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Show Your Mother (and Mother-in-Law) Some Love

Best-selling author Gretchen Rubin gives advice that could bring you decades of happiness
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WebMD Commentary from "Good Housekeeping" Magazine

By Gretchen Rubin

Good Housekeeping Magazine LogoYou choose the person whom you marry, but you don't choose your in-laws, and I was extremely lucky to end up with mine. We all get along very well, which is fortunate, because I live right around the corner from my husband's parents, and I mean right around the corner. You don't even have to cross the street; I see them multiple times each month.

Obviously, though, many people aren't in such happy circumstances. Relationship problems with in-laws are among the most common happiness challenges — whether people are complaining about their spouse's parents or about their kids' spouses. In-laws have a unique power to drive us crazy.

If you have a challenging relationship with your in-laws, or even your own parents, consider these eight strategies. (They apply, of course, only if the relatives in question aren't actually abusive, dangerous, or so malicious that it's just not possible to be around them.) Assuming that they aren't quite that horrible, here are some points to consider in building your relationship — or mending it.

1. Remember the "mere exposure effect"
Contrary to the well-known saying that "familiarity breeds contempt," in fact, familiarity breeds affection. The "mere exposure effect" means that repeated exposure makes people like faces, music — even nonsense syllables — better. The more often you see another person, the more intelligent and attractive you tend to find that person. Instead of avoiding your mother-in-law, take the time to see her and talk to her. You may start getting along better if you engage with her more often.

2. Act the way you want to feel 
Counterintuitive as it may sound, the way you feel is very much influenced by the way you act. Before an encounter with your in-laws, take the time to put yourself in a friendly, calm frame of mind, or at least try to act that way when you see them. If you go into a situation acting angry, defensive, or suspicious, you'll invoke that emotion in yourself and likely provoke a negative reaction from others. If you're feeling more lighthearted, you won't be as quick to take offense. Also, if you expect that a particular encounter may be especially trying, take steps to be in good physical condition. Your body has a big influence on your emotions, and you'll cope better with a difficult person if you've had enough sleep, if you're not hungry, and if you haven't had too much to drink.

3. Do something nice for the difficult person
It's really true: Do good, feel good. Plan a birthday party; cook a favorite food; e-mail a photo of the kids' art project. By acting in a thoughtful, loving way, you'll help yourself feel more thoughtful and loving. You'll also inspire the difficult person to feel more loving toward you.

4. Act in accordance with your own values
One of the mysteries of human nature is that when we accept ourselves, other people tend to accept us. When we don't accept ourselves, people tend to pester us. If you know your own values, and live according to them, people's pointed remarks don't sting nearly as much and, strangely, they often back off. For example, although she rarely brings it up, I know my mother-in-law wishes my children dressed in more classic kids' clothes: corduroy jumpers, tasteful dresses, etc. And, truth be told, that's what I would like them to wear, too. But that's not what my daughters like. The big one wants to be more fashionable; the little one favors sparkles, sequins, and bright colors.

A long time ago, I decided, "Within the boundaries of cost and age-appropriateness, I'll let my daughters dress the way they like. This isn't an issue on which my taste must prevail." Most of the messages we give to children involve "no," "don't," or "stop." In this area, I'm willing to say yes. Because I'm living according to my own values, it doesn't bother me that my mother-in-law doesn't approve. I believe in my approach. So if you're annoyed by someone's remarks about your household decor, your income, your cooking, your work habits, your cleaning habits, your life decisions (starting a family, choosing where to live, buying a kitten), ask yourself, Am I living according to my own values? If you are, criticism will slide off more easily.

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