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Leaving and Cleaving

February 15, 2012
Leaving and Cleaving


Dear Pearls,

I have struggled to have a relationship with my mother-in-law since I met her. She tends to be manipulative, unkind, and judgmental. On many occasions, she has told me who I am not and what I should be, that I am undeserving of her son, and how I am not a good wife. She also tells my husband the same things about me in an attempt to pit him against me. My husband is a strong man and does not tolerate that from her, but he does see it as my duty to create and maintain a friendship with her regardless of her treatment of me. I feel that if she wants to have a real friendship, she should make the effort to treat me kindly. I want to respect my husband and be able to show love and compassion to his mom, but I also do not want to be abused by her. It is hard to believe the one thing in my marriage that brings me sadness is my mother-in-law. What are your thoughts?

Michael Answers:

What are my thoughts? I am thinking, “What a wimp!” No one should be abused, but some people just ask for it. You are asking to be treated with contempt because you do not stand tall with dignity. You cower and ask your husband to defend you. If he does take action to defend you, she will just express more contempt for your pitiful weakness.

As I was reading your comments, I was thinking a woman who would treat another human being with contempt could do so only from a heart that is dark and troubled.

My advice to you is to determine to stand up to her tongue and put out the fire with kind, loving rejection and disregard for her ugliness. Treat her as an unruly child who needs a firm hand—firm, but not hard. She must feel her littleness in the shadow of your strength. It will be quite appropriate for you to calmly tell her, “You have personal issues that you need to deal with, and I would appreciate it if you would not come into my house with a critical spirit.” Say to her, “I am a great wife and your son is lucky to have me.” When she says you are not what you should be, tell her, “Maybe not, but I do not have a critical spirit as do you, and God is helping me do better; let’s pray and ask him to help you not be so critical and mean-spirited.”

Remember to pray for her daily. Ask God to humble her, and ask him to give you the courage to not be offended by her littleness. When you can smile with pity at her criticisms, she loses her power and her words will no longer matter to you. Only then will you be able to minister to her needs.

In my book, Created to Need a Help Meet, I have a whole chapter on this subject. Your husband needs to read it.

Leave and Cleave

Dear Mike and Debi,

The love of my life and I got married about four months ago. We are happy as larks and are reaping the heavenly fruits of marriage. Life really cannot get any better. I love him so much, and I want to be everything I can for him. My world revolves around him and I want it to be that way. But it seems that others simply don’t understand my infatuation with him or think it is a good thing.

I’m writing to ask you what is proper as far as leaving and cleaving. I don’t know if I am going overboard or not. When I married, I moved a few states away from my family. Although my parents are thrilled with my choice of a husband, the distance between us is very hard for them. If I don’t call, she feels like I don’t love them or miss them. She needs constant reassuring that I do miss them.

It’s not that I don’t love or miss them, I do. I’m just very involved being a wife and, bottom line, that’s where my attention lies. I don’t have a pressing need to call my friends and family any more. My need is my husband. But is it wrong for me to “leave” so thoroughly? Should I be reassuring them with regular ties? Is there such a thing as cutting the apron strings too much?

Totally in LOVE,
Happy Wife

Dear Happy Wife,

Someday you will have a daughter and will invest the greater part of your adult life in raising her. You will be her entire life for about 20 years. You will be her best friend, meeting a need in her that is deep and abiding. This is the perspective from which your mother looks at you. Then one day, to make you even happier, she was delighted to give you away in marriage, but she didn’t really want to give you away; she just wanted to expand her family—her love circle—adding a son and lots of new babies. And then poof! You’re gone. Her best friend is gone. Her days were organized around you, and now they are empty. You belong to another. You look to someone else to have your needs fulfilled, but she hasn’t traded one close bond for another—she is just alone and empty. She wants to share your joy. She knows better, but that doesn’t change the way she feels.

She weaned you once. Now you must wean her. Let her down easy. Give her time to organize her life around other people and other things. Tell her you will call on a certain day every week and talk for an hour. It will help her if you will occasionally call for advice on any issue. Let her know she is valued for her wisdom. In short, let her know she is significant to you.

