Leaving, Cleaving, and Protecting Your Marriage

Leaving and cleaving joke

Leaving and cleaving—making a lifelong commitment to your spouse that takes priority over your parental relationships—can be hard. The Hebrew word for this union means being literally “glued” to your partner, not just physically, but emotionally, socially, and spiritually too. And that (not surprisingly) can lead to some sticky situations.

Robbie and I got married young—fresh out of college—and the clash in our expectations about who was supposed to do what played itself out almost every night I the kitchen. Robbie wasn’t as helpful as my dad had been, and I let him know it—sometimes with sarcasm (I billed it as “humor”), sometimes by banging a few pots and pans, and sometimes by giving my brand-new husband the silent treatment.

I also prayed. “Lord, can’t you fix Robbie?”, I’d say.

Meanwhile, Robbie was probably praying some “fix my spouse” prayers of his own. His mom is one of the most selfless women I’ve ever met, and since his dad worked so hard (often leaving their home well before daylight to get to the office), she would get up when he did so she could fix his breakfast. One time, he came back from the restroom at 2:30 a.m. to find the bed made and his wife on the way to the kitchen. “I’m sorry,” she laughed. “I thought we were up!”

I adore my mother-in-law. And in many ways, I want to be just like her. But that doesn’t mean I’m above pretending to be still asleep when I hear Robbie stirring in the hope that he’ll get up, start the coffee, and let the dog out.

No perfect families

Not only does leaving and cleaving mean taking two people from two distinct backgrounds and trying to merge them into one functional and happy relationship. It also means trying to navigate healthy relationships with the people you’ve left.

The Bible showcases several particularly dysfunctional situations: Jacob (who woke up married to the wrong bride, thanks to her father’s treachery), Tamar (who impersonated a prostitute in order to have sex with her widowed father-in-law after he did her wrong), and David (whose father-in-law gave his wife to another man, both to make David angry and to block his claim to the kingship). These stories must have been incredibly painful, but they didn’t end there. Jacob, Tamar and David all show up in the lineage of Jesus. God took their worst pain points and redeemed them, and he can do the same thing for us.

Scripture also highlights some beautiful in-law dynamics. When Moses found himself overwhelmed by the Israelites’ needs and disputes, his father-in-law came up with a workable plan, which Moses gratefully put in to practice. Peter’s mother-in-law lived with him in what was evidently a domestic situation marked by mutual love, service, and delight in caring for one another. And Ruth’s steadfast loyalty to her mother-in-law transformed not just their desperate lives but, generations later, the whole world through the birth of Jesus.

There is no perfect family, of course, and no flawless in-law relationship. But is there anything we can do to point our families in the direction of folks like Peter, Moses, and Ruth, and away from the manipulative, painful, or dysfunctional patterns that may be part of our own family stories?

Three ways to honor your in-laws (and protect your marriage)

“Honor your father and your mother,” says Deuteronomy 5:16, “so that you may live long and that it may go well with you.” That’s a command (and a promise) that doesn’t expire when you get married. Honoring our parents is a lifelong obligation and privilege, even in families where everything in us screams that they don’t deserve it.

Does that mean doing everything our parents and in-laws want? No. It means showing them love and respect. Speaking with kindness and grace. Treating them the way we’d like to be treated—even as we honor and protect our own marriages. As Robbie and I have looked at couples who’ve done the “leaving and cleaving” thing well, even amid challenging family dynamics, we’ve identified a handful of strategies that can help.

First, don’t make decisions without your spouse’s input.

Leaving and Cleaving - Don't make decisions without your spouse's input

Parents and in-laws may have all sorts of plans or advice they want you to follow—input about everything from how you spend holidays to how you handle your finances to how you parent their grandchildren—but at the end of the day, unity with your spouse should always trump parent-pleasing. Listen to your in-laws, thank them for their opinion, and then do what you and your spouse believe to be best.

Second, find out what says “I love you” to your folks and do that.

Leaving and Cleaving - Find out what says I love you to your folks

Much has been made about “love languages” in marriage—affirming words, quality time, material gifts, acts of service, and physical touch—but these things apply to our parent and in-law relationships too.

Is your mother-in-law big on celebrating birthdays? Plan ahead to honor her with a special gathering or, if gifts make her feel loved, think about what she might like to receive. Is your father-in-law an NFL fan? Brush up on his favorite team and call him to talk about how they’re doing—or, if you live nearby, watch a game together. Send your folks a handwritten note for no reason other than to express appreciation. These little acts of kindness don’t take a lot of time, but they demonstrate love and respect and help create a climate in which trust—and healthy communication—can flourish.

And finally, trust God to work in and through your marriage.

Leaving and Cleaving - Trust God to work in and thru your marriage

Every marriage is different, but we have this in common:  We’re all imperfect people who come from imperfect families. We need the presence of a perfect God to work in our midst, knitting together our mismatched histories, equipping us to honor our parents and in-laws, and showing us how to establish healthy family dynamics for generations to come.

God glued you together in marriage. Whatever your background and whatever in-law pressures you may find yourself facing, you can link arms with the Lord—knowing that he holds your relationship in his hands—and press forward together.

“He’s like you Dad! Except he’s brilliant!”

Again, leaving and cleaving is tricky, even in the most picture-perfect families—families where (to quote Annie Banks), “He’s like you Dad! Except he’s brilliant!”

Father of the Bride 2

Whether you’re just starting out, you’ve been married for years, or you’re a mom (or a dad!) who’s getting ready to let go of your child, a few prayers from the new book can help:

Heavenly Father,

(For parents of the bride and/or groom): Help us release our children so that they can hold fast to each other, becoming one flesh in every way. (Genesis 2:24)

(For the bride and/or groom): Show us how to honor our parents and in-laws so that it may go well with us and we may enjoy a long life on earth. (Ephesians 6:2-3)

(For any marriage): As we consider our different upbringings, help us reject what is wrong, hold tightly to what is good, and delight in honoring one another. (Romans 12:9-10)



P.S. Don’t forget that when you preorder Praying the Scriptures for Your Marriageyou can get immediate access to a set of 20 different Conversation Cards that feature topics like getting started, protecting your marriage, and leaving and cleaving. Visit JodieBerndt.com for details.

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