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Ten Tips for Getting Along With Your Mother-in-Law

Steps to consider if your family is making you crazy.

Every Wednesday is "tip day." This Wednesday: 10 tips for getting along with your mother-in-law (or your in-laws, generally).

I’m extremely lucky with fate as it relates to my mother-in-law and father-in-law. We get along very well, which is fortunate, because we live right around the corner from my in-laws, and I mean right around the corner. You don’t even have to cross the street; one lone skinny townhouse separates our apartment buildings. I see my in-laws many times each month.

Obviously, though, many people aren’t in such a happy circumstance. I’ve noticed that relationship problems with in-laws are among the most common issues that people raise—whether people complaining about their spouse’s parents, or people complaining about their kids’ spouses. In-laws have a unique power to drive us crazy.

These tips apply, of course, only if your in-laws aren’t actually abusive, or dangerous, or so malicious that it’s just not possible to be around them. Assuming that they aren’t quite that horrible, here are some points to consider:

1. Remember the mere exposure effect. It turns out that familiarity breeds affection. The "mere exposure effect" means that repeated exposure makes people like music, faces—even nonsense syllables—better. The more often you see another person, the more intelligent and attractive you tend to find that person. Instead of avoiding your mother-in-law, take the time to see her and talk to her. That may ease your relationship.

2. Act the way you want to feel. Counter-intuitive as it may sound, feelings follow actions. Before an encounter with your in-laws, take the time to put yourself in a friendly, calm frame of mind, or at least try to act that way when you see them. If you go into a situation acting angry, defensive, or suspicious, you'll invoke that emotion in yourself, and likely a negative reaction from others. If you’re feeling more light-hearted, you won’t be as quick to take offense.

3. Avoid pointless bickering. If you and your in-laws fight about something, like politics or religion, year after year, try to agree to disagree. Are you going to change the voting or eating habits of your 75-year-old father-in-law? Or your 35-year-old son-in-law? Similarly, avoid carping. In general, pointing out people’s mistakes or criticizing their choices isn’t polite, and it isn’t welcome—and it’s not effective!

4. Mindfully articulate, and act in accordance with, your own values. One of the great mysteries of human nature is that when we accept ourselves, other people tend to accept us. When we don’t accept ourselves, people tend to pester us. If you know your own values, and live according to them, people’s pointed remarks don’t sting nearly as much, and strangely, they often back off. (Yet another reason to follow my first commandment.)

For example, although she almost never says anything about it, I know that my mother-in-law wishes my children dressed in more classic kids’ clothes. Corduroy jumpers, tasteful dresses, etc. And truth be told, that’s what I would like them to wear, too. But that’s not what my daughters like. The big one wants to be more fashionable; the little one favors sparkles, sequins, and bright colors.

A while back, I decided, “Within the boundaries of cost and age-appropriateness, I’ll let my daughters dress the way they like. This isn’t an issue where my taste needs to prevail.” (At times, it has been hard to live up to this resolution.)

Because I’m living according to my own values, it doesn’t bother me that my mother-in-law doesn’t approve. I believe in my approach. So if you’re annoyed by someone’s remarks about your household décor, your income, your cooking, your work habits, your cleaning habits, your life decisions (starting a family, where to live, buying a kitten), ask yourself, “Am I living according to my own values?” If you are, criticism slides off more easily.

5. Children, of course, can be a big source of contention. Try to keep some perspective. Samuel Johnson wrote, “All severity that does not tend to increase good, or prevent evil, is idle.” In keeping with this philosophy, I decided, “If it’s not actually harmful, I’ll let others take care of my daughters in their own way.” A friend of mine—the educational, wooden toy, no-TV type of parent—was furious when her mother-in-law bought her daughter a “My Little Pony” pony. They had a huge fight about it. Do you really want to have that fight?

6. Remember grandparent privilege. When I was little, my grandmother would buy us any junk food we wanted (chiefly Pop-Tarts) and let us stay up until midnight watching TV. My sister and I loved it. Did this do us any lasting harm? No. And we didn’t expect junk food or midnight TV at home, either. Grandparents get to be indulgent, if they want. Or super-strict, or have weird rules. That’s grandparent privilege.

7. Remember parent privilege. Maybe you think it’s ridiculous for parents today to fuss so much about car seats, trans fats, violence on TV, allergies, rigidly enforced bedtimes, etc. Or maybe you think your children are too permissive as parents. The fact is, most parents really want to do the right thing for their children, and if they feel that you don’t respect their rules and their approach, that will be an issue.

8. Respect others’ priorities. If you’re having trouble with someone, ask yourself, “What’s important to this person?” That we all have Thanksgiving dinner together? That we go to church together? That the grandchildren come visit for the weekend? That we dress a certain way? Unless it violates your deeply held principles, it’s generous to try to respect other people’s priorities—and it sure promotes peace. Even if you dismiss celebrating Mother’s Day as an empty, consumerist ritual, or you think it’s ridiculous to have to change into a button-down shirt for dinner, you can do it because it’s the loving thing to do.

9. Think about your spouse or your child. You’re in a relationship with this difficult in-law because of someone you love. What’s best for that person? Do you need to try to break the tension? Change the subject? Avoid difficult situations? Bite your tongue? Endure excruciating boredom? Sometimes you can behave nicely for someone else’s happiness, even if you’d be very happy to pitch a battle, if left to your own devices.

10. Focus on the positive. Find ways to be grateful for your in-laws. At the very least, your in-laws are the parents of your spouse, or the beloved of your child. Look for the good. Try to make jokes. It could probably be worse.

Wait, you might be thinking, these strategies don't tell you how to deal with your difficult in-laws—they tell you how to behave yourself. Well, guess what? You can only change yourself.

Usually when I write about happiness, I write about issues that concern me very deeply. As I said, lucky me, I don’t have lots of in-law problems—I’m tackling this subject because so many people have asked me to do so. I’m sure I’m missing some key points or getting something wrong. What would you suggest? What strategies have helped you deal with in-laws? (Either the parents of your spouse, or the spouse of your kids.)

For some non-in-law-specific tips, here’s a list of seven tips for getting along with difficult relatives. And although you think your in-law is difficult, consider the fact that you may be the difficult one. Take this quiz to see if others find you difficult.