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Wifey Wednesday: Living Under Your Parents' Thumb

It's Wednesday, the day when we talk marriage! I introduce a topic, and then you follow up either by commenting or by writing your own post and then linking up!

One of the biggest sources of conflict in marriage is the relationship with the couple's parents. It is all too easy for in-laws to drive a wedge between two people who otherwise love each other more than anyone else in the world. Our loyalty to our family is just really hard to break, and sometimes takes precedence over what should be our primary loyalty to our spouse.

Now I have a great relationship with my in-laws. They have never tried to interfere, and as such we've always gotten along! We play cards together, we take vacations together, we laugh together. And my mother gets along with my mother-in-law, too, although the two could not be more different. But everybody in my family has decided that it is best just to get along. It's easier for everyone. So we let things go, and we have fun.

Unfortunately, it doesn't work that way in all marriages. Many people, when they get married, still feel closely tied to their parents--even if their parents weren't great parents. In fact, especially if their parents weren't great. We're still looking to be approved by them.

After one Wifey Wednesday recently, I received an email from a woman who's in a difficult situation. Here it is, in a nutshell (I'm summarizing because I don't want to give identifying details away):

She and her husband have been promised the family farm, at some date in the future. So for now, they live for free in a run-down abode on the land where her parents live in a wonderful, big, comfy farmhouse. The husband (the son-in-law) works on the farm all day. And one day they will get everything.

But this "one day" has never been spelled out. And meanwhile, the house is so tiny, and it's really pretty gross (single men with cats with incontinence issues used to have the run of the place). No matter how hard you try to clean, it's stained. And it's tiny. And there are small kids everywhere. What do you do?

She asks, "Also, any advice on how to talk to my parents about this without sounding like I feel entitled to something? Any time I mention it they tell me that they've lived in worse with more kids. The whole "I walked uphill to school both ways" speech."

Then she says:
My mom is very uptight about her house. She says she's not attached to it but then in the next breath she says that she wouldn't change her life or leave even if she felt God calling her to Romania to be a missionary or something. I think that the only thing my parents owe us is some plans. We plan to work hard for the farm and don't expect it to be handed over to us. But it would just be really nice to know that we are actually working toward a goal on paper (my parents don't believe in writing down their goals/plans, though the succesion planner is making them do exactly that).
As for the "started from nothing," I've mentioned to them "didn't you do that to give your kids a better life?" Or "did you like living in that house with 3 little kids?" To which the response is usually something like "we didn't have a choice."

Do you see her issue? I do. Here's a dynamic that's very common in families. The parents want to keep some sense that the children are indebted to them, and so they promise something--we will give you a house, we will give you a business, we will baby-sit for you, we will lend you money--but nothing is ever actually specified. They want to keep you on your toes, and they want to have you come to them, asking for something, so that they can still feel indispensable.

It's like the story of Jacob and Laban. Laban told Jacob that if he worked for him for 7 years, he could marry Rachel. So he worked, and got Leah. Then he was told, "just another 7 years." So he did that, too. Then Laban continued to treat Jacob as if he should somehow be indebted to his father-in-law, until God miraculously put a stop to the whole dysfunctional charade. But Laban wanted to keep Jacob there, under his thumb.

Parents don't always do this because they're mean. Often they're just insecure. You're the baby, and you're leaving, and you were their whole life. Does this mean they're not worth as much anymore? And so they continue to get their identity from you needing them. So they say they'll baby-sit, and you don't even need to worry, you go ahead and find the job, but then when you do find the job, your mother acts as if you're imposing on her, and she sighs, and says, "well, I have a life, too, you know. But I'll do it because I have to." If you had known that would have been her reaction, you would have stayed home or arranged for other childcare. But you took her at her word, and now she's making you feel guilty.

Or what about this woman from the email? She's been told she'll have the family farm, but in the meantime, the parents expect her to live in a shack and be grateful. So what's the answer?

