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How to be a good in-law

Congratulations! Your daughter or son is engaged. Now, are you ready to navigate your future role as a father- or mother-in-law?

First, tattoo this on your brain: Don’t tell your son- or daughter-in-law what to do.

“Learn to bite your tongue,” says Teresa Vendetti of Chinook, Wash., whose son, daughter-in-law and grandson live a few hours away from her. “We, as parents, want to get involved, want to help. Don’t. Stay out of it until they ask.”

A parent-in-law’s helpful comment may be interpreted by a daughter-in-law as criticism of who she is. Sons-in-law can react that way too. Even something that seems innocuous – their house is messy, so you start picking up – can trigger feelings of being criticized.

And even if they ask, be cautious about giving advice, says Terri Orbuch, research professor at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research and author of “Five Simple Steps to Take Your Marriage From Good to Great” (Greenleaf). This is true of both genders, but Orbuch sees it as a particular challenge for women.

“As women, we are relationship-oriented,” Orbuch says. “Our identities as mother, wife, friend and daughter-in-law are important to how we see ourselves.”

Which is why Lucretia Sprowell, of Fort Collins, Colo., a mother of five and grandmother of 13, says it’s “best to let them find their own way and make their own mistakes. Even if they ask, they don’t want to be told how by (me). They'll do it the way they were brought up.”

SONS VS. DAUGHTERS

The in-law relationship is important to your child’s marriage — but Orbuch, who has studied 373 couples over three decades, has found that it’s complicated, too, and its impact can vary by gender.

When husbands feel close to their in-laws, the marriage is 20 percent more likely to last than for husbands who don’t feel that closeness, Orbuch has found. A husband who feels close to his in-laws feels more connected to his wife.

“That says to the wife: Your family is important to me because they’re important to you,” Orbuch says. “As women, it’s rewarding when our husbands feel close to our family.”

However, when wives feel close to their in-laws, Orbuch found the risk of divorce is 20 percent higher than among wives who don’t feel close to in-laws. That’s particularly true early in the marriage.

“In-law ties are especially stressful for women,” Orbuch says. “If we feel close, we’re constantly trying to bond with our in-laws. That takes time and emotion. As women, if there are issues, we are analyzing and trying to improve our relationship. When we do that, we take what our in-laws say as interference or meddling. Then we get angry. It affects the relationship with the husband.”

TIPS FOR MOM- AND DAD-IN-LAW

▪  When grandchildren arrive, follow the parents’ rules, says Georgia Witkin, psychiatry professor at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York, on the website Grandparents.com. This eliminates a major point of contention between young parents and in-laws.

▪  Remember to say nice things about your son- or daughter-in-law, directly to them or indirectly to grandchildren or other family members, Witkin recommends.

▪  Bond with your son-in-law, Orbuch says. Finding common ground can be a challenge because you’re likely from different generations and backgrounds.

▪  Don’t take up too much of their time. “Once they’re married, don’t expect them to do everything with you like they used to,” Sprowell says.

▪  Be prepared to share your child with his or her in-laws. Resist any inclination toward jealousy or competition with the other set of parents, says Marla Sloan, mother of four and grandmother of four, in Powell River, B.C. “You want your (grown) children to have as much love in their lives as possible,” Sloan says. “That includes closeness with their in-laws. Don’t feel threatened that your child loves someone else as much as you. You'll always be their parents. The more love, the better.”

▪  Don’t forget to find the fun in these relationships, and keep an open mind. “In-laws give us new ways of doing things, new ways of looking at things,” Orbuch says.

“It’s just like getting along with anyone,” says John Brinkmeyer, a son-in-law in St. Louis. “You’re stuck with them for the rest of your life – hopefully.”

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