But at the same time, never allow the family you have left, come between you and your husband. You should indeed “leave and cleave.” Again, my book, Created to NEED a Help Meet, deals with this subject from the man’s perspective.

What Does “Cleave” Mean?

Following is a little Bible study on the word cleave:

Genesis 2:24 says, “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.” Cleave is an interesting word in Hebrew. It is dabaq and is used 54 times. Thirty-two times it is translated “cleave” in the English; five times it is translated “follow hard,” meaning someone is running and the other person is pursuing them, very intent on catching them and is right behind them, will not slacken his pace, and is near to grabbing them, stays with them, won’t let the person out of his sight, following hard after them. It is translated “overtake” three times, connoting that the pursuer followed after until he came along beside the person. Then it is translated “stick” three times as in two things sticking together. It is translated “keep fast,” don’t turn it loose. Then it is translated “together” two times, “abide,” as in stay there, one time, then “close” one time, “enjoined” one time, “pursued” one time, then “take” one time. So if we take all these together, what could we sum them up as? Cleave unto your wife means stay close together, be inseparable. It means mingle, follow hard, stay very close by, keep fast, hold on to, don’t turn loose, be near to your woman. So God commanded that man was to leave his father and mother, and cleave unto his wife only.

“That thou mayest love the LORD thy God, and that thou mayest obey his voice, and that thou mayest cleave unto him …” (Deuteronomy 30:20). That is that same Hebrew word dabaq. Just as we are commanded to cleave to God, God commands us to cleave to our wife. It’s a sacred and a holy thing, the same word used with both God and wife, equating our passion for our wife with our passion for God.

The next two questions and answers are taken from Mike’s new book, Created to NEED a Help Meet.

Honor to Whom Honor Is Due

Dear Pearls,

How do we set boundaries gently while maintaining relationship and honor with our parents? My mother-in-law redecorates my home to her liking, meddles in our finances, belittles my husband, telling him he’s foolish to spend money this way and that. My other stepmother throws fits when we aren’t “fair.” Both women want 100% loyalty and subjection from us. My mother examines the kids for bruises and marks, and uses the “examination” as a tool to threaten calling the DHS when things don’t go her way. Help us.

A Reader

Michael Answers

Dear Lady,

God tells you to submit to your husband but there is nothing in the Bible that remotely suggests you should submit to your mother-in-law, and you need not respect her any more than she respects you. When she tries to “decorate” your house, tell her you are happy with it the way it is and sweetly decline. When she insists, you insist. When she gets huffy, keep your dignity and quietly ask her to leave and not come back in your house until she is willing to respect your domain.

How could she meddle in your finances unless you give her the reigns? Gently tell her in so many kind words that it is none of her business.

As to your mother examining the kids for bruising, I do hope you are not bruising them; if you are then you are out of control and need to seek counsel. But if her threats are an attempt to intimidate you into surrendering to her will, tell her in no uncertain terms that her visiting privileges are terminated until further notice. If I had a parent or in-law that without provocation threatened to call child protection on me, I would move to a different state and not leave any forwarding address. Where are the men to allow a cantankerous old battle-ax to intimidate the family?

Mice or Men?

You won’t believe this one, but I print it because it is a common absurdity.

Dear Michael,

I am thirty years old. I would like to know when, if ever, is the authority of the old parents no longer in force over an adult son, especially if the mother is not in authority to her husband? Although I am not married, I have been on my own for many years, and I am well established in my career and ministry. My mother is a divorcee, so I have provided for her over the years. My dad has not been a part of my life for many years. Mother can be very spiritually manipulative. I have met a young woman whom I believe would make an excellent wife and mother to my children. She is not only a good choice, but she has my heart, and I believe I have hers. Her family is wonderful. They would be all for our marriage. My mother, on the other hand, does not like the idea. A while back, my mother did pick out a wife for me. She was sure this was the girl God had for me to marry. I was willing to talk to the girl’s parents, although I was not in any way attracted to her. As it turned out, the girl was already asked for and soon married. Do I, as a grown man, submit to my mother, or should she, a woman without a head, submit to me?

The Last Straw

Michael Answers

Should you submit to her or should she submit to you? Neither. There is one statement you made that I do question. You said you were a “grown man.”

