On In-Laws and Outlaws

Got extended family?

Then you are sure to have conflict. And no time of the year brings more conflicts of the relative kind than the holidays.

Our lead teaching pastor preached yesterday on handling conflict biblically. Such a practical topic for this week filled with turkeys–both of the edible and uncouth uncle kind. :-)

Several years ago, my accountability partner (and dear friend, fellow writer and speaker) Mary Steinke and I crafted a workshop for Heart at Home called The By-Laws of In-laws and Outlaws. In it we dealt with the topic of extended family and the ways each of us have effectively (and sometimes not-so-effectively) handled conflict.

I thought this week might be a good time to post just a little of our collective thoughts.  For now, let’s start by understanding the three types of conflict that occur between people.

First, we have  inadvertent conflict.

This occurs when someone gets their feelings hurt or gets angry, but it was inadvertent or by accident on their part or yours. It usually involves some sort of misunderstanding over facts or an event.

For example, you plan the family reunion picnic by gathering the best date from those who have a preference. When the date is announced, it lands smack dab on the same day as your two nephews’ soccer tournament . So your sister-in-law says her family can’t come and her feelings are hurt. You don’t understand. You sent out the email. She never responded so you thought they had no preference. It is then she discovers the original email in her spam folder.

Now you are faced with a potential blow up in the family. What do you do?

Take out the emotion.

Stick to the facts.

Try not to be defensive and instead attempt to remedy the situation.

DO NOT dig your heels in and say  “Stinks to be them!” Be gracious and imagine if the tables were turned, what you’d want done in the situation.

Next we have  overt conflict. This is when an extended family member hurts you on purpose and wants you – and maybe everyone else in the family — to know they did it.

They make a back-handed comment about your weight in front of a large group.

Or they question and slam your mothering skills.

Or worse.

What do you do?

Sometimes nothing.

At times silence is the best method, especially in a group setting. By barking back you only lower yourself to the childish level they are on and pretty soon you’ve got a playground scrap going.

God’s girls don’t belong in a playground scrap.

On the flip side, don’t buy into the lie I did for so many years: that nice, Christian women should just act as a doormat, letting another wipe his/her feet on them while they say nothing.

What happened to the Bible’s admonition to speak the truth in love? What happened is we tend to do just half of that command. Either we bark out the truth in an unloving, inappropriate manner or we just assume the “loving” thing to do is to not speak at all.

What I am saying to you is that from my experience, when it comes to overt conflict, sometimes you do need to go to war but do it politely and firmly.

Finally, we have what is called covert conflict. It is conflict that is disguised.

Covert conflict occurs when it appears on the surface as though this family member is getting along, being polite, or really sorry, but there’s an underlining message that isn’t quite so positive. It’s really passive, aggressive behavior.

Think Everybody Loves Raymond.

Marie, the mom-in-law, often appears to be “helping” Deborah, her daughter-in-law, but in reality, she is plotting harm instead. Like the time she gave Deborah her famous spaghetti sauce recipe to help her poor cooking skills. There were ingredients missing on purpose to insure it would be a flop.

Covert conflict is the hardest to handle, because there’s always a mixed message. They say one thing, but really mean another. Or they act one way when you are in the room and another when you’re not.

If you address the conflict to the person who’s being covert, they will most likely deny everything claiming that they said the right thing or did the right thing and YOU must be misinterpreting their words or actions.

The best way to deal with covert conflict in the family is to realize that what they say and do may not be real or genuine. Then, choose not to put yourself in situations where they will say one thing and act another way towards you.

So when someone in the family baits you and it appears to be a succulent morsel of good will, don’t take the bait without a lot of prayer. Because when we take the covert bait, who gets hurt with hook in her mouth, gets pan fried or fricasseed and finally served up on a platter for all to see?

We do.

Remember, they say one thing and mean another. Offer a polite “no thank you, but thank you so much for offering” answer.

Don’t be fooled. Be wise.

Now, a few verses to ponder as we enter this week.

Okay…not just to ponder, to CLING TO!!!!

