In-Law Relationships

Penny was truly upset. One year earlier, her husband, Lance, had convinced her to move with him to the New York City area because his mother lived there and offered to loan them the down payment for a new home. She was most upset with herself for going along with something that didn’t feel right for her. She felt Lance was too attached to his mother. She noticed his whole personality seemed to change when he was around her.

Most significantly, Penny felt Lance pulled away from her at those times, almost as if he were trying to protect his mother from the reality of his marriage. This bothered Penny the most. The thought of living in the same area was bad enough. Adding this new level of financial entanglement almost made her feel sick. True, they didn’t have the money for a down payment, nor the credit for a loan, but Penny dreaded what she foresaw as the constant overshadowing of her mother-in-law in their lives.

Lance, however, was convinced this was all a good idea. He felt he had attained a level of independence from his mother so that the financial involvement would be able to work. He was wrong. Penny and Lance felt his mother’s presence in almost every aspect of their lives. Whereas before the loan, Penny felt a scarcity of approval from her mother-in-law, now she felt none. She felt criticized and judged. Lance painfully realized how much he himself had regressed in his relationship with his mother this past year. He was having more and more difficulty setting boundaries with her. She insisted on advising him. His response was to shun her frequent phone calls and call her back as infrequently as possible.

In their first phone counseling session, I pointed out the urgency of their need to extricate themselves completely from any financial relationship with his mother. Their odds were very slim of being able to change the relationship while still owing her money. Armed with this awareness, it took them only three months to find another lender. The extra interest they had to pay a traditional mortgage company was a bargain compared to the emotional/spiritual interest they were paying his mother.

Without the financial indebtedness, we could then work on the deeper issues. I asked Lance when was the last time he had told his mother how much he loved Penny, and even that she was the most important person in his life. He cringed. He had never done this, feeling that somehow it would be hurting her. He sensed, mostly on an unconscious level, his mother’s deep attachment to him. Even as a child, his mother depended more on him for emotional support than she did on her husband. As long as she could somehow pretend Penny was really not the true love of her son’s life, perhaps she could always be the most special one in his life.

Lance knew what he had to do. For him, Penny was clearly number one. When he saw her next, he took her aside and let her know how much he loved Penny. He shared some of the spiritual gifts he had received from his wife. Then, in a moment of true compassionate wisdom, he thanked his mother for being such a good mother — and for accepting Penny into her life as well. Lance couldn’t help but notice a hint of sadness in his mother’s eyes mixed in with an acceptance of the inevitable.

In that moment a son was spiritually growing up. The relationship between all three of them took a turn for the better. His mother could now let go of the false hope of getting her son back. Lance no longer needed to protect her from the truth. And Penny could have a marriage with a more mature man.

Not all relationships with in-laws are this convoluted or difficult. But one thing is important to understand. On a soul level, our in-laws are in our lives to bring special lessons and growth. The more difficult the relationship, the more the opportunity for growth. We can try to avoid relationship with our in-laws, rationalizing that we didn’t choose this relationship, we chose a relationship with their son or daughter. But this is just trying to run away from the opportunity for true spiritual growth. Whether our in-laws live close to us or far away, it is important that we accept them into our lives, and learn the lessons they have to teach us.

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