Dr. Willis Newman, Esmeralda Newman, bible-teaching-about.com

What to do with toxic family


Did I do the right thing cutting all contact with my husband's toxic, sinful relatives, including his mother?

Mrs. J


Mrs. J:

First, I want to commend you and your husband’s decision to, “live right,” and go to church regularly. Spiritual maturity happens when we desire to live a life that is pleasing to Him, and when we surround ourselves with like-minded people: Christians who love God and mean business with Him. In Hebrews 11: 6, God assures us that, “…He rewards those who earnestly seek Him.” God is certainly pleased and will reward your efforts to live right and do the right thing including how best to relate with your husband’s relatives.

A lot of marriages fail because of this issue: problem with in-laws a spouse cannot live with. Since, your post does not allow us sufficient insight into your personal problem, nor would a short response be sufficient to cover all bases, I will do my best to provide general guidelines that hopefully will help you determine the right thing to do.

First, remember Paul’s admonition in Romans 12:18, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (NIV). Put in another way: as much as you can, try your best to be at peace with everyone. According to Barney’s Notes on the Bible (Andrew Barney is well-known American theologian and commentator in the 1800’s), this verse means:

(1) We are to do our utmost endeavors to preserve peace, and to appease the anger and malice of others.

(2) We are not to "begin" or to "originate" a quarrel.

So far as "we" are concerned, we are to seek peace. But then it does not always depend on us. Others may oppose and persecute us; they will hate religion, and may slander, revile, and otherwise injure us; or they may commence an assault on our persons or property. For "their" assaults we are not answerable; but we are answerable for our conduct toward them; and on no occasion are we to commence a warfare with them. It may not be "possible" to prevent their injuring and opposing us; but it is possible not to begin a contention with them; and "when they" have commenced a strife, to seek peace, and to evince a Christian spirit.

Actually, the verses before and after this verse, speaks of how we ought to relate to other people. “Bless those who persecute you, bless and do not curse… “(verse 14).

“Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited” (verse 16).“Do not repay anyone evil for evil…” (verse 17).<br>

“Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “it is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary: “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not overcome evil, but overcome evil with good” (verses 19-21).

Wow! These are all easier read than done! Nevertheless, these verses are pretty clear: God wants us to relate to people with a lot of humility, as well as with the same grace and mercy that He Himself demonstrated toward us.

Second, remember the “leave and cleave” principle: "For this cause a man shall leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave to his wife" (Genesis 2:24). When we get married, our spouse comes before our parents (and any other family members). And you are right, you both have to do everything you can to protect your marriage. Your husband must do everything he can to love you, build you up, and take care of you and your children. And the same is true with you. Your husband must come first before your parents and other relatives.

Third, the Bible calls us to submit to, love and respect our husbands (Titus 2:4, Colossians 3:18, Ephesians 5:33).  One way to show respect to our husbands is by being respectful towards their parents and family, no matter how “sinful,” they talk and act. 

It is really easy for me to say bad things about my parents and siblings especially when they say, or do things I think are inappropriate, or I do not agree with. However, when my husband starts agreeing with me and starts saying negative things about them, I take offense, and I find myself actually defending my family! Somebody advised me before I got married never to attack my husband’s family, no matter how bad they are. It immediately made sense, because I found that I don’t like it either when my husband says anything unpleasant about my own family. 

If any of his relatives make me feel uncomfortable, I do let him know. It gives him the opportunity to protect me, and keep me from being placed in an uncomfortable situation with his family. We do it by limiting contact, or even just limiting the kind of things we can do or talk about when we are with them. I think it’s better when it is my husband who decides and sets the boundaries with his family to protect me (and vice versa). When the other party forbids or makes it difficult for their spouses to relate with their parents or extended family, it becomes easy for resentment to grow.

Except when there is the risk of exposing yourself and your children to physical and sexual abuse, it’s important to keep the doors to those relationships open. For better or for worse, our parents are our parents, and so are the rest of our families. Besides, as you mentioned, they are sinners. As such, their actions should not surprise you. You just have to decide not to make their problem become your problem, especially when what they say about you and your marriage is not true. If you close the door, you will not be able to give them the opportunity to hear and see Christ’s love in you, deprive your children of knowing grandparents, aunties and uncles, and deprive your husband of carrying out relationship with his own parents/family. 

In considering whether you have to attend the reunions, or stay in contact with them, you have to be sensitive to what your husband wants. If it is important to him that he sees his parents with you, or for you both to attend the reunion, do it to honor him. 

As you mentioned, your husband is very supportive towards you and is willing to do everything to support and protect you.  At least you know that he will not deliberately force you to do something that will make you feel uncomfortable. This is what the Bible means to, “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21). The Golden Rule says we ought to, “do to others what you would have them do to you…” (Matthew 7:12, NIV). I am sure you would prefer that you make the decisions regarding contact with your own parents/family, and your husband would do well to honor your desire regarding the same.

When you are around them, you do not have to act or talk like they do. For example, you don’t have to drink, if you do not want to, just because they do. Or you do not have to use swear words, if they do. However, it is alright to be firm and let them know when something they say or do to/for you is offensive. Stay calm, polite and you may excuse yourself when they start talking about things you do not want to hear. 

If being around certain relatives really makes you feel extremely uncomfortable and vulnerable (where you are simply overcome with anger when you are around them), you may definitely limit contact, but I would still encourage you to keep the communication lines open. UNLESS, your husband himself decides to cease all contact with them. Whether he does or he doesn’t, he needs your support and encouragement.

I hope this helps and we are praying for you, your marriage and your family!

Esmie Newman

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