First, we need to be clear what "leaving" means. Leaving means that your parents no longer owe you anything. You are an adult. Your father does NOT owe you the family farm (even if it has always been passed on). Your mother does NOT owe you baby-sitting, even if every other grandma you know helps with baby-sitting. Your parents do NOT owe you a downpayment, even if they've always promised it. You are an adult, and you should stand on your own two feet. Therefore, you should be completely prepared and at peace to live without any help at all.

Then, if they do offer help, and you decide you want it (it's hard to pass up a family farm), you can approach them in a better way. You can say something like this:

That is very generous of you. I so respect what you have done to build up the business, and I would be honoured to take it over. I will always be grateful for this. So can we sit down and write out what the expectations and time-lines are, so that I can plan and be responsible for my family?

If they take offense that you're asking for an end-date, or for something in writing, then you can say,

I never meant to cause offense. I do so appreciate the offer. It's just that I have to plan for my family. We have to have a clear sense of where we're going and what is required of all of us. If you can't do that, because you haven't decided yet, that is entirely your prerogative. You don't owe me anything, and I completely understand. So I'm grateful for the offer, but I'll have to decline. But if you ever do want to talk about details, I would love to still be considered.

See? What you're doing is drawing boundaries around the relationship. You're acknowledging that it's their farm--or business, or money, or time, or whatever the issue is--and you don't have a right to it. This is their generosity. But you're also saying that, as a new family, you have certain needs, too. And if they can't mesh, you'll have to decline the offer. And you must be willing to do that--decline the offer.

So many couples have lived in awful conditions, in awful accommodations, working slave hours, because of a vague understanding that "one day all this will be yours". But really the parents are just taking advantage of you or trying to control you or keep you attached to them. It's not healthy. What happens is that you get frustrated with your spouse because you don't have anything that's truly yours. And then your spouse gets frustrated at your parents, at which point you get frustrated at your spouse for being mad at your parents, even though you're mad at them, too. And the whole thing just spirals into silliness.

When it comes to parents, those two truths need to be kept in mind: once you're married, they honestly don't owe you anything. And once you're married, the welfare of your own nuclear family comes first. That can be hard to digest if your parents are wealthy. You may really want some of their things, or their business. But it isn't worth wrecking your marriage over.

Perhaps it isn't about money. Perhaps it's just your mother calling three times a day "just to talk", but really she's getting in the way of your marriage. Or perhaps your father still won't talk to your husband, except through you. These things need to end. You are to leave your parents, and build your own family.

So, with that being said, what advice would you give to this woman who does honestly want the farm, but is finding it very difficult to live in this dirty, rundown home? Or do you have another dilemma with in-laws to share with us? Let's talk in the comments, or write your own Wifey Wednesday post and add the URL in the mckliny below!


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At 8:18 AM , Anonymous Missy said…

My advice would be to move out and give up the hope of the farm. If she eventually gets the farm, consider it a bonus, but right now by couning on it, she's putting her nuclear family's need for a comfortable home on the back burner. I'd imagine she's feeling some resentment for her parents who live in the big, comfortable farmhouse. I don't even think the parents owe her an explanation of when they are handing it down, time to move out and move on. Even if it's to an apartment or something that is clean and their own space for their family, they have to start their own lives.


At 8:46 AM , Blogger Mrs W said…

I'm trying to be nice here, but this just sounds like a woman who thinks she's entitled. Her parents do not owe her anything. They need to get a job and spend their own money on a house. Having free housing, no matter how "bad" the house is, is a blessing. Think of all the people around the world who live in worse, or have no home at all. Is this woman grateful for anything?

When you have your own family, you are supposed to support them, instead of relying on everyone else to do it for you. Some of us live in small, less than ideal houses that we ourselves paid for, and we don't complain about it. We consider ourselves blessed. Honestly I think a change of attitude might be in order.

Some of us have real problems with our in-laws. Although I do my best to get along with them, and my husband and I support our own family instead of trying to freeload off of our parents, my in-laws still feel like our business is their business. It's my in-laws who don't understand the whole "leave and cleave" thing.

