“For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife, and they will become one flesh.” (Genesis 2:24-25). This statement is so critical to the institution of matrimony that Jesus amplified it in Matthew 19: 4-6. Bible scholars interpret “leave” to mean breaking away from your parents to establish a new home, while “cleave” means being glued together so tightly that you become one and inseparable. This statement should put to rest the squabbles between mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law, which have torn many marriages apart and is still threatening many others. But these are human phenomena where one plus one does not necessarily add up to two. A female friend actually told me in those days that many girls want their mothers-in-law dead before they meet or get married to their husbands. I was shocked and angry just thinking that somebody somewhere could silently be wishing my mother dead, but she said that is the truth.
I believe the husband is very critical in ensuring that his wife and his mother do not put asunder to what God has joined together. Very important is a thorough understanding of his mother and his wife. For instance, if you have a mother who is brash, autocratic and domineering, insulate your marriage and spouse from her because she is bad news to your marriage and your spouse. On the other hand, if your spouse is selfish and possessive, you need to shield your mother from her. Such wives will have issues with your interacting with your mother or supporting her financially. Meanwhile, in Christianity, Islam and African tradition, we are admonished to take care of our parents, especially in old age.
In marriage we talk about openness, but this is one instance where you use your wisdom. If your supporting your mother financially upsets your wife, then she does not need to know when you do so. The other bit is for couples operating a joint account. I have always advocated that couples who have joint accounts should allocate some funds to each to be spent as deemed fit without being accountable to the other spouse. You can support your parents from such funds. But ideally, no spouse should be angry because the husband/wife reasonably supports his/her parents. That is an unreasonable behavior that couples should resolve.
There is a time for everything, the great King Solomon wrote. A mother gives birth to a baby and nourishes him into adulthood. That is a long time to love and bond. Now he moves to another phase of life and gets married. That is what Genesis 2:24-25 is all about. Mothers must let go of the goat and the rope; do not tie your sons to your apron strings. Leave your married children alone to live their lives without your towering presence or shadow. The only time you have a right to intervene is if your son’s/daughter’s life is in danger. Only foolish parents stand aloof while their son’s/daughter’s life is endangered in a marriage. Otherwise, parents should mind their business unless their opinion is sought, and let it remain an opinion, not an order. Some mothers actually ask their daughters the performance of their sons-in-law in the other room. Why ask? The taste of the pudding is in the eating. Go and experience it. Some mothers also complain that their sons are losing weight because their daughters-in-law are not caring enough or do not know how to cook. Please take your son back and resume breastfeeding him! Your son is overweight and struggling to lose weight and you are complaining.
Husbands must at all times protect their wives (and vice versa). Do not denigrate your spouse before your parents or siblings, especially if they are selfish or loathe your spouse; it will destroy your marriage. Put measures in place to make the job of protecting your spouse easy. If you do not feel obliged to protect your spouse, your marriage is dead. What is left is carcass. Husbands should let the relationship between their wives and mothers evolve naturally. Do not force or influence it. If they get along, fine: if they do not, just ensure their paths seldom cross. Notwithstanding the nature of the relationship, there must be mutual respect.
However, I feel protection of spouses should be based on fairness, equity and justice. Why offend God to please your spouse? If your spouse is wrong, while I do not support dressing her down in public or before your mother, you must privately point it out to her. If you do not, you are living in deception; you are not helping her to become a better person. She should also be humble enough to apologise to her mother-in-law. If refuses to, you must do it on her behalf and pray it suffices for your mother. The same should apply if your mother is wrong. Humility has no age barrier. I do not support sweeping problems under the carpet and hoping they will go away. They seldom do, if anything, they grow worse. Continue to maintain a good relationship with your parents, but it should not be to the detriment of your spouse.
This is Africa; we marry not just our spouses, but the family. But we must realize that the new family is not an extension of the one you are coming from. We must learn to balance the interest of our nuclear families with that of our extended families. The best advice I got from my elder brother, Fr. Tony, while preparing for marriage is that my wife and I should respect each other’s family. The fifth commandment admonishes Christians (African tradition also does) to honour our parents. Our parents include our parents-in-law. We all had pre-existing bonds before we got married. Marriage does not erode these bonds. So, you do not treat your spouse’s parents or family like filth and expect peace in your home. Even if you cannot love them, even though I think you should, respect them, be kind to them and be patient with them. Many older people need patience. If you truly love your spouse, you will do everything within your power to avoid conflict with his mother, because when you don’t, you put him in an awkward and difficult situation. Do not allow issues to drag to a point where he has to choose between you and his mother. Wives, he is yours now, but be sensitive. Remember you will get old someday and become a mother-in-law. It will come sooner than you expect.
Finally, do not take your marital issues to the court of in-laws. You hardly get justice there. The court runs on emotion and bias, not equity and fairness. That is why churches have sponsors (advisers) for new couples and marriage advisory councils to handle marital issues. The government also has customary courts and other organs for arbitration on marital issues.