Your Relationship to Your Married Children
There are many texts in the Bible that describe the relationship between parents and their children. One of the earliest texts on marriage and children is found in Genesis 2:24, where we read: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh” (Gen. 2:24).
This passage was spoken before man’s fall into sin, when marriage was instituted by the Lord. It is repeated at least three times in the New Testament, emphasizing the permanence of marriage in Matthew 19 and Mark 10, and the beauty of marriage in Ephesians 5. Interestingly, God made this statement about leaving father and mother even before Adam and Eve had any children! God gave this marriage blueprint before there were children in order to instruct them of the nature of their relationship to their children.
There are also a number of texts that speak about the importance of honoring one’s parents, such as: “Children, obey your parents in the Lord: for this is right” (Eph. 6:1), and “Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee” (Ex. 20:12).
Both Christian parents and their married children can have difficulty with the balance between the concept of “leave and cleave” and honoring parents. This is a topic that is addressed in premarital counseling with engaged couples. However, it is also an important topic for older parents as they consider their relationship towards their married children. The reality is that many parents have broken relationships with children, but this can be prevented when we are wise in the relationships we have with our married children.
Genesis 2:24 instructs children to leave their father and mother and to cleave to their spouse and they are to be one flesh. There are principles that can be derived from this text concerning our relationship to married children. Then, from those principles we can extract some practical advice concerning our relationships to our married children.
The parent-child relationship is the temporary one and there will be a leaving. While we have a responsibility toward our children, and they toward us, recognize that for the most part the parent-child relationship is temporary. As parents, we need to prepare our children for their future spouse when they will be leaving our home. When the meddling of a parent violates the “leaving” because it is treating the parent-child relationship as primary (demanding obedience, dependence, or emotional oneness over the desires of, dependence upon, or oneness with the spouse), it can cause challenges in their marriage relationship.
The fact that the husband and wife are to cleave to one another teaches us that this relationship becomes the most important human relationship they have on this side of eternity. Literally, the word translated cleaving in some translations refers to being glued together. This cleaving indicates such closeness that there should be no closer relationship than that between the two spouses — not with any former friend or with any parent. Problems occur in family life when these two roles are reversed and the parent-child relationship is treated as the primary relationship.
And they shall become one flesh. Marriage takes two individuals and creates a new single entity. There is to be such sharing and oneness in every aspect (spiritual, physical, emotional, intellectual, financial, social) that the resultant unity can be best described as “one flesh.” This again emphasizes the priority of the marriage relationship over every other relationship.
With these three aspects of Genesis 2:24 in mind, there are also the scriptural admonitions to honor one’s parents. This includes treating them with a respectful attitude (Prov. 30:11, 17), obeying them when their commands are in keeping with God’s laws (“in the Lord” Eph. 6:1), and taking care of them as they get older (Mark 7:10-12; 1 Tim. 5:4-8).
Leave them alone to form their own family unit
Accept the reality of the situation that your children are grown up and they have a new family unit. The Bible (Deut. 24:5) did say newlyweds should be left alone for a year; the principles behind it ring true today. When two people from separate backgrounds come together, they need to figure many things out and when the extended family interference is added to the mix, it creates undue pressure on both newlyweds and the extended family.
Have low expectations of them
I have seen many parents deeply hurt because they had expectations (sometimes unreasonable) of their children, which remained unfulfilled. Some parents might start exacting undue pressure on their son or daughter. For instance, they press for more visits, not giving their child and their spouse any space. It is best to have an open door policy for your children to come into your home — but don’t explicitly or implicitly develop expectations for certain times and/or occasions. Remember that your son’s/daughter’s devotion and affection is now primarily towards their spouse. This means they need the most time for developing their own home life. Further, remember that when they visit family they have two families (yours and their in-laws) between which to divide their time.
Don’t give any unsolicited advice — ever!
Only give advice when it is solicited and keep it to that occasion. Trying to impose your will in your “sweet little daughter’s” new marriage or dictating to your son what to do in his new marriage can easily create problems. Do not put your children in the awkward situation of having to make a choice between you and their spouse after marriage. Understand that they will make their mistakes and your role is now to advise them when it is sought and perhaps refer them to where they can get help. When you advise, they don’t have to take it. Not doing things the way you taught or brought up your children does not necessarily mean they are doing something bad; it means they are forming their own unit. At some point in our parenting life, we can only pray and hope that the principles we have taught our children in their formative years would make a huge difference as they make life decisions when we are not there with them.
Do not allow your children to be emotionally dependent on you instead of their spouse
When there is greater sharing and emotional support gained from a continuing parent-child relationship than from the husband-wife relationship, the oneness within the marriage is being threatened, resulting in an unbiblical imbalance. While there is a place for our children to share their struggles with us, we should always make sure that they are going to their spouse first. When they speak to you about the decision they need to make, ask them what their spouse thinks about it before giving an opinion. In every instance, give priority to the relationship of husband and wife over their relationship to you.
Respecting their domain — let them rule their own house
They are going to have rules in their household that might be different from those in your home. Don’t feel you should have Input — positively or negatively — on their standards. Let them make their own decisions. Listen politely and very carefully to what their decisions are. This means that you respect their decisions in regard to child-rearing, etc. We should not go against their wishes in regard to their children nor contradict their wishes. Treat them like adults and affirm their decisions if at all possible. This will encourage them.
Don’t lend them money unless terms are clearly defined
I can tell you stories about how parents tried to retain control on their children by lending them money in an open-ended arrangement. Money is often used for control; the borrower always becomes a servant to the lender. Ideally, don’t lend them money at all. If your son or daughter is in such circumstances that they require help, give them money rather than lend it to them, if you are able. Sometimes children can have the expectation that they have a “right” to all that you have acquired through the years. On other occasions, parents can think that their children — also as married children — need all the comforts and luxury that our society offers in the sense of cars, houses, vacations, etc. Don’t fall into this trap.
Do not get involved in any disputes/disagreements between your children and their spouses
The reality is that parents can never be objective when there are disagreements in their children’s relationship with their spouse. Further, even if parents can be objective, they will be perceived as taking sides. If your son or daughter asks for help in this area, you should simply say to them that you can’t really advise them in this matter and point them to someone who could help them. Avoid almost any discussion about the relationship they have with each other. Do not complain to your children about the faults of their spouse — ever!
Keep your relationship warm, friendly, loving, and caring
Emphasize the positive in dealing with your children and their spouses. Accept them for who they are, recognizing that they need to put up with you as well. Develop a relationship so that they are glad to see you coming, not leaving. Make them realize that you enjoy spending time with them and their family and are thankful for them. Already when they are dating, confirm the positive aspects of their choice of a partner as much as possible. Accept your children’s spouses as your child. Be a caring person and make kind gestures.
We must recognize that we can do everything right regarding our married children and still have a strained relationship with them. This is particularly true when they choose the way of sin and ungodliness. This is the result of living in a broken, fallen world; it teaches us the need for the gospel in all our relationships. Let us therefore practice the spirit of charity and forgiveness as much as possible.