An old joke asks, “What’s the difference between in-laws and outlaws?” Of course the answer is, “Outlaws are wanted.” (Ooh.) My apologies to the London borough of Barnet, I understand that their Council outlawed mother-in-law jokes a couple of years ago, although I’m unclear as to whether jokes about other in-laws are still allowed. In my case it’s a moot point, I hasten to assert that I have been singularly lucky-in-law.
As a side note, Dictionary.com actually has a definition for “mother-out-law.” Apparently it’s the designated term for the mother of an ex-spouse. Of course, despite the West’s notoriously high divorce rate, there’s not much incentive to tell jokes about mother-out-laws—after all, out of sight, out of mind.
Certainly there’s a reason why mother-in-law jokes are so common, although to be strictly accurate it isn’t only mothers-in-law who may be perceived as “outlaws” within the family. When you think about it, most of us qualify as in-laws in one way or another. But whether we’re a parent-in-law, sibling-in-law, or even an aunt-, uncle- or cousin-in-law—we each have much to gain from reading Don’t Roll Your Eyes: Making In-Laws into Family, the latest book by Brandeis University resident scholar Ruth Nemzoff.
Why are these particular relationships so challenging? Naturally I asked this very question in a recent interview with Nemzoff.
“We become an in-law by a decision made by someone else,” she pointed out. “The younger generation makes the choice of partner, but they have no say in all the relatives who come along with their mate.” Nor do the relatives. Suddenly there are all kinds of new relationships among people who are likely to come from very different backgrounds. “They have little idea which buttons they can push, what happens when they push one, and which buttons the new person will push in them,” she explains. “They have not survived disagreements and arguments. In-laws do not share a common history. They are virtual strangers.”
Obviously, this sets the stage for a whole slew of potential pitfalls. Fortunately, Nemzoff has done her research and offers a glimpse into the real-life experiences of those who have ridden bareback over the badlands and survived to tell the tale.
The common denominator in most in-law issues? A lack of flexibility in the face of unmet expectations.
“I wish I could end this book with simple, easy-to-follow lessons to instantly improve your connections with your in-laws,” Nemzoff writes. But of course, she acknowledges, “that would be unrealistic.” Nevertheless she does offer 10 points that may not be easy but have the potential to transform all relationships—not just those defined by law:
- Reframe thoughts with a positive view. You have control over how you interpret events and actions.
- Deal with what you have, not what you want. Make what you have work for you.
- Put a statute of limitations on slights. We can’t change the past, only the present.
- Listen instead of judging. Use differences of opinion as an opportunity to learn.
- Take the long view. Situations change over time and with alterations in life stages.
- Be forgiving. Don’t sweat the “small” stuff and don’t impose your sacred cows on others.
- Be creative. Look for things that connect you to your in-laws rather than divide you.
- Call upon your more mature self. To make peace we must be peaceful.
- Remember that we are all new to this game. And don’t underestimate the capacity for change.
- Be curious. It’s the first step to compassion, understanding and forgiveness.
As I hinted earlier, I have some pretty spectacular in-laws, and it doesn’t stop with the siblings. In fact, one treasured in-law is a cousin whose nearest common ancestor with my husband lived in the 1600s. We are Facebook friends and I’ve come to count on a daily dose of his sense of humor, even though he lives more than 3,000 miles away. Another of my many treasured in-laws is well known to readers of Aunt Psych. My brother is the one who brought her into the family, but she is definitely a keeper.
Could we find things to clash over if we tried? Certainly, who couldn’t? But as Nemzoff underscores repeatedly, getting along with in-laws—or anyone—is a choice. “Families that get along do so in part because they decide to get along,” she says. “By envisioning and emphasizing the positive, we train ourselves and others to accept the best we have to offer.”