Building Good In-Law Relationships


The Old Testament story of Ruth and Naomi offers a valuable model for building good in-law relationships.

“Intreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God” (Ruth 1:16).

Those are beautiful words, touching and poetic, but not the words of a woman to the man she loves. Rather, they are the words of a daughter-in-law to her mother-in-law.

So spoke Ruth to Naomi when she made the decision to stay rather than leave her. Naomi of Judah had moved with her husband from Bethlehem to the land of Moab, east of the Dead Sea, during a famine in Israel. Later, Naomi’s husband died in that foreign country. Her two sons married there; then they also died. Preparing to return to her own people in Israel, Naomi bade farewell to her Moabite daughters-in-law. One returned to the family of her birth, but Ruth declined to be separated from Naomi.

At this point we might ask ourselves why this account of King David’s family history is included in the Old Testament. Do we need to know of Ruth only because she became the great-grandmother of David and thereby a progenitor of the Savior? Or is there something more, a principle we should learn from Ruth’s relationship with her mother-in-law?

Among the many principles this biblical story illustrates is a fundamental principle of sound family relationships: love and respect for in-laws. We see it in the way Naomi thought of her daughters-in-law before herself, urging them to choose the course that they might see as best for their own futures. We also see it in the way that Ruth loved Naomi and extended the fifth commandment—“Honour thy father and thy mother” (Ex. 20:12)—to include her mother-in-law in her circle of care. What occurred between Ruth and Naomi exemplifies a type of consideration and concern essential to any good relationship: the ability to put another’s needs first.

Like Ruth and Naomi, we can apply principles of love and respect to make our in-law relationships beautiful and binding. We can learn to deal with differences appropriately and avoid getting caught up in negative stereotypes or feeling hurt when our expectations are not met.

Building on Gospel Principles

All in-law and extended family relationships can be strengthened by obedience to fundamental principles of the gospel. Some important elements that apply to these relationships are underscored in “The Family: A Proclamation to the World.” Included in its inspired counsel are these words: “Happiness in family life is most likely to be achieved when founded upon the teachings of the Lord Jesus Christ. Successful marriages and families are established and maintained on principles of faith, prayer, repentance, forgiveness, respect, love, compassion, work, and wholesome recreational activities” (Ensign, Nov. 1995, 102; pamphlet, item no. 35571). The proclamation also gives this counsel: “Extended families should lend support when needed.” The most successful in-law relationships allow married children to receive and parents to offer spiritual, emotional, or even financial support as needed, but must not limit the children’s ability to act in their own fundamental roles as husband, wife, or parent. The role of the extended family in any marital relationship is to offer “support when needed” and not to give unwanted direction.

Consider these words of Elder Marvin J. Ashton (1915–94) of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles: “Certainly a now-married man should cleave unto his wife in faithfulness, protection, comfort, and total support, but in leaving father, mother, and other family members, it was never intended that they now be ignored, abandoned, shunned, or deserted. They are still family, a great source of strength, a refuge, a delight, and an eternal unit. Wise parents, whose children have left to start their own families, realize their family role still continues, not in a realm of domination, control, regulation, supervision, or imposition, but in love, concern, and encouragement” (“He Took Him by the Hand,” Ensign, Jan. 1974, 104).

Along these lines, it should be said that there is nothing inherently wrong with in-laws’ trying to do things for children, provided both husband and wife are agreed on receiving the help and are prepared to deal with its possible influence in their marriage. In-law relationships work best when both children and parents guard against unhealthy dependence without thwarting harmonious contact and when they develop the kind of relationship that is comfortable for all parties.

Dealing with Differences

As Jim and Sandra fell in love, one of the factors they had to deal with was their difference in personalities. Sandra is very lively, intense, and motivated. Jim is not in a hurry and is relaxed and satisfied to move along at his own speed.

When Jim first joined a gathering of Sandra’s family, with parents and six children all talking a mile a minute, he felt overwhelmed by the pace of the conversation and the liveliness of the action. Always there were several topics flying at once, and Sandra kept track of all of them, as did her siblings. Yet Jim was a one-thing-at-a-time man. He might have retreated or lost confidence in his opportunity to fit into this fast-paced family, but he didn’t. He became an expert at building relationships with Sandra’s family members.

Humor often helps people deal with problems without being negative. Some well-adjusted people can laugh about strange or unusual behavior while retaining positive feelings about the individuals involved. I remember my father’s chuckling about how his mother-in-law always wore a black dress and hat with a feather in it when we went on a picnic. He was less good-natured about some of her other behaviors that involved one of her children. But it was always clear to us that Dad admired and respected—yes, loved—our grandmother. His enthusiasm for our visits to her home and her visits to ours never failed. She loved him as she did one of her own children. This taught me that the way we air our differences is vital. We can express amusement over behavior yet retain an attitude of respect and support. More important, we can talk of basic differences in philosophy or personality and still maintain loyalty.

It helps to overlook small irritations. Some people are determined to be loyal, and they refuse to speak negatively of their relationships but also express wishes that some changes could be made—usually by their in-laws. They may examine differences or incidents from their own perspectives, often turning them over and over in their minds. How much better it would be if we could treat such small incidents as isolated occurrences with little permanent bearing on family dynamics—and then promptly forget them.

If we have patience, commitment to the celestial goal of family unity, willing minds and hearts, and good attitudes, bridges can be built.

