ONE OF THE most emotionally charged topics in marriage is in-laws, which includes our own parents. Most Muslims feel conflicted between their spouses, their parents, or in-laws at some point.
Despite what we know to be right about our relationships in a fiqhî (Islamic legal) sense, this fire is possible, and probable, in spite of that knowledge. That’s because this fire can emerge even though we’ve done the right thing.
Why? Because emotions don’t always partner with what is right. Our parents, in-laws, or spouses can still feel upset when we try to do what is right or best. This is what makes this fire especially challenging.
Calming the fire of parents and in-laws doesn’t only mean executing the right decision, it means establishing relationships that prevent this fire from starting in the first place. And when it does flare up, quelling this fire requires that we know how to put it out fast, with minimal damage to all our relationships.
A man once asked a shaykh: “My shaykh, whom do I make happy first, my wife or my mother?” The wise shaykh smiled and said: “Akhî, my brother, you have to find a way to make them both happy.”
Now that is some good advice, and here’s why.
Let’s break this down so we can understand how this fire can manifest itself. First, we have the relationship between husband and wife. Then, we have the relationship between each spouse and their own parents. Finally, we have the relationship between each spouse and their respective in-laws. These are three different relationships that each spouse has to take care of, regardless of who their “obedience” is to in a fiqhî sense.
In reality, there is no hard and fast solution in human relationships. Applying a fatwa (legal ruling) in its technical sense is not the only means for taking care of each of these relationships, and ordinarily one cannot approach such relationships legalistically, by the letter of the law.
Both husband and wife have a responsibility to one another for taking care of the marriage, an obligation toward their own parents, and a duty to their in-laws.
Both spouses have to build up each of these relationships in the best way all the time without sacrificing any of the other relationships. We cannot ruin our marriage to please our parents. Nor can we sacrifice our parents for our spouse or our in-laws.
Taking care of one of these relationships can never come at the price of either of the others. When you look at it in this light of independent yet intertwined relationships, it is not surprising that this challenge is one that many people fail to meet. That is because it takes time, care, and emotional energy. It also takes maturity and proactivity.
Every person is different. As the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ taught us, human beings are like the diverse types of earth that Allah has created. Not only does this account for our differences in skin color and stature, it makes us of varying temperaments and personalities.
Most bad habits can be controlled, and everyone is capable of positive growth. But how Allah created each of us determines the habits we can easily control and the ones we find difficult to master.
Being forgiving comes naturally to some, while others have a tendency to bear a grudge. Some of us are unintimidated by confrontation. Others are anxious and easily controlled by others who are strong-willed. Some readily find happiness in life. Others are too needy and dependent on others to “give” them happiness.
When it comes to this fire of marriage—parents and in-laws—couples not only face the challenge of their own relationship and personal shortcomings, but they have to manage the temperaments and shortcomings of their parents and in-laws, as well. This array of relationships provides us many opportunities for a clash of personalities or a contest of wills. Consequently, this fire often turns into one hot mess.
Mother-in-Law Jokes Aside
The most infamous familial conflict is between daughter-in-law and mother-in-law, with the husband in the middle. Fiqh (application of divine Law based on educated understanding) tells us, generally speaking, that a husband’s “duty” is to his mother, while a wife’s “obedience” is to her husband.
This can create a sense of a tiered-hierarchy that cascades from the husband’s mother at the top, to the husband, to the wife. A wife’s fear in this gradation is that the husband’s mother will be a controlling woman, and that she will use her “power” to bend her son to her will and by extension control her daughter-in-law or sabotage the marriage.
From the mother’s perspective, the apprehension is that the daughter-in-law will be manipulative and make the son distant from his mother. As for the husband, his worry is that he’ll never escape having to choose between these two women, with no moment of respite.
Many of us are wedged right here. Should a man repeatedly acquiesce to his controlling parents if it’s causing damage to his marriage? At what point can a line be drawn that denotes acceptable requests from destructive neediness?
This may be emotionally difficult to discuss, and spiritually confusing, given the number and power of the ayât (verses) of the Quran and a ḥadîth (statements of the Prophet ﷺ) that edify and extol us with regard to the lofty status and duty we owe to our parents.