My mother in law feels that she is entitled to tell us how to raise our children, despite the fact that one of hers left in rebellion, one is reaching adulthood now and leaving and we don't know what she'll turn out like yet, and the younger three are all showing signs of major rebellion. She thinks she's entitled to spank my children even when we don't spank them, which is just WRONG. She thinks she can tell us how to live our lives and that we'll follow her advice

When we told her that one of our sons was disabled, her response was "well, if you simply obey God rather than man and home school like the Bible says to, he would be healed." Not only was that very hurtful, but it was also very ignorant of her to say.

She's always trying to manipulate my husband and I. She still wanted him, after two years of marriage, to buy her a new set of rubbermaid containters because she claimed that it was my husband who had lost of hers before he got married. The time for her to deal with that issue was before we got married, not after. Besides the fact that she cannot prove it was him as she has several other kids and her husband who also take those containers to work or out a lot and don't bring them back. We didn't have the money to buy the things we needed at the time, like groceries, but she still expected us to replace stuff she couldn't prove was his fault.

She also thinks that she can call on my husband to do jobs for her, even if he's working or busy with us. The fact that her husband is too lazy to do it for her, or that she hasn't taught her other son to do it yet makes her think that her married son will do all this for her. We had to tell her to back off.

When there is an issue between his mom and I, even if I'm right and my husband admits that, he'll back his mom every time because he has "known her longer". She can be dead wrong, and he'll back her up. She could have treated me like crap, and he'll take her side because he's so afraid to have conflict with them. He'd rather have conflict with me, or hurt my feelings, that have conflict with his mom or hurt her feelings.

She's nice to me in front of other people. That's part of her manipulation. It means that if I were ever to say anything, nobody would believe me. Unfortunately for her, some do believe me because they know her.


At 9:56 AM , Blogger Sheri said…


I don't think she sounds like she thinks she's entitled, I think she's been promised something and needs to see some of that promise come to fruition be it through adding her name to the title or building a home on the property (which I wouldn't do without a partial title).

Is her husband working on the farm? Does he have another job or is this is his sole income?

There are so many factors involved that it's hard to really give an answer.

ANYWAY...that was my total rambling for the day.


At 10:25 AM , Blogger Yvonne said…

My own dilemma is that my husband has never accepted the mandate of "leave and cleave". He routinely puts the wants of his parents (esp. his mother) above his nuclear family's needs. Both he and his mother are passive-aggressive in nature so if I ever broach the subject with him, I am made to feel the fool for thinking he does this. Meanwhile, I must keep everything going at home when he is called upon to run to his parents' aid. I must qualify this by saying he is one of five children, so it is not like he is the only one who can help; he is just the only one who they do not have to ask - they need only hiccup a want or need and he will come running.

I struggle with this not just on the superficial level of what is going on, but on the level of resentment. It's hard to swallow being relegated to a position lower than your in-laws in your husband's mind. I try to keep in mind that his upbringing "groomed" him for this kind of adulthood. I pray a lot to have a forgiving heart and to try to respect my husband in spite of his behavior in this area.


At 12:43 PM , Blogger Megan said…

Wow, it is really harsh to assume this woman doesn't feel any gratitude. Please try to restrain yourself from jumping to such grand conclusions based on a little bit of information, Mrs. W. Our problems always seem "real" when compared to other people's problems, eh?

Anyway, I agree that this lady, with her husband by her side, needs to set some boundaries with her parents. If they aren't willing to write down a specific plan, then it is time to move on. Even if this hurts the parents, it won't harm them. The difference is crucial here. The family living in the dingy shack is being HARMED by this situation.


