Playing Second Fiddle

by Dr. Randy Schroeder

My mother-in-law is overly involved with my wife. They talk on the phone several times a day, and my wife calls every night to tell her when our 1-year-old son falls asleep. The two of them even take frequent two- to three-day vacations together. At times, I feel like I’m playing second fiddle. Any thoughts?

Your question addresses an issue that can have a significant impact on a marriage, namely, the enmeshment of a spouse’s parent with their married child. Your question is pertinent especially because nearly everyone can relate to a parent-child relationship. It’s obvious by the tone of your question that this situation is hurtful. Some husbands in similar circumstances feel their wives are more “married” to their mothers than they are to them.

The goal of being a parent is to work yourself out of a job. That is, to rear your children to become responsible, functioning adults, and then let go of them as they transition to adulthood. In this way, you empower them to establish relationships with others on their own terms. That goal is especially difficult for mothers whose identity and purpose in life center primarily on being a parent.

The result is a relationship that is, in your words, “overly involved.” God intended marriage to be the lifelong union of two people who transition from their respective families to establish their own. Scripture refers to this dynamic as “leave and cleave” (Genesis and Matthew). The validity of this concept is borne out by research, which indicates the degree of healthy physical and emotional separation from one’s family of origin is a reliable predictor of marital success.

While I don’t know the specifics of your marriage, I can offer some thoughts about how you might approach the topic with your wife. I suspect that your mother-in-law is not intentionally trying to interfere in your marriage, although it may seem that way.

My advice to you, as delicate as it may be, is to tell your wife how you feel about her relationship with her mother. Seek to understand her perspective as well, since she may have concerns about your marriage of which you are unaware. Avoid making this a loyalty issue, where you feel your wife is “choosing” her mother over you. In a follow-up discussion, you might ask yourselves how much quality time you want to spend with each other, with family, friends, or at work. Pray for wisdom as you work toward a compromise.

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