marriage: parent & adult child relationships

How are we supposed to treat the parent-adult child or in-law relationships in our lives? This is a question that has almost plagued me in my marriage. My hubby and I come from completely different backgrounds! The longer we are married, the more opposite we seem because of how we were raised. He folds his socks as matches are made. I put all the socks into a pile and then match and fold them at the end of the other folding. His family goes boating on Sundays, mine barely lays a finger out the front door (except for church responsibilities). Our families carry different standards and values, and somehow my hubby and I ended up together.

I was asked by a friend of mine what I know and have studied about extended family relationships and thought of how much I really needed to revamp my knowledge on extended family and what parent-adult child relationships should be like.

My first thoughts took me to the scriptures (most answers can be found in those things!). I first went to the Book of Mormon and looked at the relationship of Nephi and his father Lehi. Nephi obeys his father’s desires to leave Jerusalem, to go get the plates, and then to get a wife (but who wouldn’t obey that one? I mean, Laman and Lemuel followed that one straightway). But Nephi didn’t just blindly follow his father… he chose for himself. This is apparent in the Tree of Life vision. Lehi shared his vision and then Nephi asked for himself. I also love that Nephi came away with different and more in-depth answers to that vision. So how can this relate to the parent-adult child relationships we have?

The other story that I read about in Patricia Russel’s talk is on Ruth and Naomi in the bible (Building Good In-Law Relationships By Patricia Russell). Even though these two women were only family through marriage, the love and devotion they had to one another is a perfect example of what our relationships can and should be with our in-laws. Easier said than done right? Right.

So in order to have in-laws, we need to have a spouse! And the idea of marriage has been in God’s plan since day one. Cue Adam and Eve!

Adam and Eve are my ultimate role models of how to create a good marriage. If you are in a jam, it seems that these two have the answers. In Genesis 2 the Lord creates man. After creating Adam, the Lord caused a deep sleep to come upon Adam and out of Adam’s rib, he created Eve. This scripture follows, “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). To cleave means to be loyal, devoted, and steadfast. It is important for husbands and wives to heed this counsel and apply it in their marriage. Adam wasn’t complete until he had a wife and vice versa. It wasn’t that Adam was complete with God, his father.

The role of mother, father, son and daughter cannot be expected to stay the same when a child gets married. Parents will need to give up their previous roles and allow independence. However, the couple will need to realize that there are previous relationships that existed before they came along and that even though this will change, the change won’t be a onetime thing.

As a couple, you have to create your own marriage identity. Kind of like how Nephi took the vision and got his own interpretation out of it; couples can take what they have been taught and decided for themselves what will define them as “one flesh.” President Spencer W. Kimball talked about the following three things: a couple needs to confide and counsel with each other, a couple needs to establish their household separately from parents, and a couple needs to prayerfully consider counsel from outside sources together. This will help you and your spouse define boundaries. In Helping and Healing our Families it states, “It helps a…married couple to think of themselves as existing together inside an invisible fence” p.328. So information stays in and people stay out.

This is really tough to do. In my life, sometimes this isn’t possible. My hubby works for his parents. He talks to and sees them at least twice as much as he does me. There is communication that goes on between them that I cannot be a part of; business and personal communication. So not only does that happen, but he is so busy that I cannot get a hold of him to communicate as much as I may think necessary for our relationship. It is a heavy burden to bear. But I am grateful for how wonderful we do communicate when time is made… and for how much sacrifice I know it sometimes is for my hubby to listen to my incessant phone calls :)

This invisible fence that is created needs to be discussed often to protect, maintain and heal if needed. I think especially for women (and especially for me in my situation), this fence is really important to give women a sense of security in marriage. Especially for them to feel that they are not in the fenced area alone and their hubby in a fenced area with his parents.