But what we must realize is that as thinking adults, we have a responsibility to establish healthy boundaries in all of our relationships, even ones for which we are greatly indebted, which is a part of a balance in relationships that the Quran and the Prophet ﷺ also teach us.
It is true that we have an enormous debt of gratitude and responsibility to our parents, especially to our mothers, whom even a lifetime of our service will never repay. In a spiritual accounting, we cannot disburden our hearts from the sacrifice of self and soul of our mothers on our behalf (and only with an arduous exertion and monumental contribution can we requite our fathers). But in the whirring vicissitude of life, everyone has limited availability and capability—and this is another reason why making duʿah for our parents is so crucial in payment of our deficits regarding them.
When you married, you became responsible to your spouse, as well as to your parents—and, make no mistake, the only ones who are going to insure that your marriage is healthy and functioning is you as husband and you as wife.
Marriage, moreover, constitutes a far more volatile relationship than your relationship with your parents, because marriage is built on conditional love while the parent-child relationship is, if not unconditional, then at the furthest extent on that continuum. The damage can come far more swiftly and deeply in marriage than in the parent-child relationship, and it is far harder to reverse than are problems with parents.
This does not mean that you are to prioritize your husband or wife over your parents. But it does mean that you have a responsibility to your marriage that cannot be negated or suspended by what your parents ask of you. Your responsibility to the parental relationship, you and your husband or wife, does not obviate your responsibility toward one another. As the wise shaykh said, you must find a way to take care of everything, all the time with regard to duties due your parents and in the service of your husband or wife and your marriage.
New Boundary Lines
For many, marriage will occasion examining and thinking about boundaries with parents for the first time. Getting married calls upon us to transition from a child-adult relationship with our parents to an adult-adult relationship. Does setting boundaries mean shutting someone out? Of course not. Does setting boundaries mean being less dutiful or respectful? On the contrary, it should increase these senses in us.
Boundaries mean limits, and Allah has warned us repeatedly in the Quran to mind our limits: Thus these are the ordained limits of God. Then do not transgress them. For whoever transgresses the ordained limits of God, then it is such as these who are the wrongdoers (Sûrat Al-Baqarah, 2:229).
Recognizing limits in these relationships means understanding at what point your parents’ involvement, power, and demands upon you are checked by your relationship with your spouse. It’s about understanding where our parents’ space ends, and your husbands or wife’s space begins.
An adult-adult relationship basically calls upon you to be proactive and mature. First, you have to initiate positive contributions to your relationships with your parents. You probably don’t wake up and see your parents every day now (if you are not living with them) or come home from school to their house. You are likely at some point to live away from them and make decisions that often don’t involve them. You are independent. You have left the nest, or at the least, you have started a nest of your own.
Out of the Nest
So in what ways can you fulfill your responsibility of good treatment to your parents when you’re no longer in their home? Perhaps you need to call them daily or visit them weekly. It may mean that when you do see them, you have to go the extra mile to show your love for them by sitting with them and actively talking to them, or by bringing Mom a dozen roses or complimenting her cooking. Maybe you’ll call them and ask for their advice on matters, even if your main intention is to emphasize to them their continued importance and the value of their participation in your life.
Parents often become controlling or demanding because they feel abandoned when the child gets married. This may be an immature reaction. Some parents handle their child’s independence more gracefully than others. But there’s nothing that you can do about this except fulfill your responsibility to them in the hope it will allay their sense of loss.
Flames of Neediness
If you have parents that, for whatever reason, never seem to “get over” their child’s flight from the nest, then as adults with responsibilities toward your marriage, as well as your parents, you have to recognize when your parents’ anger or displeasure with you is a fault in them and not with you.
Such parental emotions may stem from unreasonable expectations, a needy personality, or their own unhappy marriage. A maritally dissatisfied parent may have coped by seeking steady fulfillment through his or her relationship with you, an overcompensation in that parent-child relationship, in other words.
Your exit from your parents’ household into marriage may leave behind (even if you haven’t actually left the home) a still unhappy mother or father (or both). Life’s emptiness becomes all the more palpable and inescapable for this parent.
Transitioning into an adult-adult relationship with your parents may be the first time you have had to acknowledge your parents’ flaws or marital problems. This is true for many of us, and it can be very difficult, for we have often lived in denial of the shortcomings of our parents that have prevented them from setting healthy boundaries in their relationships with us.
