By Dennis and Barbara Rainey
You may have moved out from your childhood home, but have you really left your parents behind?
God did not mince words when instructing a married couple to leave their parents. The Hebrew words used in Genesis 2:24, which states that “a man shall leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave to his wife,” mean “to forsake dependence upon,” “leave behind,” “release,” and “let go.”
Later, Jesus addressed the issue when he said that no one was ever intended to come between a husband and a wife (Matthew 19:6). No one! No in-laws, no mother, no father was meant to divide a couple who had made a covenant with each other to leave, cleave, and become one flesh.
This pointed instruction is needed. Psychologist Dan Allender says in the book Intimate Allies that “the failure to shift loyalty from parents to spouse is a central issue in almost all marital conflict.'” God knows that leaving parents will always be a difficult transition, especially in homes where the child-parent bond has been solid and warm. Unfortunately, many (if not most) couples do not cut the apron strings—they lengthen them!
What leaving looks like
After our wedding ceremony, Barbara and I walked down the church aisle together, symbolically proclaiming to all those witnesses that we had left our parents. We had forsaken our dependence upon them for our livelihood and emotional support and were turning to each other as the primary relationship of our lives. The public affirmation of our covenant to each other meant, “No relationship on earth, other than my relationship with Jesus Christ and God, is more important than my relationship with my spouse.”
If we do not leave our parents correctly, we will be like a couple I knew who were dependent financially on the wife’s family. The situation was robbing the husband of his family leadership potential. The wife kept looking to her dad to bail them out after poor choices. Her husband wasn’t able to grow up, face his responsibility to make correct choices for his family, and live with the consequences of his decisions. He was losing self-respect as a man, and it was undermining his wife’s respect for him as well.
It can be equally destructive to continue to be emotionally dependent on a parent. This dependence will hinder the Super Glue-like bonding that must occur between husband and wife.
How to leave, yet still honor, your parents
Leaving your home does not mean you permanently withdraw and no longer have a good relationship with your parents. That’s isolating yourself from your parents, not leaving. The commandment in Exodus 20:12 to honor your parents means that when you leave them, you need to go with respect, love, admiration, and affirmation for their sacrifices and efforts in raising you. But you must make a break from them and sever your dependence on them. As time passes, you must be diligent to prevent any reestablishment of dependence at critical points in your marriage.
Leaving certain kinds of parents requires special sensitivity. For example, if your mom or dad is a single parent, she or he may no longer have anyone at home to lean on and may feel terribly alone. Or perhaps you left behind a parent who endures a lifeless marriage devoid of passion. In either case, your leaving has created a big void in the home. Nevertheless, you must sever the ties.
You can honor your parents and also reap benefits by seeking their wisdom on certain issues. When you ask them to offer their insights, you must make it clear that you are seeking information and advice, not surrendering your right to make final decisions. A tip: Always try to consult your spouse before seeking input from parents. Give yourselves some time to become good at this. You may have depended on your parents for twenty years but have been married only one!
When parents want to reattach
Sometimes without realizing it, we may allow our parents to reestablish the severed connections. It could occur during a Christmas visit. It might happen during a phone call when the child mentions to the parent some disappointment or failure experienced in the marriage relationship.
I remember how, early in our marriage, I shared a weakness about Barbara with my mother. Now my mom is a great mother, but I was astounded at how she rushed to my side, like a mother hen coming to aid her wounded little chick. Her response startled me. I told Barbara about it and apologized. I promised I would not again discuss negative things about her with my mom.
You must not allow parents to innocently (or not so innocently) drive a wedge between you and your spouse. Some parents may seek to manipulate and control their child. For example, a father won’t stop telling his “little girl” what to do. The husband may need to step in and explain to his wife how destructive this is to the health of the marriage. Boundaries limiting the amount of communication between father and daughter may need to be installed for the long or short term.
Or a mother may be trying to call the shots with her son. The wife needs to explain carefully to her husband what she is observing. If the situation doesn’t improve, there may need to be a cooling-off period where the husband minimizes contact with his mother and directs his attention toward his wife.
These showdowns may be intimidating for either spouse, but boundaries need clarification. You may need to call on an older mentor for advice before you take action, but your allegiance must first and foremost be to your spouse.
At this point, I want to encourage you husbands to be “the man” and protect your wife. Sometimes you may need to graciously but firmly step in and shield her from a manipulative parent, but I implore you to guard gently your wife’s heart and your marriage from a dad or mom whose intentions may be good but counterproductive.
If as a couple you are having trouble maintaining a clean break, you may decide to spend less time at home for holiday visits. Instead of a week, perhaps the stay should be shortened to two or three days. Or skip a holiday altogether, just as a way of clarifying where your primary commitment lies.
A way to forestall some misunderstandings and help with decision making is to determine your family’s values early in the marriage. For instance, one value may be establishing your own family’s Christmas traditions as your children leave infancy. Having a clear idea of what you are doing and why will make it easier to explain your choices to parents.
As your parents grow older, they may need your assistance. Again, approach this issue prayerfully as a team. Take as much time as you can to make decisions, especially those with long-term ramifications. Some choices will be very difficult, but in most cases, the health of the marriage must take precedence. Although you must consider the financial situation, too, a parent may need to live at a retirement center instead of with you, if the parent’s presence will adversely affect your marriage.
One final thing to keep in mind: Leaving is not a one-time event or limited to the early years of marriage. The temptation to reconnect some of the old bonding lines will continue as long as parents are alive. For example, when grandchildren come along, most parents want to share from their vast stores of experience on how to raise kids.
Both parents and their children need to remain on guard so that leaving remains just that—a healthy, God-ordained realignment of the parent-child relationship.
Adapted from Starting Your Marriage Right,© 2000 by Dennis and Barbara Rainey. Published by Thomas Nelson Publishers, Nashville, TN. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.