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When Your In-Law Comes First – Karla Downing

October 11, 2020

When Your In-Law Comes First

Does your husband put one of your in-laws first in your marriage? This is what happened to me, and how it caused problems for both of us.

An In-Law Problem For Me

My father-in-law was a huge problem at the beginning of my marriage. He was used to his only son being his best buddy and wasn’t willing to give that up. My husband was used to giving in to what his dad wanted, which meant I came second.

This was extremely difficult for me, as you can imagine. And what made it even worse is I had huge abandonment issues from my childhood.

It hit a serious point six years into our marriage when I told my husband I couldn’t do it anymore.  

My husband recognized that I was serious. He finally told his dad that he could no longer put him before his wife. To both of our surprise, his father ended his relationship with us. It was all-or-nothing for him. This was incredibly painful for my husband, but a huge relief to me.

Reconciling with an In-Law

We had no contact with his dad for 25 years. Then his dad reached out through a mutual friend and offered to meet. My husband was still angry and didn’t want to go, but I encouraged him to do it because I knew it would be better for him if they were reconciled.

I was fearful because there had never been a healthy relationship with his dad that had boundaries to protect our marriage. I honestly didn’t know if it was possible.

Even though it had been 25 years, I was an emotional wreck when they were together—even when they just talked on the phone. I was over-reactive like before, which horrified me. In response, my husband reacted the way he had in our early marriage, which made me even more insecure.

I finally went to my husband in all sincerity and told him once again I couldn’t do it the way things were. I didn’t want to act the way I was and didn’t feel I could get control of it the way he was handling it.

How to Handle Your In-Law Problem With Your Husband

I didn’t know how my husband would react, so it was a relief to me when he was empathetic and asked for a list of specific things he could do to make it easier for me.    

Here is the list I gave him:

  1. Put me first without being resentful.
  2. Involve me when you are making plans with your dad.
  3. Let me hear and see you setting boundaries with your dad.
  4. Show empathy rather than anger and irritation when I am insecure or upset.    
  5. Listen when I tell you that you are not doing something on the list.

He taped the list on the bathroom wall so that he sees it when he shaves and brushes his teeth.

Just having him listen with a willingness to hear me made a lot of my abandonment and insecurity vanish. Having the list on the wall with his promise to follow it calmed me every time I saw it.

It took a while, but I was finally able to be at peace with his relationship with his dad. It wasn’t easy, but it was the best thing for my husband.

Avoiding things just because they are hard and require us to stretch and grow isn’t best for our marriages. I know we are better off having his father in our lives, as long as the relationship is healthy. You may also be able to reconcile with your in-law, when you first pursue lots of honest conversations with God and your husband.

Wife Step: What are you avoiding in an in-law relationship because you know it will be difficult but recognize that it is the right thing to do? What step can you take to begin dealing with it?

Karla Downing New

Karla Downing, the founder of, offers Christian marriage help and Christian relationship help as a speaker, author, counselor, and Bible study teacher. Karla grew up in a dysfunctional family and then found herself struggling with Christian codependency in her own difficult marriage. Through her personal struggles, she discovered biblical and practical principles, which she now teaches to others. She also trains counselors, pastors, women’s ministry leaders, church leaders, small-group leaders, non-profit ministry leaders, and individuals to minister to Christians in difficult relationships. Karla’s passion is to see individuals, marriages, and families set free from the chains of dysfunction, misunderstanding, and emotional pain through a correct understanding of what the Bible teaches about relationships.

Karla Downing is the author of the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association 2004 Silver Medallion Award winner, 10 Lifesaving Principles for Women in Difficult Marriages. Her second book, When Love Hurts: 10 Principles to Transform Difficult Relationships, applies the same principles to all family members. Her third book, The Truth in the Mirror: A Guide to Healthy Self-Image, offers a unique and life-changing approach to looking at self-image. 

She holds a Master of Arts in Marriage and Family Therapy from Hope International University. Karla also holds a Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts in Communicative Disorders from California State University, Fullerton. She is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and a licensed Speech Language Pathologist. Karla was also the director of Friends in Recovery, a Christ-based, Twelve-Step recovery program.

Karla lives in Southern California. She has been married for over thirty years and has three adult daughters.



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