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Married Couples Shouldn't Obey Their Parents

Leaving Parents

There is no question that couples sometimes feel crowded, in the first place, because of their families of origin. You may remember that Ephesians 5 ends with an afterword that is forward-looking: Paul reminds us that married people are starting a family. Something new is made because a husband and wife are now united.

This is exciting for the couple but often challenging for families, so preachers tell parents at a wedding that no one is losing anything; one side is gaining a son-in-law and the other a daughter-in-law. Nonetheless there is also a very real sense in which children are separating from father and mother and siblings. Honor and love and friendship continue, but a new alignment of affection and respect is created or affirmed. In saying these kinds of things Ephesians 5 is clearly echoing Genesis 2, for when the Bible first summarizes what it means for a man and woman to be together, it mentions “leaving father and mother,” and it mentions becoming one flesh.

In the old King James Version these two activities are summed up as leaving and cleaving. It is not true of everyone, but many couples find that the cleaving-to-one-another part of marriage is easy, and the leaving-parents-and-family part of marriage is more complicated.

What cleaving looks like will, of course, depend on one’s culture. For some cultures, with extended families living together, leaving means getting your own room. We’ll go out on a limb and say that this level of leaving is not optimal in a marriage, even if it is sometimes necessary. But whatever the shape leaving might take, people experience the difficulty of leaving on a personal level. If you are used to spending a lot of time visiting with parents or were perhaps living with them, then not seeing them on a regular basis can create a void in your life. This is especially true where a spouse has been particularly close to a parent.

Gospel-Shaped Marriage

Chad Van Dixhoorn, Emily Van Dixhoorn

In Gospel-Shaped Marriage, Chad and Emily Van Dixhoorn give a concise assessment of the biblical design for marriage while offering practical advice for married life from a grace-filled perspective.

Yet if a husband is to be a one-woman man, it is hard to see how he can ordinarily spend an hour a day on the phone with his mother. A parallel point can be made for a wife and her parents. Sometimes parents invite their married children to join them on a vacation, perhaps offering to help with planning or paying costs. We have often gone on vacations with parents, but we pause to ask if we are facilitating leaving and cleaving. If you are the Christian parent of married children, you will want to think through what you can do to best facilitate their duty to leave you and cleave to each other and not pressure them to spend time with you when it might be better for them to devote that time to each other. This is grace in action for our parents.

Leaving is hard for some married children. It is at least as hard for parents and often for a longer period of time. Married Christian couples need to care about that, because we want to make the duty of our parents to let go as easy as possible. Of course we will explain that travel and telephone time may need to be altered. But we will probably want to say more. We may acknowledge that a new marriage can leave holes in other lives. We may acknowledge a sense of loss or loneliness. And we may even talk about Augustine of Hippo or Jonathan Edwards.

If Augustine has taught the church anything, it is that every loss, and each experience of loneliness, contains its own lesson: human relations in this life cannot fully satisfy the sense of longing for relationship built into each one of us. There are things on this earth that are left broken in order to make us long for what is not. We need to preach this to one another. Edwards is helpful here too. Near the end of his book Charity and Its Fruits, he has a chapter entitled “Heaven, a World of Love.”

Edwards points out that there is only one place where love faces no limitations. When we go to be with the Lord, love will not be hindered by distance, by a lack of time together, by an uneven return of love given to others, by a difference in possessions, by circumstances that dampen love, and by differing relations. There is a joy not experienced in marriages in the state of grace that will be experienced by people in the state of glory.

So far we have only mentioned the challenge of adult children leaving their parents. There is also the difficulty that comes when parents leave us. Even if you and your spouse think you have found the right formula for relating to parents, the formula might need to be adjusted when you lose a parent, and the surviving parent suddenly feels a bit like a dependent—or actually becomes one. Once again, in the midst of compassion and love, husbands and wives must remember that they cannot fill the void left by their parent’s missing spouse.

Honoring Parents

One text of Scripture that informs our relations with family is the command in Genesis 2 to leave and cleave. A second biblical duty helps us to navigate, even balance, these child-parent relations. It is the command to honor our parents (Deut. 5:16; Eph. 6:1).

Odd as it may sound, married couples must not obey their parents (Ex. 20:12). That would be to not leave a father and mother. For a married couple to simply obey his or her parents would be to miss the fact that something new is made in a marriage, including a new head of a new household.

There are things on this earth that are left broken in order to make us long for what is not.

That said, respect must continue. Honoring parents is not just for children. It is for adults too. So do you remember the respect you showed when you were dating or courting? Those conversations when you wanted your potential in-laws to like you? All that good behavior that was on display because you wanted your possible spouse to think that you respected your parents too? That must not be turned off because it is too inconvenient to continue or because the marriage deal is now sealed. Whatever the mixture of motivations for the burst of good behavior that often characterizes family relations during an engagement, it all trends in the right direction, even if the motivations for action need to be recalibrated.

Of course a married couple may do things differently in a marriage than their parents did in theirs. Yes, we cannot escape the fact that in some respects, we are made in the image of our parents. Yet while we consciously (or unconsciously) follow our parents in some areas, there will be places where we choose another path. Your parents never discussed finances; you do. Your parents always bought expensive items, assuming they would last; you don’t. Your parents put too many kids into too small of a car for too long of a drive and called it a vacation; you plan a “staycation” and read a book.

We can do things differently, but we still must honor our parents in the way in which we relate to them. Even significant issues must be discussed with respect, even if—especially if—we know we won’t agree.

Again, what that honor looks like will vary in its details, but the generalities will stay the same. We’ll build up their names in public, guarding their reputations as best as we can. We’ll keep our dirty laundry at home. As much as is right and safe, what happens in the family, stays in the family. We’ll seriously consider their advice, even if we decide not to follow it. We’ll persevere in communicating with them and try to assume the best of their motives, even in difficult relationships, because God in his providence put us in each other’s life.

Again, the extent to which this may be possible depends in some degree on your family history. If a parent was abusive, you will do more protecting than communicating. If serial bankruptcies or gambling addictions run in the family, you may not want to consult a given parent for financial counsel.

It is because of our desire to honor parents that we try to pray in a focused way in the days leading up to a parental visit. It is because we honor them that we discuss issues directly rather than use a spouse as a go-between. And we expect the same of our parents.

The way in which we treat our parents throughout our marriage, from the complicated questions of the early days to our care of them at the end of their days, is a key part of our Christian testimony. Helping each other love and honor our parents, helping one another through thoughtful leaving and cleaving, rather than venting or complaining, is part of what goes into a godly marriage. And if this has not been a part of our pattern, if we have not helped our spouse or children honor our parents, we can repent and start anew or confess our sins and do a better job of honoring their memories. Need we add that much of this applies equally to blended families?

We may need to help a husband or wife through the challenges of being a stepparent. We may need to help a spouse help children to honor a biological parent who is now your spouse’s ex-spouse. These are intricate dynamics, even further complicated by ex-in-laws and so on. But if by God’s grace we respect and love one another, we will help our spouse in their effort to respect and love their family.

This article is adapted from Gospel-Shaped Marriage: Grace for Sinners to Love Like Saints by Chad Van Dixhoorn and Emily Van Dixhoorn.

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