Leave a Reply

16 comments on “Leaving and Cleaving”

  1. Mother in law

    I do understand where this lady stands. She wants to be strong yet friendly. I understand because I come from that same marriage. Mostly it is from our own mother’s weak failings that we find ourselves weak as wives. That we are to be sweet, unassuming, and nice. Nice enough for others to walk all over. I understand that I am weak and need a savior in my life daily. Even though we have move far away I do try to maintain a relationship with my mother in law as well and thank her for the gifts she sends our way for the children. One time she sent us Ralph Lauren towels for our house warming gift. I doubt any of her other children or their wives received as much. (as other gifts in the past dictate) I was thankful and let her know. she had thanked me for the notes that are sent. I hope they bring joy to her day and I pray for my husband’s family daily as they seem full of drama. May God direct my mouth to say what I ought and not what I want. thank you for reading.

  2. As a new mother-in-law myself I often see another side to this story. I realize there are many controlling, manipulative mother-in-laws out there. It just seems so often that mothers of sons are the ones who seem to have the most “problems”.
    I really have seen a double standard when it comes to this. What is perfectly acceptable behavior in our own mother is not acceptable to us in our husbands mother. We hold her to a standard that is harsher than the one we hold for our mother.
    I know this is not always the case and mothers (both sides) can be a problem for newlyweds in general. We seem to have the hardest time letting go. 🙂
    Just make sure that you aren’t expecting something from your husbands mom that you don’t expect from your mom. Treat her with respect, love her as you would your own. You might be surprised with the results!
    Seek to please your husband and do things the way he wants them done. We all do things differently in running our household and will never agree completely how they should be done. Don’t worry about how your mother in law or your own mother tell you to do them. Seek advice, that’s good, but ultimately do what works for you and your husband.

  3. I hope all of us with difficult mother-in-laws are taking lots of notes to review in time because our day is coming. Soon, we will be the mother-in-law.
    It is the wise woman who realizes that when her children marry (if not before), her job as “coach” comes to an end and her role as “cheerleader” begins. The mother-in-law who does not accept this new role will likely find that she is the loser in the relationship. When a choice is forced, it is the rare man (and not much of one) who will choose mom over his wife. The wife is his future and mom is his past. That sounds a little harsh, but most of the time it is true. The mom-in-law who wishes to play an active part in her son’s new family had best realize that she is an honored guest, not the queen, in her son’s home. The wife is not “the other woman”; she is #1.
    That being said, may God give us the grace to do what ever it takes to help our children’s marriages thrive when it is our turn to make the transition to “mom-in-law”. It probably looks quite different from that side of the equation. But if we find it too difficult to be cheerleaders, at least let us hold our tongues.

    1. Good advice, Janet! It would work equally as well for us daughters to remember to do the same with our own mothers. I often see that the husband is willing to leave and cleave but it is a bit harder for young wives to leave their mother and cleave to their husbands. Not always of course but, often. In my observation more so, than the other way around. Just from what I’ve observed in my three married children and many young friends I have watched grow up and marry.

      Really great advice for future mother in laws. Be a cheerleader! I love that.

    2. Thank you for this advice on going from being the coach to the cheeerleader! This is very timely for me and I think I will always keep it in mind!

  4. I know you must get letters from all kinds of people. The lady who has a mother in law ruling over the house is a killer! The 30 year old man who has a mother ruling over him is beyond belief! Thank you for giving common sense advice to people who haven’t been able to find the answers themselves. Most of us have made some decisions that would make very interesting reading if they were published. You publish letters in order to help others make decisions that honor God. Thanks for providing this service.

  5. I have the same issue. I had to request the woman doesn’t come around me. I exhausted myself with compromise. It all failed. She fails to see where her lack of concern for the very safety of our family is a problem. Her behaviors show a self-serving nature. Furthermore, the more she comes around, the more my husband and I argue. I will forgive, but I will not be trampled over and disrespected. As a Christian wife, I will serve my husband, however, I will fight for my marriage and I refuse to allow a godless nature force us apart. God please, give us the strength to do your will. Amen.

