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No joke: making peace with the in-laws

Getting along with in-laws doesn't have to be like a bad joke.

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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.

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