Do I Have To Have A Relationship With My Mother-In-Law?

Morning friends,

Thanks so much for your prayers. It was a grueling week and I spoke a lot and now I’m sick with a head cold. I have another week of travel to go. As I gave my keynote address at AACC there was a collective gasp when I said, “Abuse, adultery, and addictions are not marital problems. They cause problems in a marriage for sure. But they are first and foremost character issues, personal issues, sin issues and are best treated working individually with the person who has damaged the marriage. It is only when that part is done can you attempt to do the work to repair the relationship.”

So many therapists and pastors treat these issues as marital issues and the victim starts to feel as if she or he is the bad guy for “causing” someone to act out in such a destructive way. That is not true.

Each person is responsible for his or her own reactions and behaviors. If you’re living with a guilt trip or are taking responsibility for someone else’s ways of managing their frustrations or problems, stop it. You are not at fault. Yes, there may be mutual marital problems for you to work on once the destructive behaviors have stopped but until safety is maintained, there can be no close marital or any other kind of relationship.  

Today's Question: My Father-in-law is emotionally and verbally abusive and my Mother-in-law is pressuring me to talk to him. How am I supposed to deal with them Biblically? Is it okay to love them from a distance?

Answer: I’ve chosen to answer this question because it begs the question of whether God requires me to befriend or hang out with people I don’t like or whose behavior or character I find offensive or harmful to me. In your particular example, it’s an extended family member, which can create even more of a guilt trip if you choose to keep the relationship at arm’s length.  

You mention that your mother-in-law is pressuring you to talk to him. Is she emotionally abusive as well? What is she pressuring you to talk with him about? Restoring the relationship? Coming over for the holidays? Why you have boundaries around contact with her husband? You haven’t made that clear in your question so I’m going to answer this more generally than I might if you were specific, but I think the principles will still apply.

First, Jesus shows us what God’s character is like. The Bible tells us that Jesus is the exact representation of the nature of God (Hebrews 1:3). Did Jesus hang out with or befriend people he didn’t like or enjoy? Sometimes he did for specific reasons, but not always.

For example, at the last supper, we see Jesus interacting with Judas, and I’m going to assume that there were things about Judas character that Jesus found hurtful or offensive. But Judas was still “invited” to the last supper and Jesus had a personal conversation with him about what he was about to do.

We also see Jesus interacting with the Pharisees where they questioned him and sometimes not very nicely (John 10:20). Yet we see no personal friendship with these people. Jesus treated them with care and concern for their well-being, but there is not a mutual or reciprocal relationship like we see with Mary and Martha and Lazarus (Luke 10).

John 2:23,24 also reminds us: “Many began to trust in him. But Jesus didn’t trust them, because he knew all about people. No one needed to tell him about human nature, for he knew what was in each person’s heart.” We see Jesus exercising caution and stewardship over his personhood including leaving people who were destructive.

So to answer your question. Can you love your mother -in-law from a distance? The answer is yes. But it’s a certain kind of love.

I’ve been pondering this distinction and maybe it will be helpful here.

I’ve talked some in this blog about developing one’s big circle which is the part of you that contains your highest values and virtues. Its the part of you that you aspire to be as a person. So many of us react and make decisions from a lesser part of us – our emotions or negative thoughts, and that can get us in trouble.  

For example, “I spend way too much money on vacation because it feels good. But when I get home I regret it because my values say “you want to get out of debt.” Or, “I yell at my kids in a fit of rage, but I feel bad later because that’s not the kind of parent I want to be.”

When we understand that our identity does not rest in our feelings but rather in our values and virtues, we can make much clearer decisions. It’s unlikely that you “feel” loving towards your in-laws. However, God says that we are to “put on the virtue of love” as our “all purpose garment” (Colossians 3:14).

We are to be imitators of God and live a life of love (Ephesians 5:1). Love is a high value of God and therefore of his people. He wants people to know us by our love for one another (John 13:35). But I don’t think it’s a “feeling” kind of love, but rather a virtuous kind of love. I love because I am a loving person rather than I love because I feel loving at the moment. – Click To Tweet

Jesus himself didn’t “feel” like going to the cross yet his virtues and values were aligned with wanting to do the Father’s will and therefore he made his decision from that place rather than his emotions (Matthew 26:39).

Right now your mother-in-law doesn’t sound like a friend, a confidant, or a mentor. You don’t trust her or her husband. I’m not sure she’s in the enemy category but you aren’t feeling a lot of warm fuzzy feelings towards her.  I’m not sure how your own husband feels about his parents and their relationship dynamics but his feelings are important too and it can make things more difficult for you to have boundaries for yourself if he is opposed to those boundaries or will not support you in them.