Sometimes there are intrusions between parents and children (a couple) into this invisible fence. Intrusions can be physically (coming over too much) and emotionally (opinions and expectations). Enmeshment is when parents and children feel they always have to be together and there is no room for excuses. It can cause lots of strife and burden in the pressure of making it to family events if a family is enmeshed. If something like this is happening , it is more likely that parents are dealing with their emotional issues and you aren’t the issue. So what can you do if enmeshment is happening? An option comes from Helping and Healing Families. It says, “they (children) may want to express love and gratitude, explain they have a need to further strengthen their couple identity, and explain how the expectations for being together with the family are getting in the way of their couple relationship.” Do this in a respectful and humble manner.

So what can parents do or not do to strengthen their relationships with their in-laws and adult children? Gloria Horsley in The In-law Survival Manual: A Guide to Cultivating Health In-law Relationships says parents can strengthen that relationship by avoiding these things:

  1. 1- giving advice
  2. 2- criticizing
  3. 3- pinning down children in-law as to the specific reasons they are missing a family event
  4. 4- taking over discipline of grandchildren
  5. 5- trying to control everyone and everything including children in-law’s beliefs
  6. 6- indirect and unclear communication

If a parent-in-law does things right the effect can be eternally positive and long felt. What are the right things? I am sure as a parent-in-law, you don’t feel like you can do anything right. Well, I am sure your daughter-in-law or son-in-law feels the same way. Being mindful and respecting their different backgrounds, beliefs and standards is a good start. Not feeling defensive that they married your son/daughter. Don’t expect them to do things the way you do… it might be nice to share with them what you have done as a family (traditions, routines, etc). Give them space and “open the doors” to your world and let them come in. Don’t force them to do something they have reservations about. Prayerfully consider when to step in and when to allow space.

What can you do as a child and in-law to strengthen your relationships with your spouse’s and your own family? First, you need to set boundaries for what is allowed. This is to be done together between you and your spouse. Don’t have your spouse be the go between for you and your in-laws!!! It causes mistrust and can damage future growth of relationships. Contacting your families together regularly is also important; it shows that your relationship with them is something you value. When you are comfortable, disclose personal information that will open their eyes to who you are and what you believe. Communicate openly, accept differences, and use empathy to further these relationships.

Overall, I believe that the most important thing for both parents and married children to use is forgiveness and repentance. With each new marriage comes new experiences, trials, and joys. We are not perfect and therefore, you cannot expect them to be perfect. We can let these things hinder us, or make us stronger. How much more joy we can feel if we open our hearts to new growth and love.

So how is your relationship with your parents and in-laws? What can you do to strengthen that relationship?

I know that the family unit is ordained of God. It has been established since day one with Adam and Eve and is meant to be a central focus of this earthly life. Our relationships are eternal and we have to develop them into the kind of relationships that are positive… now. Not waiting for the other to initiate the growth. You need to step in. Create that imaginary fence with your spouse so that security is fastened and then you can pursue your other relationships knowing that you and your spouse are on the same page and will support one another.

Remember the Lord commanded us to leave our parents and cleave unto our spouse. What can you do today to cleave?

Further Reading and Resouces

The Proclamation to the World: the Family

Helping and Healing our Families: Chapter 37 Edited by Craig H. Hart, Lloyd D. Newell, Elaine Walton, and David C. Dollahite

Strengthening Our Families: An in-Depth Look at the Proclamation on the Family Edited by David C. Dollahite

Building Good In-Law Relationships by Patricia Russell

The In-law Survival Manual: A Guide to Cultivating Health In-law Relationships by Gloria Horsley


  1. Well written, Claire! Thanks for the resources and hints. Issues can arise even in in-law relationships that aren't "sturggling," so this is good advice to all. It's so true that there are a couple of backgrounds and a newer family to work with! :)

  2. Love this post! It is so my life day in and out. When you can throw a rock a literally hit your in-laws house there has to be a lot of boundaries and redefining of them on a regular bases. I can't tell you how many times I tell Abe and my in-laws that he can't be the middle man and his parents need to contact me/us directly. It always seems to be the main cause of miscommunication!
    Oh, I could go on. But it may be a few hours. If only I could take what I've learned and tell it to myself 5 1/2 years ago, how much smoother the transition would have been.
    Love love love this!