Marriage in Islam is a sacred union that brings together a man and a woman, with the righteous intentions of completing half their Deen, increasing them both in piety and blessings, and enabling them to dwell in love and tranquility, hopefully for the rest of their lives.
The fact is, however, that it is also a union of two families, viz. the immediate and distant relatives of the couple on both sides. Therefore, in-law relationships are purely those that one day, almost in the blinking of an eye, enter your life as a result of yournikah with your spouse.
Unlike workplace colleagues, neighbors or classmates, you cannot just switch your job, residence, or school to end your association with a toxic person when it comes to the relatives of your spouse.
Also, unlike your biological familial bonds that exist on the basis of the umbilical cord, you do not grow up cultivating and nurturing in-law relationships since childhood, having successfully reached a comfortable zone of closure and frankness with the passage of time.
Hence, you are more often than not totally unfamiliar with your in-laws when you get married: their habits, customs and ways, especially if they hail from another culture.
Result: Whether you like all of them or not, you will just have to make yourself learn to adjust to, and get along amicably with, your in-laws.
This also means that in-law relationships are some of the most delicate human relationships that exist on this plant!
Importance of a Sincere Intention from the Start
As someone whose nikah recently hit the ten year mark, I cannot stress enough the importance of having sincere intentions when it comes to forming and sustaining relationships with in-laws once the marriage contract is done.
In my limited experience of hearing about others’ problems via marital counseling, I have witnessed time and again how the wrong intention since the advent of a marriage, of pleasing one’s spouse or in-laws over and above pleasing Allah, leads to nothing but disaster for everyone involved.
People who are too afraid of being 100% honest and truthful with their in-laws (“people pleasers”) even if it means continuing to disobey Allah’s commands and laws, and allowing open transgression to go on in the home, end-up resorting to two-facedness and hypocrisy in order to please their in-laws over the years.
Eventually, however, like any other sin that Allah has forbidden, sneakiness and deceit leads to nothing but bitterness and soured relationships.
From the start, a married man or woman should seek to get along well with their in-laws, but only for the sake of pleasing Allah. Whether it is tolerating sarcastic remarks, unjust treatment, or harsh scolding from your parent-in-law or sibling-in-law (possibly in return for not obeying them when they want you to disobey Allah), this forbearance in the face of negativity should not be practiced just to save face, avoid conflict, keep up appearances, or even to please your spouse; it should be done only for Allah’s pleasure.
And it is very important to keep renewing and refreshing this intention as the years pass in a marriage.
In-Law Leanings: Natural Human Weakness, Not Double Standards
One of the keys of honoring one’s in-laws lies in expecting there to be ‘double standards’ in their love for, and treatment of, a son- or daughter-in-law versus their own biological offspring. When a man or woman expects that his or her parents in law will always love their blood offspring more, they will not get hurt when seemingly ‘unjust’ treatment is meted-out towards them in the future.
For example, when a son-in-law arrives at his parents-in-law’s house for a dinner party, everyone might not come forward to greet him enthusiastically, but when their own son arrives, everyone might stop what they are doing to get up and greet him with hugs and handshakes.
Or, when a daughter-in-law has her first baby, her parents in law might not go out of their way to care for her while she recovers postpartum, except perhaps in a light, cursory manner. But when their own biological daughter (her husband’s sister) has her first baby, they might go all out in lavishing her with special meals, extra care, and round-the-clock, exclusive babysitting services.
When a son- or daughter-in-law will remember that his or her in-laws are human beings who have human hearts with natural feelings and emotions that are beyond their control, they will be able to overlook their apparent ‘double standards’ with more patience and acceptance.
Respect of Elders: Tongues Tied, Opinions Withheld
Honoring in-laws in order to make marriage work also heavily involves affording them a great deal of respect, which basically translates to: controlling your facial expression in front of them so that it is always pleasant; never answering back or raising your voice at them, no matter how much they mistreat you; and never, ever arguing with your spouse when they are around.
Whilst a married man or woman might easily ruffle their brows or frankly express their anger at something in front of their own parents and siblings, they cannot do that in front of their parents-in-law or other in-laws.
