I loved my mother-in-law dearly. I miss her every day and would love to spend an afternoon drinking tea with her out of her treasured china tea cups – or sharing a glass of wine on her patio. But when I think about making nice with in-laws, I can’t help but think about a time when I didn’t “make so nice,” and I’m glad I found out about it in time to make amends.
My mother-in-law lived her last few years in the independent section of a senior community. When we visited, she wanted to parade us around so that everyone could see us. I hated making the rounds – exchanging polite chitchat – so I often begged off on that part and just stayed in her apartment. We saw her frequently, visiting her and taking her out or bringing her to our house to stay a few days. But I didn’t care if we saw anybody else – just her.
I was shocked once when we were attending a holiday party to find she had told the management that we lived out of state. Apparently, it was deeply embarrassing to her that we weren’t very visible to her friends and to the people who worked there. After that, we made sure to have dinner with her in the dining room when we visited and to talk with her friends and the staff. Who knew? I thought we were having quality time without distractions, but she thought no one knew she had attentive children.
These kinds of misunderstandings happen not just with our mothers-in-law but with all the in-laws and out-laws we gain when we marry into a family. But there’s hope . . .
Lessons from “The Happiness Project”
A few years ago, I read a wonderful book by Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project. She has some wonderful suggestions for creating warm relationships with those people who are members of our family, but not our genetic relatives. These work for all the in-laws and the out-laws – mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters. I’m paraphrasing, but all the ideas here belong to Ms. Rubin. There are plenty more in the link to her book above.
- Remember the “mere exposure effect.” That means that familiarity breeds affection. The more often we’re exposed to something – music, sports, art, even faces – the more we like them. So if you’ve been avoiding someone in the family, perhaps you should spend some time together. It may improve the relationship.
- Act the way you want to feel. Feelings really follow actions, rather than the other way around. If you want to deal with someone in a calm and friendly manner, make sure that you approach that person in that way. Acting calm and friendly will actually make you feel calm and friendly. This is the same thing as smiling when you really feel lousy. If you do it for a while, you’ll improve your mood. Try it. It works.
- Avoid pointless bickering. If you fight about the same things – politics, for instance, or religion, just agree to disagree. You are not going to change your 85-year-old father-in-law’s voting habits. Criticizing people’s choices isn’t polite, and it isn’t effective.
Accept yourself as you are, know what you value, and let the rest go.
- Act in accordance with your own values. Gretchen Rubin correctly points out that when we really accept ourselves, others accept us, too. You don’t have to be noisy about it, just go your own way. When our sons were young, they both went through a long (and I mean very long) hair phase. I know that was not my father-in-law’s favorite hair style, but I’m a big believer in letting people wear their hair the way they like. I never said anything. He never said anything. It worked out.
- Respect the priorities of others. Sometimes relationships can be difficult because we simply think different things are important. Ask yourself what is really important to that person, and then if you can, if it doesn’t violate your own values, see if you can honor that priority.
How do you handle your special family relationships? We’d love to know.