Romans 12:18: “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” (English Standard Version)

Mary and I, as we meet on the phone weekly for accountability on a week when we’ve been around extended family, often ask each other, “Well…how did YOU do?”

Not “What crummy things did someone say to you?”

Or “What covert operations were attempted against you?”

Not, “Did that uncouth uncle or persnickety relative do something mean or hurtful?”


Instead we ask, “How did you do at responding in kindness; at controlling your tongue; at giving a gentle answer when you wanted to throttle someone?

Which brings us to another verse we mention as a fabulous verse to internalize.

Proverbs 15:1: “A soft answer turns away wrath,but a harsh word stirs up anger.” (ESV)

When the leak of conflict turns to a trickle, someone needs to stop up the dam before an all-out free-for-all fight ensues.

So, give a soft answer and walk away.

Go scrape dishes, play with the kids, anything to get out of the snow-balling conflict  now gathering ….before you are bawling instead!


Romans 14:19  “So let us then definitely aim for and eagerly pursue what makes for harmony and for mutual upbuilding (edification and development) of one another.” (The Amplified Bible Version)

Aim for.

Eagerly pursue.

But remember, you can only control your behavior, never the behavior of others.

If you are going to be heading in to a week with extended family and you’d like a little prayer, feel free to leave a comment today. Mary and I will print them off and add them to our prayer times. (And believe me, when I’m in a battle, there are about three or four sisters with vibrant, powerful prayer habits and deep spiritual lives that I want praying for me. Mary is at the top of that list!)

Just please, be nice. We don’t need names or even titles. Or long, drawn-out explanations of the situation that only Dr. Dobson himself could understand. :-)

Just let us know you need a couple of “I’ve-been-there-and-am-still-there-sometimes” sisters to pray for you.

It would be our pleasure!

Oh, and I’ll be back on Wednesday with a warm, fuzzy post.

Pinky promise.

Peace-making Blessings,


  1. Hi! If you need an SEO agency for your law firm. I want to advise dNovo Group is a law firm SEO-agency that helps grow your business. The agency deals with SEO for lawyers, as well as web design for legal sites.

  2. Have a nice day, the law is very flexible and cannot always protect you, in order for it to work for you, you need to have a good advaocat who can protect your rights in any situation. And if you haven’t found a good lawyer yet, then you need to contact Paul Mankin.

  3. Dear Karen, I’ve been to hearts at home and heard you speak on making Sunday special & this session you wrote here “in-laws”. I appreciate your sense of humor, great recipes & love of vintage things. Asking for prayer in our in law situation. I spend lots of time praying & after nearly 3 decades still the same. Asking for His protection in our marriage. We’re good but this topic resurfaces & I’d love to “let the past go”.

  4. Yes please pray for me over my “outlaw in-laws.” And, while you’re at it, please pray for my family as we grieve the loss of our dog. I took her in for what I thought would be a simple bellyache, and it turned out that she was diagnosed with a fast-moving, terminal illness. Nine days later, she died at home next to me (yesterday). My husband, myself, and my children are desperately sad over this loss. I have not been without a dog for more than twenty years, and this is hitting me very hard. I won’t give you all the details, but please pray for peace, and for strength to be able to do what we need to do these next few weeks. Additionally, I have to be hospitalized on Dec. 9 for tests for myself. This is a trying time for our family. Thank you.

  5. This will be my first Christmas as an in-law, since we got married in June. And we are having everyone over to our house (eesh!)
    Things aren’t bad, but there has been some past bad blood between some of my husband’s family, so I’m not sure how it will go. I’m praying for a smooth and enjoyable holiday season!

  6. Thank you for the verses and for the prayers. Help me to act and speak pleasingly for God and to be grateful for the families that I have been given.

  7. This is a wonderful well-written article. Where were you 20 years ago? LOL I’ve needed this since the day I got engaged, and not just for my inlaws. What a wonderful reminder to pray for one another, and to jeep our minds focused on the word, rather than on the person or the conflict. Please pray for me through this Holiday season (From Thanksgiving through new Years!) to be strong, and to be at peace with everyone. Thank you so much!
    God bless you.

  8. We have been involved with all of these types of conflict to the point we have stopped attending all family gatherings. Is this right as a Christian, (sigh) I don’t know. Please pray!