The absence of proper boundaries makes transgressions inevitable. Allah has said in the Quran that spouses are like garments for one another (Sûrat Al-Baqarah, 2:187). Our scholars have commented that one of the functions of a garment is to cover over faults. Thus husbands and wives are not to expose the faults of one another.
Unveiling the faults of one’s spouse to one’s parents kindles the conflagration of parents and in-laws. A wife’s mother may pry into her daughter’s marriage, or a husband’s mother into his, to find out what shortcomings her daughter-in-law, or son, possesses. (Fathers can do this too.) The inquiries may be well-intentioned, such as wanting to offer sincere advice, or it may stem from an aberrant desire to see the son or daughter-in-law in a bad light.
Whatever the case may be, a spouse should never reveal a husband’s or wife’s faults to the parents. This is part of the covenant of marriage, and it is an example of where our parents’ space is limited by the space belonging to our spouse.
Or, a parent may try to guilt-trip the adult child into exposing a spouse by accusing the adult child of being mistrustful or secretive. You should do your utmost to calmly extinguish your mother or father’s blame of your spouse and to make clear your love for your parents. But you must also adhere firmly to the boundary that separates the relationship with your parents from the relationship with your spouse, even if your mother or father is not happy with this.
A parent living with a couple (or vice-versa) provides similar challenges. Sharing space with another adult is taxing on a marriage, and one of the spouses may start acting in a demanding or angry way because of feeling that the marriage is suffering from a lack of space (though this is not a good way to cope with this arrangement. Spouses should always express themselves without immature, reactive behavior).
Here’s a bad way to manage this situation: Treat the parent in a resentful way. Here’s another: Invalidate the frustrated spouse’s feelings.
The best way to behave in this circumstance is for the adult child to continue to take care of the parent in the best way possible, irrespective of the spouse’s resentfulness, and then set aside special time each week for the couple to spend away from the house, in addition to allowing the frustrated husband or wife the opportunity to express themselves openly—to their spouse, not to their parent-in-law.
As long as these boundaries go unestablished (whereafter you will need to fine tune them) relationships with in-laws will be particularly troubling. Moreover, until husbands and wives establish an adult-adult relationship with their own parents, their spouses will never be free to establish adult relationships with them.
The golden rule is no emotionally reactive conduct, neither with parents or spouse (or children, for that matter). Rather, you should behave calmly and respectfully, but within safe boundaries that protect the marriage.
Spouses depend on one another to establish this type of adult-adult relationship with their respective parents, so that they themselves can feel secure in establishing a meaningful and mutually satisfying relationship with the mother- and father-in-law.
If a spouse merely continues the child-adult relationship with the parents, then the spouse cannot find a “place” with the in-laws, because children don’t have husbands and wives. The spouse will always feel insecure about the in-laws violating the marital space, leading to protective, anxious, or angry behavior in an effort (albeit misguided) to have a means of self-protection.
This reactive behavior by the spouse toward the in-laws is guaranteed to start a fire, but the real problem lies with the biological child and his or her parents. Spouses will not feel the need to be protective of the marital space if they are confident that the partner is already protecting it, provided the spouse is sufficiently mature.
In the end, both husbands and wives have to strike a balance between taking care of their marriage and taking care of their parents. Each relationship will present challenges, and no marriage is without an occasional fire. Couples have to realize that just as they are not responsible for the happiness of their spouse in their relationship with one another, they are also not responsible for their parents’ happiness. That’s right: No one can make any other human being happy.
As a husband or wife, you bear a divine responsibility to your parents based on what Allah has revealed through His Book and His Messenger ﷺ. You owe them good treatment, respect, and kindness. It is your sacred duty to fulfill these obligations to the best of your ability.
Yet whether you can always satisfy your parents in seeking to accompany, serve, and please them—that is not something in your control. You are obliged to do your utmost in the service and love of your parents, but without transgressing the boundaries of your solemn marital covenant.
So it is just as the shaykh we spoke of at the outset taught his inquiring and divided student. The wise Muslim knows that the well being of one divinely ordained relationship must not, and, in fact, cannot come at the expense of any other sacred connection.
Your only choice, then, is to become mature and proactive in nurturing your bonds of kinship, for that is when you shall find a way to take care of all your vital relationships with spouse, parents, and in-laws.