  6. I had the worst mother-in-law. She was so mean, that the day she died, not even her husband or children cried. But I was good to her until the day she died, because I love my husband. I was good to her, for his sake. When she began to call weekly and give me a hard time because I was pregnant with our fourth child, I had enough. She lived 1,100 miles away and she was very controlling and angry so I knew a phone confrontation would not work. I sat down and wrote her a letter, stating the fact that she didn’t have to baby sit, help us financially and that she had the children she wanted and we were following God. She was not saved. I told her that I didn’t want any more phone calls telling me what we should be doing and that we were blessed to have these children. That ended the nasty calls from her and she was respectful to me until the day she died. But she was still mean to every one else. It’s all about setting boundaries. The bible says to go one on one to the person to talk to them, if you can’t work it out, take someone else that is not involved. The bible way always works. Although we lived too far to sit down face to face with my mother-in-law, the letter worked. She got mad and didn’t call for 6 months, but she was good to me after that. As long as we let people treat us badly, they WILL. Sit down with your mother-in-law and ask her what you’ve done TO her and then tell her that whatever kind of wife you are, that that is between you and your husband and you don’t want to hear about that any more. You will be nervous because it sounds like you don’t stand up for yourself, but you’ll be glad when it’s over that you stood up for yourself. It’s not wrong to confront someone. The bible tells us to. We just need to make sure that we keep our emotions in check and stay on the topic and what pertains to us. If she goes on about her son, tell her that is for her to talk to him about, that you are talking to her just about you.

  7. “Treat her as an unruly child who needs a firm hand—firm, but not hard. She must feel her littleness in the shadow of your strength.”

    I fail to understand this answer, and have many questions. Why must this MIL “feel her littleness”? Is this a Christian response as to how we are to treat others? What proof is there that the author of this inquiry is telling the truth? How can anyone outside the situation judge the situation on the witness of just this one person? Again, how is this a Christian response? Is it a Christian’s responsibility to make someone “feel her littleness”? Isn’t vengeance God’s, not ours? Aren’t we to treat our elders with respect? Therefore, how is attempting to force an elder “to feel her littleness in the shadow of your strength” respectful? This MIL may be all things described, but to offer advice without sufficient information (and corroboration of the facts) is dangerous – is it not? Aren’t we all sinners (saved by grace through faith and that not of ourselves it is the gift of God…). If we are all sinners should we treat someone else as “little”? Of course no one should allow themselves to be verbally abused, but honest discussion with an attitude of Christian charity and without an attempt to force an elder to “feel her littleness” should be the answer shouldn’t it? Shouldn’t we “do as we would be done by”? Isn’t treating this MIL as a child exactly what the MIL is herself accused of in her treatment of her DIL? The DIL doesn’t want to be treated as a child, but she should then reciprocate her MIL’s actions by treating her as a child? How is this logical or Biblical?

    1. Some elders live in their sin. Fornication is at its height among retired persons.

      We need to confront the sinner…..even if they are older.

      I have seen the wicked behaviors of persons DROPPED off at the nursing homes by children who cannot handle the sin of their parents.

      Yes older people are adulterous and cheat on their wives and vice versa.

  8. Sandra, Very good. I performed a wedding ceremony and in doing so, plainly stated that all family members, including mom, stay out the newlyweds affairs.
    Let go and do not interfere PERIOD. Everyone laughed, but then agreed it was a good idea. Inlaws act more like outlaws many times. The taking a stand you stated was well done. It is best though if the parents are shown gratitude and love and respect from the beginning…….with the understanding that the couple will not allow any interference…then DO NOT run home to mommy to solve your problems…you create your own problems that way. Love, at a distance, yet be close; keep your marriage YOUR marriage…always be respectful, even if you must take a solid stand. God bless you

  9. I could have written this letter! Thank you for the advice. I confronted my MIL this year about her bullying and our relationship has seemed to improve.

