A Lesson for In-Laws

To paraphrase a line from the movie, “Parenthood”, “You need a license to fish. You need a license to drive a car. But anyone can be an in-law without a license!” A successful marriage takes a great deal of work and there are numerous obstacles towards achieving this goal. The question to be asked is what role should the in-laws play to help the situation rather than do damage.

A prominent rabbi from an illustrious rabbinic family recently said that there is no question that there are situations where a couple would do well if not for the in-laws. And it is clearly the in-laws that are the primary cause for breaking up many marriages. In such a case, if the children see the interference and meddling as a serious problem, they are clearly within their Halachic rights to sever ties with their parents in order to save their marriage.

This scenario is extreme, but, unfortunately, happens far too often. What could be done to try to make this relationship more peaceful and allow all parties to get along?

If we look to our Holy Scriptures and sages for direction, we will find very useful advice. There are three sources that if studied diligently and remembered by both married children and their parents, this delicate relationship has to improve.

The first source is from the Book of Proverbs where King Solomon advises, “Rebuke a wise man and gain a friend. Rebuke a fool and you’ve gained an enemy.” The message here is that one needs to think carefully before speaking and giving advice. He should be smart enough to understand where his words will be received and where they will be resented.

The second source is a rabbinic statement that says that in a situation where a son is called by his wife and mother and is needed to fulfill a task, the son must take care of his wife’s needs before his mother’s. If this is made clear from the outset that this is what Jewish tradition demands, maybe, just maybe, the son’s mother will desire to follow the suggestions of our sacred sages.

The third source is more Halachic in nature related to the laws of honoring one’s parents. The law clearly states a married woman is exempt from honoring parents since she has so many responsibilities to her husband and family. Only if she is widowed, G-d forbid, or divorced, is she obligated to care for her parents in the same way as her brothers and any other unmarried sisters. If her care for her parents is not at the expense of her children and husband, only then is she able to give attention to her parents.

We must not brush off these sources as being archaic or unrealistic. We must never minimize the wisdom of our sages and have the faith that following their words has done well for us over the generations. Obviously, in a situation of poor health, all family members must do everything possible to help. We are speaking of a situation when all are healthy and everyone is in their normal routines.

There are three definite lessons to be learned based on these sources, The first is that the beloved in-laws should think very carefully before giving their opinion and offering criticism. Most people don’t enjoy getting criticism, and it is particularly difficult in this sensitive in-law relationship. If one has to be careful in choosing his words in more comfortable relationships, how much more in this relationship?

The second lesson is that if the in-laws give financial assistance to their children, it must be without strings attached. The money is not a permit to dictate and control. The in-laws should help because they want to help. It must not come with any motive or entitlement. This attitude will only put added pressure on the marriage of their children.

The final lesson that in-laws need to learn is that their children need their space. The in-laws should not feel slighted if their children want to spend weekends alone or go on a vacation alone. It does not mean that they don’t love their parents. They need to have the opportunity to nurture their own relationship. No relationship runs on inertia. If a couple doesn’t have the chance to communicate with one another and share quality time, they will grow apart. Receiving doses of Jewish guilt for not spending more time with the in-laws, will only make things worse.

Somehow this is a subject that is not discussed very openly. In my capacity as rabbi, when I counsel newlywed couples, I urge them to lay down ground rules with both sets of in-laws that are to be followed and respected. It might be unpleasant at the outset, but it will pave the way for a harmonious, loving, long term relationship.

Keeping in mind the teachings mentioned above, will help the in-laws change their perspective on what their expectations ought to be. With a little common sense and a sincere desire to make things better for their children, the lack of an “in-laws license” will not be an obstacle to bringing joy and happiness to the children and their parents alike.

About the Author
Rabbi Cohen has been a Torah instructor at Machon Meir, Jerusalem, for more than twenty years. He has been teaching a Talmud class in the Shtieblach, Old Katamon, Jerusalem, for the nearly seventeen years. Before coming to Israel, he was the founding rabbi of Young Israel of Century City, Los Angeles.