What's the difference between outlaws and in-laws? Outlaws are wanted.
That's an old – and tired – joke, but it's one of many that stereotype in-laws: They're meddling and critical. They drop in uninvited. They believe it's their job to rearrange the furniture, give unsolicited advice, and check out the daughter- or son-in-law's parenting skills.
Why the jokes?
"Sometimes the only way [to] deal with difficult in-laws ... is to complain or joke about them, as a coping mechanism or to identify with others who are experiencing the same problems," says Elizabeth Lyons, author of "Ready or Not... Here We Come!"
Although experience shows that many in-laws are wonderful people, the hackneyed view of the intolerable in-law has become accepted as the norm, according to social psychologist Susan Newman, author of "Nobody's Baby Now: Reinventing Your Adult Relationship With Your Mother and Father." People expect their in-laws to be difficult, she says, and while the majority probably aren't, there are always a few obnoxious in-laws to keep the myth alive.
"All I can say about my ex-mother-in-law is the opportunity to lose contact with her on a regular basis was one of the high points of my divorce," says a woman from Ohio who asked not to be named for the sake of her children's relationship with their grandmother. "She interfered in everything from choosing our kitchen cupboards to naming our kids. Forty years later, it still bugs me."
Some families have difficulty seeing any member as part of another family or letting someone else into the family, says psychotherapist Rebecca Ward.
Overprotective mothers may see their sons' or daughters' mates as intruders. Or they consider their own child as faultless, setting up a competition that makes that relationship teem with emotion, says the author of "How To Stay Married Without Going Crazy."
Some families "believe they are superior and that the in-law is an outsider who doesn't have the same abilities, style, and understanding," says Susan Shapiro Barash, author of "Mothers-In-Law and Daughters-In Law: Love, Hate, Rivalry and Reconciliation." In that case, "the mother-in-law is often in a triangle with her son and daughter-in-law. Both women compete for his attention and love. Both women want the power. The mother-in-law still wants to have influence, and the daughter-in-law wants that influence to wane.
"To make things worse," Ms. Barash adds, "sisters-in-law can be very cliquish and unfriendly to their brother's wife. With their mother, they can make their sister-in-law feel like an interloper."
That's not true for everyone, of course. Today, many women are marrying later than they did in the past, and so their life experiences give them better perspectives with which to cope with troublesome in-laws.
Besides, many contemporary mothers-in-law are often busy with their own jobs, responsibilities, and interests, so they don't have the time or inclination to focus on their offspring's marriage.
But what if someone doesn't like his or her in-laws or in-laws-to-be? "Ask yourself this – what is the point of disapproving or disliking these people?" says Dr. Newman. "What can you possibly gain?"
Sons- and daughters-in-law need to make the best of the relationship, especially with the mother-in-law, says Ms. Barash. "With female longevity projected to age 80 or more, you may have to put up with your mother-in-law for a long time"
Still, even when in-law relationships get off to a rocky start, they often change for the better.
"I look back today and see that I wasn't mature enough to appreciate my mother-in-law," says New Jersey writer Arline Zatz. "For many years I thought she was a royal pain, but now I remember the times she'd take a train to our apartment – from Brooklyn to Queens – schlepping huge shopping bags filled with cans of tuna, soups, nuts, and the coffee she knew I was addicted to.
"She was better than my own mother ever was to me. I'm thankful to my mother-in-law for all the good things she instilled in her children, which made them independent, bright, responsible men and great spouses, as well as dads."
Sharon Auberle, a poet and artist from Flagstaff, Ariz., says that admiration for her in-laws came only after she became a mother-in-law herself. "I find myself thinking often and fondly of both my mothers-in-law. Yes, we had our difficulties, but I could have learned so much from these strong women. Perhaps I would have appreciated the gifts and qualities they passed on to their sons, whom both they and I loved so much."
What's important to remember, says Newman, is that relationships are a work in progress. They change and grow. The simplest gesture, consideration, or inclusion can turn the situation around.