  9. We have great family but sometimes different points of view that can be uncomfortable at times. I’d appreciate prayers for all of us to be understanding and kind to one another with no disagreements (including the kids). Also, if you’d pray for a child we hope to add to our family, that would be wonderful.

    By the way, I love “Everybody Loves Raymond”! My in-laws are kind Italians so it makes me laugh to watch the show.

  10. I attended that Hearts at Home workshop a few years ago. Wow! While I wouldn’t want anyone to be in the situations that I have been in, it was comforting to know that I was not alone. While things are better than they used to be, I occasionally still find myself in the middle of overt or covert conflict with my MIL, and SILs.

    My husband and I have taken the position of as far as it goes with us, we will be at peace with everyone. We are respectful of his family members, but don’t get involved in the gossip filled conversations. Sometimes the fact that we won’t join the fray is more upsetting to family members than actually taking a side in a battle. Prayers appreciated.

  11. Families – wow. I came from a small family and always thought it would be so nice to be part of a big extended family. Sometimes it is; too often it isn’t. The covert conflict is a real downer because the “coverter” can always say that I misunderstood her. Maybe I’ll call her Marie this year….. :-) I truly appreciate your prayers and will keep the Bible verses firmly in mind. Thanks and have a Blessed Thanksgiving!

  12. God has brought Proverbs 15:1, Proverbs 16:24, Colossians 4:6 & James 1:19-20 across my path for a week now. Thank you so much for the encouraging words, they are so timely. Please keep me in prayer as this holiday season approaches. I will definitely be meditating on those verses & keeping myself “prayed up”. Be Blessed! Treva

  13. We don’t really celebrate holidays around here. (I know, it’s sad, I agree.) But, my MIL does live VERY close to me (ten feet away at the moment, but normally about thirty five feet away), and does not like me one bit. She never hesitates to complain about how I mother, (actually, none of my behaviors, ideas, areas of my life are sacred) to my 12 year old daughter or to her son, my husband. I have always been civil and polite and kind to her at every opportunity, and usually respond to her tirades (that are usually peppered with ugly words that I would really prefer my 3 1/2 year old would not repeat…but he usually does anyway)with silence, but it’s hard. It’s hard being judged by someone that I have no ill feelings against. It’s hard being viciously hated by someone I’ve always been nothing but nice to.
    I would appreciate your prayers. I just want peace. Peace in my home, peace in my family. My family “kicked me out” of the family when my dad died a couple of years ago, so being rejected by “both” families really stings. There’s been a lot of tears associated with this family thing. Holidays are cause for heartache around here, but I would love for them to be cause for celebration. Sometimes I think I would rather have a tense, anxiety-filled, backbiting, insult-slinging family get together type of celebration rather than the just-another-day thing we have, but I really don’t know.
    Thank you for your timely advice and I will definitely be clinging to those verses. :)

  14. Thank you for the verses and the timeliness of this post. Please pray for me to handle the overt conflict I experience during every extended family gathering. Happens every time and I always stay silent – I don’t engage – and then I kick myself the whole way home for not speaking up or correcting someone’s misinformation. Thank you again and have a Happy Thanksgiving!!

  15. Thank you so much for this post and its accompanying Scripture. Once again I am not looking forward to the holidays due to family dynamics. It gets worse and worse each year so I have finally decided to opt out. My children are grown and can have their own celebrations, I am headed to feed the homeless and hungry on Thanksgiving. In the meantime, I am going to cling to Proverbs 15:1 and trust that God has a bigger plan for me this holiday season. I hope you have a wonderful Thanksgiving!

  16. Such perfect timing for me to read your post! Please pray for me to handle with wisdom the covert conflict with family during Thanksgiving. And thank you for the scripture you included. Happy Thanksgiving!

  17. Hi Karen,

    I’ve been praying the last few times I’ve been with extended family that I not feel offended by what someone else might say or do. It’s not always easy but it’s not fun when I let my holiday be ruined by what someone else says or does. Thanks for this post. Have a wonderful Thanksgiving!

    Rebecca Ann

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *