all up with an exhortation for mutual love and unlimited forgiveness. They give examples of Christ-centered respectful relationships that we should all pattern our lives after. Oh, and then there is that “turn the other cheek” passage. For those who have exhausted every effort to live at peace with their extended family to no avail, these exhortations are like a dull knife to an already sensitive wound.
Laura’s mother-in-law is one of those ladies in the church who cooks and serves and has people over for dinner and spoils children with sweets and gifts. Everyone loves her. There was a little evidence during the wedding planning that mom-in-law had a controlling side. She gave her opinion readily and could snap your head off without warning. Laura wrote it off as wedding stress. Things settled down after the wedding and it was smooth sailing . . . until babies came along.
All of a sudden a tolerable relationship turned unbearable. Laura and her husband had moved six-hours away from his parents (which was considered a crime in itself), but when babies came along so did the expectations. Mom-in-law decided she was going to visit every six weeks and stay for a week each time so she and her grandbabies would be close. This was hard on Laura, but she wanted to honor her mother-in-law. Gradually with more visits, came more expectations and more passive aggressive comments. Laura began to feel like she and her husband were just two more children for his mom to parent.
Laura’s husband welcomed his mom’s visits. He thought his wife could use the help and he enjoyed having his mom’s cooking and affection. His mom behaved well when he was around, but when he wasn’t, she was cold and critical to Laura. She made Laura feel like she was an unworthy mom, wife, and human being for that matter. She unapologetically slandered Laura to other family members, rehearsing all the ways that Laura was inferior to her as a Christian woman. Laura felt guilty for not wanting her mother-in-law around. When she broached the subject with her husband, he suggested that she might be over-reacting. He urged her to be selfless, grateful for the help, and asked her to keep the peace. After all it was only one week out of every six. Laura sank into a deep depression. Over time, she found it difficult to even get out of bed when her mother-in-law was around.
I can almost hear your voices as you are reading this article. Trust me. Every word of advice that is about to drop out of your mouth, Laura has tried. What do you do when you have done everything possible, as far as it depends on you, to live at peace with your extended family? In difficult circumstances people naturally pull out every tool in their arsenal of wisdom—human or spiritual. Putting on a façade of joyful suffering is not Biblical joyful suffering. It is denial and dishonesty. The more Laura sacrificed, humbled herself, kept quiet, and served in the name of Christian duty, the more intrusive, insulting, and controlling mom-in-law became.
Putting on a façade of joyful suffering is not Biblical joyful suffering. It is denial and dishonesty.
When we talk, in Christian circles, about loving one another and sacrificing for one another, what does that mean? Should Laura “honor” her mother-in-law by letting her take leadership over her home once every six weeks? Are we commanded, as Christians, to let other people take control of our lives for the sake of peace? We are limited beings. There is not time or energy to sacrifice to this extent for everyone in our families, in the church, in the world. How much sacrifice is enough?
Dealing with extended family (or any difficult relationship for that matter) cannot be remedied with a simple command to love and sacrifice. Most of the time, these relationships reveal our utter inability to do so. After years of silently taking this kind of abuse from her mother-in-law, and pleading with her husband to do something about it, Laura’s marriage dissolved. Mom-in-law took no responsibility, nor did she lay any blame on her son. Laura was simply expected to absorb all of the conflict and “die to herself.”
I think some of these terms we throw around in Christianity fuel abusive people and crush the earnest seekers who are eager for relationship. Jesus did not encourage dishonesty in relationships nor did he let people take advantage of him for their own selfish gain (see John chapter 6). Therefore “being like Jesus” means it is good to set some boundaries. This article offers no communication tips, nor flow charts of who’s responsible to talk to whom about what and when. Not everything is solved with much talking. In fact, some wounds can only heal when the talking stops.
So take a look at your relationships with extended family. Setting proper boundaries and being honest with yourself and your partner about what you can and cannot give with your limited time and energy can actually salvage relationships with extended family—and maybe even save a marriage. There’s not enough room for three.