Avoiding the Stereotypes

In-laws can improve relationships by not allowing unhealthy stereotypes such as the interfering mother-in-law, the controlling father-in-law, the selfish daughter-in-law, or the insensitive son-in-law. It would also be wise of the children not to interpret every move to help or to be involved as interference, and equally wise of parents to avoid controlling their married children’s lives or giving unwanted advice. A deliberate application of the Golden Rule (see Matt. 7:12) can be effective here: think of others’ thoughts and feelings as you would want them to think of yours.

A man who had grown up fatherless married into a family whose father was less educated and less widely traveled. But he found that the counsel and priesthood blessings given by his humble, spiritually strong father-in-law were invaluable.

How can everyone know this kind of respect and trust between son- or daughter-in-law and mother- or father-in-law—the kind of trust that seems to have existed between Ruth and Naomi? In order for love and trust to grow, all parties must give up the selfish need to be right, to be in control, to set the other person straight. Naomi set the example of a righteous mother-in-law when she thought less of her own well-being than that of her daughters-in-law (see Ruth 1:10–13). And later, when a grandchild entered the picture—one who was not even her own grandson—“Naomi took the child, and laid it in her bosom, and became nurse unto it” (Ruth 4:16). There was apparently no jealousy on Ruth’s part when the Israelite women exulted: “There is a son born to Naomi” (Ruth 4:17). What a tribute to their mutual love and respect!

Dealing with Our Expectations

Sometimes people feel hurt when their expectations of another are not met. Thoughts like this may occur: “Here is how I want you to be. In fact, I thought you were like this. Now I find out that you are not. You have let me down.”

When Dennis became engaged, he hoped to build a rapport with his future mother-in-law. On the eve of their first visit, he expected she would be warm and congenial. Instead, she rarely made eye contact and said little, sometimes ignoring his comments. He wondered if he had done something wrong. Because she acted so distant, he began to take it personally and thought she was unfriendly.

He gradually realized that his mother-in-law was a shy person and that by being kind and patient he would win her confidence. Dennis let go of his previous expectations about her and pulled back on his usually outgoing ways. Hurt feelings were replaced by love and trust.

Perhaps the only expectations we should cling to are those having to do with our own moral and benevolent behavior. It is unlikely that we will ever get more out of a relationship than we are willing to invest to realize our expectations.

Sometimes it is unrealistic for a couple to meet all the expectations of both extended families. As a new family unit, they must be allowed to choose when to participate in extended family activities and when to establish their own traditions. This choice can be difficult when both families live nearby and already have well-established traditions. The guiding principles in making it work must be honesty and tact in discussing feelings and time commitments.

Helping In-Laws Who Are Aged

Sometimes it is necessary to invite an aging parent to live in the children’s home. Difficulties can arise or be worsened in this situation if things are not good to begin with. A couple should be sure of the strength of their marriage before they take on this added responsibility. We have a duty to take care of parents in the best way for them—but also for us. If each person can remember to think of the other as did Naomi and Ruth, having a parent in the home can be a great blessing. Many of our world’s societies make grandparents integral and honored members of the household, and homes in those societies are often stronger for the tradition. But aged parents and their children in such situations must take care to remember that a child’s duty to a parent does not outweigh his or her relationship to a spouse.

A former stake president I know often said there had been three great women in his life: his mother, his wife, and his mother-in-law. His mother-in-law, he said repeatedly, had been one of his greatest blessings. She had lived in his and his wife’s home for many years before her death and had made vital contributions to the rearing of their children and the sweetness of their home life.

Extending Love

Those who extend love and goodwill to their in-laws and find it is not returned still may have hope for the future. They can continue to demonstrate charity and compassion and follow the promptings of the Holy Ghost. By doing so, they may even help bring about a change in the relationship.

The symbols of Einstein’s formula of relativity, E=mc2, can be adapted into a simple formula for avoiding or resolving problems with our in-laws: Effectiveness of in-law relationships will depend on the quantity and quality of mutual caring that takes place. Multiply that mutual caring, and our effectiveness will increase too.

My mother often quoted a statement by Rabindranath Tagore: “Let my love like sunlight surround you and yet give you illumined freedom.” This seems to express a helpful attitude that in-laws and their children’s spouses might have toward one another. What could be more conducive to a celestial relationship than the mutual feeling of being safe and warm within the circle of another’s love? What could be better than a love that allows and encourages one’s freedom—an illumined, enlightened, and harmonious freedom?

Let’s Talk about It

Questions for family home evening or personal reflection:

  1. 1.

    Do I recognize loving and charitable motivations behind my in-laws’ actions and express gratitude for those?

  2. 2.

    Do I respect and try to help strengthen my married children’s relationships with their spouses?

  3. 3.

    If my daughter-in-law (or son-in-law, father-in-law, mother-in-law) has unfavorable attitudes toward Latter-day Saint beliefs, how can I best maintain a relationship while still living the gospel as I have covenanted?

  4. 4.

    If I feel the need to help my married children, how can I do so without intruding on their responsibilities and their decision making?

[photos] Photography by Matt Reier, posed by models; electronic composition by Scott Welty

[illustration] Ruth and Naomi, by Judith Mehr

Patricia Russell is the teacher development leader in the University Third Ward, Seattle Washington North Stake.