At 2:32 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said…

I am very grateful for the live we get to live. We have worked for everything we have ever had. we moved here over two years ago with the promise that we would work to inherit the farm. (Note I said WORK.) Farming is what we are called to do and we made that decision even bfore we knew that we had the opportinity of taking over from my parents.
We have decided to talk to my parents this weekend about some of this stuff and we are going to look at houses tomorrow to see what we could build here (after we get our name on the property). We are planning to pay this with my husband's income (he is the sole earner and only has time to run the farm, to answer a couple questions). It won't be much because his income is lowered due to the fact that we get housing with the job.
My dad seems more than willing to start treating us like business psartners but my mom refuses to see us as anything more than employees. We love them and get along well (my dad is the father that my huaband always needed) but it's hard to work this hard for something that will happen "in ten years or so."
The hitch to moving would mean that we no longer are working on or for the farm. It's an option but first we're going to try to get some things on paper. I really like what Sheila said; "So can we sit down and write out what the expectations and time-lines are, so that I can plan and be responsible for my family?"
That's just it. We want to know how we're going to take care of our nuclear familr and so much of that is currently not up to us. Please pray that my husband and I have a good honost conversation with my parents this Satuday.ime to set up some boundaries in regard to this. Other boundaires have been very easy for us with my parents but it will be interesting to see how the business factors in.
Also, Mrs W., my husband and I would never consider that we have "inlaw issues" with my parents. If you want inlaw issues I could give you some really doozies about my husband's parents! I can relate to the MIL being nice in front of everyone else then making underhanded comments directly to you. But that's a whole different ball game and it's one that I've (finally) come to a place of peace about (most days).


At 10:54 PM , Blogger Sheila said…


I hope I didn't give the impression that you think your parents owe you the farm! I tried to cut down your email, but perhaps I missed some key information, because for the record, she never said that. In fact, she said the opposite in her email to me.

They don't owe it, but it is a really good deal if they can get it. I think your approach is right, and perhaps if everyone who reads this just says a quick prayer for this woman that her conversation with her mom & dad would go well, that would be the most helpful! Just pray that her mother will accept what she's saying in the spirit in which it is being said. She isn't being unreasonable, and her husband has been helping. So they're doing everything right, and let's pray that they receive favour from her mom!

I understand the instinct to just say "get out", but honestly, this farm is probably more than they could build up on their own in that amount of time. I can understand wanting it, I just think that terms need to be defined more.

I think Yvonne's comment is really very typical of what a lot of us experience. And Mrs. W., I do hear what you're saying about your own in-laws. I guess all I can say is that you need better communication with your husband. Don't try to pull him into a tug of war, but do tell him what you need from him, and ask if you can agree to boundaries around your marriage with regards to his parents!


At 8:03 AM , Blogger Mrs W said…

Anonymous...I've talked to my husband before. His answer? "I have known my mom longer than I have known you so deal with it."


At 12:39 PM , Blogger Herding Grasshoppers said…

Sounds like the "senior" couple plan on working and living on the farm (in the nice house) until they die or are unable.

That's a long time for you - the younger family - to be in limbo.

So I think you have to decide if it's really worth it. It sounds like "Grandma" doesn't want to move and is probably starting to feel like she's going to be pushed out of her home.

Yes, more/clearer communication would help, whether or not you - the younger couple - end up inheriting the farm.

Is there a neutral person you all like and trust who could sit in on your meeting? Not springing that on the senior couple unawares - but someone you could all agree on?

As you've said, you're not entitled to anything, so really all you're asking for is information. :o)

And I guess what you are entitled to is fair compensation for the work you (your husband) does on the farm, right?

* Is he working for wages to buy the farm? Or is it more like working for a pittance to someday be "given" the farm? Or more likely, somewhere in between?

* What are the senior couple's plans?

* If/when they hand over the farm, will they keep living in their home?

* Or where would they live?

* What about remodeling the not-so-nice house either for you (the younger family) or for them to retire into?

* Something you didn't mention... sounds like you have a couple of siblings... how is this working out for them?

