For many, love, family, and favorite foods stir up happy dreams of coming home for the holidays. For others, gathering with family is more like a nightmare. Dashed hopes, unmet expectations, and disappointments lead to family fissures and intentional distancing. While this applies to any family relationship, this can be particularly difficult with in-laws. But, in the midst of what seems impossible, the good news is that God can bring hope into the most hopeless and hard relationships.
Everyone has a dream
The mother-in-law/daughter-in-law relationship can be especially complex. Each woman comes to the newly-created family with a dream. A mother-in-law may dream of carrying on with her traditions. Or, she may look at the relationship as a way to start over and make right what she did wrong in the past. Likewise, a daughter-in-law may dream of starting traditions of her own. And while she knows confidence in her new role will take time, she expects respect for her desire and effort.
So, what could go wrong with wanting to spend time together as a family? Us! Our broken world and our own broken hearts stain our best efforts. Sin twists our good desires into unreasonable expectations. Unmet expectations can lead us to manipulate or guilt trip those we love best, and we get full of anger and resentment. But our emotions shouldn’t control us. We can ask God to show us where our good desires went wrong and plead for the grace to change.
One year I started to dream of a holiday celebration with those I love most. Like a playwright, I turned my precious dreams into a complete story. I planned to a fault. I wrote mental notes of every scene imaginable. No one had access to the script, but I expected everyone to play their part in my dream perfectly. It didn’t take long, though, to realize that each person in my family came with their own dreams. I was surprised and hurt by unmet expectations.
I’ve recently written a book with my daughter-in-law Stacy titled, Making Room for Her: Biblical Wisdom for a Healthier Relationship with Your Mother-In-Law or Daughter-In-Law. Writing together has helped us have some good conversations. We’ve learned a lot about loving each other well. Frustrations are certain. But we need to remember that we love each other, and our expectations usually arise out of good intentions.
A better dream
Though working through these relationships can be frustrating, the answer isn’t to throw our hands up in the air and give up. God created relationships to help us see what his real love looks like. Your relationship with your mother-in-law or daughter-in-law — and every family member — is no exception. Our relationships are designed to not only show us what God’s love for us looks like, but also so that we can embody that kind of love. If you give up now, you’ll miss out on a chance not only to know God better, but to become more like him.
Maybe you think, “Holidays will always be tough. You don’t know my in-law. I can’t love her. I’ve tried and tried — nothing I do makes any difference.” Here’s the truth: When you received Christ’s salvation by faith, God forgave you, and he did not leave you to try and live the Christian life on your own. He filled you with his Spirit (Gal. 3:14), and will do in you what you cannot do for yourself (Gal. 5:13–15; 22–23).
Love for your in-law is the fruit that grows in your life by the Spirit’s power working in you. Notice what this means: You cannot produce this love on your own. Let this truth encourage you. Love is a fruit of the Spirit. If you could naturally love your in-law, it would be a fruit of your personality or your emotional intelligence. True love never happens without God’s Spirit working in you.
God’s bigger dreams
How does love keep growing in your heart? The same way it began: by faith in God. Faith comes by hearing the Word of God (Rom. 10:17). And God’s Word assures us that he loves us and will give us all we need to produce the fruit of love. Even in the most difficult of in-law relationships, God fills us with his Spirit so we keep growing in his love by faith. Only he can do it, so let’s ask him. Here are a few ways you can pray for you in-law relationships this season.
Ask God for love. Pray for more love for him, your husband, and your in-law. Commit to pray for your in-law. Let your life and words be filled with courtesy and grace.
Ask God for contentment. Pray for rest in your in-law role (Phil. 4:10–13). Take stock of how God blesses you every day, no matter how your role changes. Add your in-law to your list of blessings. Embrace her as a companion to your entire family. Realize her presence brims with beautiful potential. Trust in the Lord and take delight in him (Psa. 37:3–6). Commit your way to him and he will give you more love, joy, and peace. Choose to view your in-law in the ways you hope she’d view you. Trust God to help you grow to cherish her presence in your life.
Ask God to help you recognize your blind spots. Pray he’s help you repent quickly of jealousy and pride. Stop comparisons. Don’t view your relationship as a competition. Your in-law does not have it all. She needs your support, not your insecurity. Just like you, your in-law has problems, trials, and weaknesses. Ask God to help you learn to celebrate your in-law’s joy and success. Seek to reconcile, not to win.
Ask God to help you forgive. The natural barriers between mothers- and daughters-in-law can make unforgiveness grow. We all need constant reminders to forgive. Has she hurt you? Has she wounded you? Ask God for a heart to forgive any slights. Don’t wait until you feel like it or she apologizes. Talk to her when the time is appropriate, and be ready to forgive her. Committed love promises forgiveness. And do not allow self-pity to eat away at your relationship. As you repent and forgive, God will teach you to love your in-law for who she is, not for what she will give you (Eph. 4:31–32).
Our dreams for the holidays and for our lives are so small. God’s dream is always greater than we can imagine (Eph. 3:20). Your relationship with your in-law is a building block toward God’s greater vision. Begin now to ask Christ to make your in-law relationship part of his strong foundation for many faithful generations of your family to come (Isa. 58:12) — and to make this a happier, enjoyable holiday.