So your question is how are you supposed to deal with them Biblically? I think by graciously speaking the truth in love. By guarding your own heart and having appropriate boundaries if they spew their verbal abuse your way. If your mother-in-law is a victim of her husband’s verbal abuse too, I think you can show loving compassion towards her and perhaps show her a different way of handling someone who mistreats her rather than the silent martyr approach that she’s taken.  

If she participates in verbally abusing you and your husband then perhaps a meet up with her is not smart if it’s only going to lead to more verbal abuse. Paul warned young Timothy to stay away from Alexander the Coppersmith because he did Paul great harm (2 Timothy 4:14). Did that mean Paul was unforgiving? No, or he could not have written half the New Testament, including the entire love chapter of 1 Corinthians 13. But it does mean that it is not unloving (Biblically speaking) to be prudent and cautious around destructive and harmful individuals.  

We are to honor our parents (Biblically speaking) but that doesn't mean we have to be close personal friends with them. A close friendship requires that relationship to be safe, mutual, and reciprocal.  

Friends, when you have a relative or friend who has a pattern of verbal abuse towards you, what have you done?  Have you felt guilty or wrong for having boundaries?


  1. Annie on November 7, 2018 at 2:23 pm

    I’m not sure if this story is directly related to the question posted here today. However, it does deal with an abusive family member trying to control another.

    The story I am referring to is this portion of Jesus’ visit with Mary and Martha:

    “But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” Luke 10:40

    I find this verse packs so much ‘between the lines.’ Martha is distracted. Rather than dealing with her distractions, she puts Jesus on the hot spot for not caring about her. She then tries to manipulate him into dealing with Mary. Obviously, Martha wasn’t having much success getting Mary to comply with her wishes. She didn’t have much luck with Jesus, either.

    I have been like Martha so many times in my life. I don’t like dealing with difficult people or situations. My technique is to emotionally ‘hide under the bed’ and keep my distance rather than deal with my real or imaged adversaries in a positive, loving and constructive manner.

    I am thankful for this story in the Bible because it showed me a technique I often rely on when I don’t like what others are doing or when I am afraid to deal with personal conflict.

    I no longer have a mother-in-law to deal with as she has long since passed away. Thankfully, she was a kind, gentle soul. But I have difficult family members that sometimes try to emotionally manipulate me by making condescending and borderline abusive comments or suggestion as to what I should do, or how I should do it. And I still find them difficult to deal with. I want to do the right thing, but even more-so, I prefer to avoid them rather than deal with them.

    And now I have a Pastor that is causing me some distress because there are some things she says and does that raise emotional red flags for me. I would prefer to have Jesus deal with these issues because I don’t know what to say or do in some of the situations that occur. My preference is to avoid her.

    However, it is my problem to figure out how to deal with her in love, but without allowing myself to be manipulated into feeling or doing things that are not right for me. It’s not easy when conflict arise between family members, be they relatives or members of a church family.

    I don’t know how to handle my differences of opinion with her because I know I am to respect those in authority over me in my church family. With relatives, I feel better equipped to gently stand my ground if they are trying to manipulate or abuse me, but I sometimes am not sure where to draw the lines with them, either.

    I think what I have learned from the story of Mary and Martha is that Jesus commended Mary because she gave priority to loving Jesus over serving him. Both are important. However, Mary, in her decisive (and wise) choice of action was thereby able to discreetly, yet firmly resisted Martha’s attempts to control her. Martha’s last ditch resort was to try to enlist Jesus to help her by accusing him of not caring about her because he could see that Mary would not do what Martha wanted. I wonder what Martha saw in Jesus that made her think he was uncaring? False accusations may or may not be subtle, but they are always a form of manipulation,and manipulation is a form of abuse.

    This is a difficult path to walk, especially with family members. One of the best lessons I learned about dealing with difficult family members happened years ago shortly after I first came to know the Lord. The pastor and his wife had invited me to dinner with them after church one Sunday. During the meal, one of the children made a somewhat derogatory comment to their mother about the food. The mother immediately reprimanded the child in a firm but kind way. She made it very clear that the child’s behaviour was not appropriate, nor would she tolerate it. Then she simply moved on with the meal and had in no way demeaned the child. She had made her point and the child respected her for her kind, but firm rebuttal of unacceptable behaviour.

    That scene has stayed with me ever since. I am still learning how to stand firm when someone tries to demean, control or bully me. And the case in point is that I still don’t know how to handle my differences with the leadership style of our women’s pastor. The issue with her is that I perceive a tendency to nag the group members to confirm to the church’s standards for ‘good’ Christians. I don’t like being nagged. Nagging is subtle form of abuse. But because it is non-confrontational it is is hard to pin down and formulate a loving, but firm stance that respects her office while at the same time seeks to respect my own integrity.