  10. So many good points and very convicting, yet it is a process and my relationship with my husbands mother is so broken right now I just request some space from her. I have been married for 11 years and from the moment I was married I adopted my mother in law as a mom, not including my own mother in some affairs in hopes of giving my mother in law an opportunity to feel comfortable with me and my family and not feel odd. She was always welcomed in every family event, including extended events, my family welcomed her warmly. It was obvious she looked down on my family, we are loud and enjoy life, rather she enjoys a quiet table dinner. My husband is her only child and a divorcee, so their home environment was always different but I thought she would warm up to a new environment. However that was NOT the issue, the real began when I had my first son, I think she assumed she would have more authority in his life, since she struggled to parent in her yearly years seeking help from her mom. Unfortunately, I was a new mom that had the confidence to love and dote on this new baby with God’s Grace and I think that angered her some. I went to her early on and lovingly opened up the door for dialogue, asking her to help me transition into that new season of motherhood and I would help her in her new season of being a grandparent, this conversation went no where, but its an example of how often I tried to bring balance. She felt I was to controlling over my child since I did not subscribe to her ideologies concerning the raising of my child. My husband stood out of it many times felt I should be more sensitive and I turned the cheek often. The real problems began when my husband began at a business endeavor and she began to be our financial arm and then we lived with her for awhile, even then I suppressed my emotions and I was pregnant with our third child and I was so depressed because now I was forced to be her child and watch her undermine me with my children because I was in her home. Fast forward today my husband has apologized to me because the Holy Spirit convicted of his own selfish ambitions in building a business and its failings was due to his sin. So we are rebuilding today with five children and I know the Lord is faithful when there is true repentance and we are allowing God to heal our marriage but the dysfunctional relationship with his mother has gone unresolved. I have not pursued her and she is angry, I wish to spend Christmas apart this year. I do need to say that in the midst of the tumultuous season we were in I “SMACKED” my mother in law so I was very sorry for my actions, and apologized and realize that will always haunt me. She ran in my face when I was crying and upset with my husband yelling at me to grow up and be a woman and my reaction was very wrong and I wished I would have exhibited self control at that moment as I have in the past. She ran in my face many times with a very angry condescending demeanor. I have lost all respect for her, I lover her and looked up to her. I would reference her as my Titus 2, but over time I realized she wasn’t whom she wanted me to believe she was and her relationship with her son has always been dysfunctional and I would encourage him to love his mother and work it, but for some reason would belittle him and be rude. I felt she was beginning to use the relationship I had with her as their glue, I have five children I am no longer in the position to be that for them. I am seeking healing and reconciliation for my own family now due to the years of poor judgement my husband made and I thought I was doing the right thing by honoring him at the time, hindsight is always 20/20 but my mother in law blames me for it all. She says I need to be a real woman and get a job, no more homeschooling and playing house, our society today seeks strong woman and what the bible says does not represent todays woman. So this philosophy I do not agree yet I have struggled these past months to have true joy in the decisions I have made because I have the constant voice of disapproval. The Lord is faithful and He will restore the joy of motherhood and true submission and honor to my husband but I need space from the negativity that comes from her. I see a future with my mother in law but I am emotionally weak and am in a season of being rebuilt by God, its hard because she is alone and I always feel obligated to give her what she wants around the holidays but this year I just want to enjoy the Christmas season in our home after five years. Please I welcome any advice even if it will be hard to hear, I want God’s blessing and I will try to humbly receive Godly advice. Thank you

  11. The reason that my MIL can be so controlling and needy is because she is very unhappy in her marriage, and seeks fulfillment in her relationships with her sons that she ought to be receiving from her husband. Thankfully my husband is very wise and although he is sweet and respectful to her, he makes it clear to her that I am the woman in his life, not her. Think of your mother in law as a broken, hurting person in need of Jesus, and her words cannot hurt you!

  12. I find so many resources worldly and biblical that address the monster in law situations. But never info in the horrific daughter in law , which in my experience us what I’ve seen time and time again. Daughters who do everything in their power to manipulate and come between any relationship their husband can have with his family and even their children. Leave and cleave does not mean forget about your family and find that men often are pushed against the wall to either idolize their wives or end up with a divorce . Men who set boundaries but are met with so much resistance that it’s better to just go with the flow.

    In these situations does the MIL have a right to say anything ? Without being labeled the monster in law .. does leaving and cleaning mean forgetting you ever had a son for fear of adding wood to the fire ..are these moms to just accept the fact their sons made bad choices despite warnings and forget about grandchildren ..

    So difficult but as an aunt not yet a MIL it is scary to see the rise in dishonoring towards parents and spouses parents ..