We went through something (a little bit) similar with our house. My grandparents lived in a house that has been in the family since 1902, and wanted to keep it in the family. I'm the only grandchild that was in a position to buy it. As our family started growing (and we were in a dumpy little old house!) my grandpa got cancer for the fourth and last time. We talked openly about buying the house when he died. My grandma was still living and healthy, but frail and did not drive. He wanted her to move into a nice apartment, where she wouldn't have the upkeep of an older home with a large yard. He even spelled out specific terms. (Get the house appraised and then knock off a certain percentage.)

Well, when he died my grandma didn't want to move! And it wasn't our place to make her. It was her house. She lived in the house until she died, several years later.

In the mean time, we had to decide whether to continue making do in our funny little house (picture three boys in a bedroom 9'4" x 9'8" - no kidding) or move somewhere else.

It was kind of heartbreaking to me because I really wanted to move into that house! It was bigger, nice yard, nice neighborhood, closer to church and family, etc. And she really would've been better off in a "seniors apartment" with people around her, no property to maintain, and transportation to stores. But I had to remind myself that she owed me nothing and was completely entitled to go on living in her house.

And we continued to drive across town to visit her, help her with things, and drive her around on her errands - me schlepping three kids in car seats.

And to do it because it was the right thing to do, not because I wanted her house!

(Just speaking to my own heart attitude, not yours!)

Ack. All my rambling to say that I think you have to be prepared to wait until they die or are too frail to work the farm. Neither of which you're looking forward to! Because typically the men are more practical and the women are more sentimental (just a generalization there) and she'll probably outlive him. And she's said very clearly that she doesn't want to move.

So, have the meeting. Love on your parents :0) Clarify everyone's expectations. And then you can decide if it's worth it, of if you need to make a different plan.

And I really, really hope you get out of cat-pee house!!!

Grace and peace,



At 12:42 PM , Blogger Herding Grasshoppers said…

Oh my word!


That's the longest comment I've ever left.



At 3:09 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said…

I think even those of us with great relationships with our parents can have problems if we're not careful. I adore my parents and I have to watch that I make sure to put my husband first (it has helped that they live a few hundred miles away). I'm not close at all to my in-laws, but neither is my husband, which helps matters greatly!

As for the letter-writer, living in an area myself in which family farms are common, it seems most families choose to give their kids some property on which to build their own house. This might be an option you could mention.

Nurse Bee


At 1:49 AM , Anonymous Work At Home Mom said…

You are lucky to have no issues with your in laws. My parents in law are great people, but my husband's brothers and sisters have given us plenty of problems since Day 1. I guess it's important to learn how to stand up on your own feet and as much as possible make separate plans. If you get so dependent on their plans for you, you may end up wasting too many valuable opportunities. I hope they learn to set limits so that they can move forward with their plans.


At 10:04 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said…

i am a single/divorced mother of 3. i live in a house owned by my mother. i have been struggling to make the payments for the last almost 10 years. i never wanted the house, nor the first one that was paid for in another state years ago. (i believe my going along with my mothers plans had a lot to do with the demise of my marriage, but that is another story)
i hate the house. i hate staying there. i hate the floor plan. i moved out into an apt for a year about 5 years ago because i got so sick of my mother telling me what to do, etc. i moved back in when she started talking about selling it. i feel like it is partly mine b/c i have been making the payments for so long.
furthermore, earlier this year, i found out that the man who raised me is not my biological father. yes, i have had a dna test and everything. (i am in my 40's)
i just want out. i talked to my parents about moving out, but they sortof talked me out of it. i am hardly ever there. i think they are the only ones getting something out of it (tax break, etc) what should i do?
i am sick of it all, but my mother makes me feel like an ingrate if i say i want to move. she will give me anything in the world that she wants me to have, but if i ask her for ANYTHING, she refuses.

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Name: Sheila

Home: Belleville, Ontario, Canada

About Me: I'm a Christian author of a bunch of books, and a frequent speaker to women's groups and marriage conferences. Best of all, I love homeschooling my daughters, Rebecca and Katie. And I love to knit. Preferably simultaneously.

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