Expressing your opinions and emotions too loudly and vehemently in front of your in-laws automatically reduces your worth in their eyes, and their opinion of you. This is a fact.
I have seen some older in-laws misuse their authority to cross bounds that should not be crossed, however, and in such a scenario, a stand must be taken by the younger person, firmly but respectfully, e.g. the uncle of the wife of an openly practicing and religious young Muslim man always cornered him into lengthy, critical discussions about religion and it’s adherents in his presence at every social gathering. The nephew-in-law kept patiently tolerating his wife’s uncle’s verbal criticism about religion until it started inching towards blasphemy.
Since then, the said nephew-in-law made it a point to avoid being cornered into such a situation, by not offering that uncle-in-law his company beyond the cursory Islamic greeting of peace, if the uncle started criticizing religion again.
Whereas our older in-laws deserve our utmost respect, we must also remember that we should not become acquiescent bystanders to transgression and oppression on their behalf. If an older in-law persistently disobeys Allah, e.g. by committing gheebah (backbiting), consuming usury, or lying, it is not just permissible to indicate our disapproval of their actions, but to also remind them in a polite tone to relinquish these actions for the betterment of their Akhirah, using wisdom and discretion.
It is the command of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) to ‘help’ the oppressor. Therefore, we should not mistake the act of silently tolerating every grave injustice meted out by our older in-laws as ‘honoring’ them.
Nay, it is their right to be reminded, corrected, and advised, with the utmost respect and wisdom, in order to garner Allah’s forgiveness and salvation in the Akhirah. And this is part of honoring them in its truest, most sincere sense.
Educate Them: Economic Dependence vs. Privacy and Personal Independence
One of the greatest dilemmas regarding living with in-laws is the economic dependence upon them in the first years of marriage (few newlyweds in the world can afford their own, spacious roof) versus the need for complete privacy in order to fully enjoy the husband-wife marital relationship.
The solution lies in the demarcation of clear boundaries, or limits of hijab, related to space and time. For example, in-laws should be expected to seek subtle permission before entering their married son’s or daughter’s bedroom, early in the morning, in the afternoon, and late at night.
This rule applies to the couple’s own older children, and those of their brothers/sisters also living under the same roof. If someone is refused entry, they should be educated not to take offense about it, but to retreat respectfully.
Along the same token, if the house has just one kitchen, then each wife needs to be allotted a convenient slot of time for preparing meals for her husband and children without feeling hustled or having her husband’s brothers walk-in while she is there.
If these boundaries were to not exist at all inside a home where more than one family is living, injustice and oppression (dhulm) will always be the unfortunate result.
One of the ways of honoring your in-laws, then, is educating them about the Islamic requirements of privacy and hijab in households where more than one family is dwelling under one roof.
Educating them can be done by: reading out the relevant tafsir of the Quran, sharing authentic reading materials such as Islamic articles and books, and listening to Islamic tapes and lectures together. After this studying, the practical ways by which these limits can be observed should be brainstormed by everyone, especially the in-law elders who possess the greatest authority in the house.
If they undermine, disregard or outright deny the requirements of observing these limits of hijab and privacy within their household (especially the hijab of brothers’ wives), a married son or daughter can move out of the home in order to avoid becoming facilitators of the disobedience of Allah’s commands.
As it is, after the first decade or so of marriage, grandchildren become older and require individual spaces (bedrooms) of their own. By then, moving out is more an issue of dire necessity than conscious choice.
Honoring in-laws is very important for a marriage to be successful in the long-term, and it involves maintaining a delicate balance between showing them utmost respect, and being totally honest with them about issues related to privacy, giving everyone their due rights, and adhering to the commands of Allah.
If we truly want our in-laws to succeed in the next life, we will honor them and maintain relationships with them in a manner that our sincerity for their well-being will surpass our fear of their reprimand.
This means that, even if our in-laws dislike our reminders to fear Allah and obey His commands, we will continue to remind them wisely and politely, instead of plastering our faces with fake smiles that hide our true feelings, every time we meet them.