    It is not good to be pressured into doing something we do not want to do. I too, am interested in learning how to lovingly and effectively deal with this difficult family situation.

    Please try to get some rest, Leslie. Thank you for keeping on even when you are not feeling well.

    • Moon Beam on November 8, 2018 at 4:25 pm

      Sometimes dealing with evil in love is misguided. We need to be wise here. Love is not the attitude we should have towards Satan and those exhibiting the behaviors of demons.

    • Nancy on November 9, 2018 at 7:57 am

      HI Annie,

      As far as your pastor is concerned, there is nothing at all disrespectful about saying “no thanks” to her.

      And if she nags again, “I’m puzzled by you bringing this up again as I was clear in my no” and allow her to respond.

      This would not be about changing her, but an excercise in protecting yourself. Her response will tell you a lot about what kind of person she is but do not allow her response to deter you from standing firm in your no.

      If you have to quietly walk our of group meetings..,do it.

      When we decide to guard our heart at all costs, we are choosing to no longer be a victim.

      “Above all else, guard your heart for it is the wellspring of your life” Prov 4:23

      • Annie on November 9, 2018 at 11:34 am

        Thanks for your wise insight Nancy. I am gradually learning to defend my boundaries in a kind, but firm (and hopefully loving) way. All my life I have been a people pleaser so it is taking some effort and practice to say no and actually mean no.

  2. Nancy on November 7, 2018 at 3:47 pm

    Yes, I feel guilty for sure. But I cannot let that false guilt run my life.

    I have to recognize that if I am not 100% prepared to see my mother then I become an ugly person in her presence. And I can’t afford for my kids to experience me that way.

    It was our daughter’s birthday this week-end and my mother came for a 30 minute visit to drop a present. My h and I did not pray, we got distracted ( we decided that he should run out to the store for last minute party items) and she arrived when he was gone. Big. Mistake. We did not intentionally present a united front.

    I found myself saying to friends yesterday, “maybe I’ll never be healed enough to remain unaffected by her”.

    I shut down and lose my voice entirely. Not the way I want my family to experience me.

  3. moon beam on November 7, 2018 at 5:27 pm

    What i have done is protected my chidren. We moved away and cut off all contact from abusive grandparents. We had sexual predators in our family so it was an easy decison. We made new surrogate grandparents and talked about the mental health issues of those we shunned and moved on.

  4. Janice D on November 8, 2018 at 6:46 am

    Hi Nancy, I have had a very difficult relationship with my mom(I am 64 and my mom is 88). The Lord has graciously given me a measure of healing within the last 4 or 5 years.She had a major stroke last year and I have been visiting more frequently as a result.It will never be the warm mother-daughter relationship my heart desires.My mother’s choices in life have limited her ability to receive help and she continues to live life”on her terms”.I have much better boundaries and do not personalize her comments anymore.I do not allow the FOG(fear,obligation,and guilt) to
    overwhelm me as I did for so many years.She is a toxic person and I must protect myself while still ensuring she is cared for. God is faithful and will continue to guide you as you seek to honor Him first in all your relationships.It is wonderful that you and your husband are of one mind in this.Sadly my husband isn’t as he has no understanding of boundaries.It is life changing and freeing to walk in truth,even when those nearest you do not.

    • Nancy on November 8, 2018 at 1:40 pm

      Thank you for the encouragement, Janice.

      Yes, what I want is exactly that – to honour God first in all my relationships.

  5. Moon Beam on November 8, 2018 at 4:26 pm

    Sometimes dealing with evil in love is misguided. We need to be wise here. Love is not the attitude we should have towards Satan and those exhibiting the behaviors of demons.

  6. Cindy on November 20, 2018 at 10:21 am

    My mother-in-law lives with us. My husband is controlling and my mother-in-law is very manipulative. Some days I think I am going to loose my mind. I can’t just choose not to go around my mother-in-law I have to deal with her every day. I have so much guilt when it comes to her I don’t like her very much and I hate what she aloud to happen to my husband and his siblings when they were growing up. It is the reason that my husband has the issues that he has today. I know as a Christian I have to love her but it is so HARD! Most days I just want to run away but I know that is not the answer.

    • Autumn on November 20, 2018 at 9:39 pm

      You don’t need to live her or feel guilty. She is sinning against you. You are not obligated to love someone who gives evidence of being evil. That would be called denial and sick on your part.

      Why does she live with you. Kick her out.

      • Vernick on November 20, 2018 at 11:46 pm

        Actuallly God does tell us to love our enemy. This includes her. Does it make sense? No. But God says hate will deform us. Loving our enemy may not make one bit if difference to an enemy but it will make keep a huge difference in you

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