My wife didn’t know what to expect the first time she met my dad, and I wasn’t sure how to prepare her for it.
As I explained to Raquel, “My dad is like -- I don’t know -- this truck driver preacher who talks to everyone he meets. He’s kind of eccentric.”
It wasn’t until our wedding rehearsal dinner that Raquel finally got to meet my dad in person. When Dad walked through the door, Raquel met a man with a warm smile and a broken body. His electric blue eyes were the same, but years of truck driving, smoking cigarettes and untreated Type 2 diabetes had worn him down.
It meant the world to me that Dad was there, but there was a part of me that felt like I did in middle school when he would show up to school events looking underdressed and overweight. He didn’t fit in, and it was like he intentionally did things to stand out.
Even that night at the rehearsal dinner, during the speeches, Dad gave a long, animated monologue that compared Raquel and me to jets flying through the sky (the speech included sound effects). I felt embarrassed but it was what happened after dinner that left me red-faced.
People associate us with our families, whether we like it or not. And because of that, your willingness to esteem your spouse’s family can have a powerful impact.
Dad took Raquel aside, and with a kind smile said, “I’m your daddy too, now. Once you marry Joshua, you’re my little girl.”
Then Dad kept lavishing praise upon praise, telling Raquel what a lovely person she was. It was just so intense and Dad didn’t even seem to notice that she was slowly edging away. She didn’t know what to do with him, but eventually, she would make a thousand little decisions that changed the way she saw him.
A lot of people don’t know how to love their in-laws and I’m not talking about the in-laws who are patently unsafe. I’m talking about the kind of people you wouldn’t have chosen to be close to if you hadn’t married your spouse.
The thing we have to keep reminding ourselves is that our spouse’s identity is tied up, to some degree, with his or her family. We share names, history and baggage that we’d sometimes rather forget. People associate us with our families, whether we like it or not. And because of that, your willingness to esteem your spouse’s family can have a powerful impact.
If you reject and/or speak ill of your spouse’s family, you reject a part of your spouse. When you do your best to accept your spouse’s family -- or, at the very least, to speak as well of them as you can -- you have accepted a part of your spouse. It’s another way of saying to your spouse, “I see you, all of you, and I choose to love all of it.”
When I was growing up, family members on both sides ran my dad into the ground -- making fun of his weight, his unemployment and his social awkwardness. They didn’t think about the fact that he gave me my last name, my jawline and half of my DNA. To put him down was to put me down, which is why it was so redemptive when Raquel chose to esteem him.
Although Raquel wasn’t sure if dad was safe at first, she invited him in anyway. She served him and took the time to listen to him. She literally embraced him and overlooked flaws that others had cited in putting him down. She laughed at his antics and willingly listened to his impromptu sermons. She loved him.
As C.S. Lewis said in "Mere Christianity," “Do not waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him.”
Before my dad died, Raquel grew to love him deeply and it happened because she embarked on the long journey of learning to love a father-in-law who felt foreign to her.
If we all make that effort, what we don't realize is that we're actually learning to love our spouses more deeply.
This essay is adapted from the author's book "Confessions of a Happily Married Man: Finding God in the Messiness of Marriage."