My wife Ashley and I have been working together to help married couples thrive for the past decade. We’ve received literally thousands of messages on Facebook, Instagram and our The Naked Marriage podcast over the years from couples who are struggling to make their marriages work. We get questions about sex, money, communication and nearly every other topic imaginable. Recently, we received a message from a desperate husband which addressed an important dynamic many couples face. His message said:
“Dave and Ashley, please HELP! My marriage is in crisis and my wife won’t even admit there’s a problem. It has to do with my Mother-in-Law. My wife was always very close to her mom; which on the surface seems like a good thing, but their relationship seems really out-of-balance to me. Once I came into the picture, my Mother-in-Law (MIL) seemed threatened by me because I was “stealing” her daughter away and she expected to have 24/7 access to my wife. There’s only peace in our home when I don’t do anything to disrupt my MIL’s plans with my wife. From my perspective, my wife’s mom and her husband have never had a great marriage, so my wife’s mom has always leaned on my wife for spouse-level friendship and emotional support. They have a codependent relationship where even now my wife feels like she needs her mom’s permission and approval for her/our decisions.
My wife has been in this dynamic so long it doesn’t even seem weird or unhealthy to her. I try to tell her that it’s not normal or healthy to be constantly available to her mom, but my wife replies that she’s just ‘honoring her parents’ like it says to do in the Bible. That ‘honor your parents’ Bible verse seems to be the only one my MIL likes to quote and she quotes it often. I could go on and on with examples of how my MIL has gaslighted, sabotaged, manipulated, punished and controlled my wife. I feel trapped. I feel like there’s no room for me in my own marriage unless I play by my MIL’s twisted rules. It’s like my wife is married to her mom and I’m just the roommate. I can’t go on like this, but I have no idea how to change the situation or even convince my wife that there’s a real problem? What do I do???”
I can feel the desperation in this husband’s plea. He longs for deep intimate connection with his wife, but that connection is currently being disrupted by an outside force. His wife doesn’t see the problem in the same way that a fish in the ocean doesn’t realize it’s wet. Water is the only world the fish has ever known, just like dysfunction is all this wife has ever known with her mom. The human mind can become conditioned to see any form of dysfunction as “normal” if it happens long enough.
The Bible makes it clear that God’s plan for marriage requires a man and woman leaving their families of origin and joining together as a new family (see Genesis 2:24). Outside our relationship with God, our relationship with a spouse is the most important relationship on earth and no other human relationship (including with our parents or even our kids) can replace the place of priority God designed the marriage to have. When the marriage comes first, all other family relationships will be healthy and in balance. When the marriage is replaced by any other relationship, all relationships (and our own mental health) will eventually suffer as a result.
For the husband who wrote this message and for the countless couples who are caught in a similar dynamic with an in-law or any individual who has too much influence, here are a few practical next steps to consider:
Talk to a counselor.
For the spouse who is being controlled, it will usually take professional counseling to help them see that the current situation is unhealthy. This man’s wife doesn’t realize that the situation is broken, because she’s allowed her mother to be her moral authority on what is “good” and “bad,” and her mom is fueling this unhealthy situation. When the husband speaks up, she sees him as “wrong” because he’s going against her mother whom she’s been conditioned to see as always right. This wife needs a professional Christian counselor to help her start to unravel the twisted roots of dysfunction that have fed this situation for too long. For online counseling options, I would recommend our partners at Faithful Counseling or reach out to our trained marriage mediators at www.xomarriage.com/help.
Put healthy boundaries in place.
Right now in this marriage, there are no boundaries for the MIL and without healthy boundaries, the marriage will eventually be damaged beyond repair. Establishing healthy boundaries can be a difficult process, but there are great resources to help. In addition to the help of a professional counselor, the books Boundaries by Dr. John Townsend and The Emotionally Destructive Relationship by Leslie Vernick can help you identify the current unhealthy patterns and chart out a course to healing. Our own new book, Naked and Healthy, could also be a helpful resource.
Be willing to take drastic actions which might include relocating.
Part of the “leaving and cleaving” described in the Bible might include you literally leaving the area and relocating (temporarily or permanently) to a different region. This isn’t always a necessary step, but if an opportunity arises to move, be open to it. Sometimes having your own space is exactly what the marriage needs to form the bonds and the independence God desires every husband and wife to share together as they build their own family. Moving away is not running away from your problems; it’s prioritizing the marriage by creating space for you to build a life together without interference. Always keep “honoring your parents” as it says in Scripture, but oftentimes, that honoring will have to happen from a distance.
Remember that there are no enemies in these situations.
This husband might be tempted to see his Mother-in-Law as an enemy, but she’s not. She’s a broken person who wants what all people want; she wants to be loved. She’s just going about it in an unhealthy way. Instead of retaliating or punishing the person who’s hurting your marriage, pray for them. Love them. Ask God to soften your heart towards them. Ask God to bring healing to their broken heart so they wouldn’t need to seek love and companionship in such manipulative ways. Yes, you’ll still need to put firm boundaries in place, but keeping a loving, forgiving and compassionate attitude will keep your own heart from growing hard and it will create space for a genuinely healthy relationship with them to happen someday. Even if this person treats you like an enemy, remember that Jesus said to “love you enemies.” Love is the only road to healing.
Don’t lose hope! If you’re caught in a situation like this, take these action steps and move forward knowing you will get through this. This will become a story someday you’ll be able to tell about God’s faithfulness. Your marriage can grow stronger through this struggle if you’ll face it together and don’t give up. It might take longer than you’re thinking, but don’t lose hope. Keep praying. Keep loving. Keep going.
For more tools to help you build a healthy marriage, check out The Naked Marriage podcast and our new book, Naked and Healthy.