By Aaron Traister, REDBOOK
I'm a liberal guy from the Northeast, and my wife Karel's parents are conservative Texans, so you can see why there might be a few kinks in my relationship with my in-laws. However, despite some rocky moments over the last 10 years, I've grown to love and respect Karel's folks. And along the way, I've learned several invaluable lessons that anyone can use when dealing with a spouse's parents. Try them-because just like with defensive driving or kitchen safety, a quick refresher never hurts, and can even help prevent serious injury.
Find some common ground (or, even better, AstroTurf). To say that my Tea Party-supporting, retiredengineer father-in-law and I don't have anything in common would undervalue both the words don't and anything. Okay, that's not totally true: For many years we shared a love of deep-fried chicken wings, but even that's gone now, because recently, in the wake of several coronary episodes, he decided to become a vegan. That's why I thank God for football. Football is truly the great unifier. I really look forward to heading down to Texas in the fall and winter, because I know we will bond over hours and hours of glorious football. The best is when we watch college games, because I grew up in Philadelphia and didn't go to college, so I have no allegiances. Who are we rooting for? Oklahoma State? Awesome, lemme just get some more soda and riblets. What's that? I'm slowly killing myself with meat and I should really eat a Boca Burger and open my mind to what Sean Hannity is saying? I have a better idea: Let's just watch more football! OSU! OSU!
Never, ever say anything bad about them. This is a perfect example of a nugget everyone's heard but that anyone can benefit from hearing again. After our second kid, Josie, was born, Karel's mom came and stayed in our thimble-size house for two months. I have trouble handling it when guests come over for dinner, but it was Karel who really struggled this time. Every day, she quietly raged about her mother's "helpful" suggestions. She couldn't deal with our lack of privacy or the way Grammy cherry- picked the rules we'd established for our older son, Noah. Frustrated and claustrophobic, I eventually caved and joined in when Karel vented her spleen to me before going to bed one night. This was an epically dumb move, because I only stoked the flames of my wife's anger, which culminated in a huge blowup between her and her mom the next day that sent Grammy home on the first plane outta town. Karel felt wretchedly guilty afterward, as did I. Suddenly, she had no memory of why she was so angry at her mom, but she had no problem remembering the reasons I was. The moral of the story: No matter how long your in-laws have kept you waiting to use the bathroom in your own home, no matter how fed up you are, do not say a word. Just hold it in. (And if you're desperate for a punching bag, bash your own parents!)
Make an effort, even a half-assed one. A few years ago, when Noah was around 1, my mother-in-law really wanted Karel and me to read The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom. That wasn't gonna happen-just thinking about it made my teeth ache. So instead, we had a few drinks and watched the made-for-TV movie version. Michael Imperioli is in it, so we hoped it would be like The Sopranos. It wasn't. When I complained about this to my mother-in-law, she laughed. (I don't think she knew what The Sopranos was.) The point is, we took her wishes into account and tried to connect with her, and she appreciated it.
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Accentuate the positive; bury the negative. On our Thanksgiving trip to Texas right after the 2008 election, my father-in-law and I got into a big shouting match. We were good enough not to do it in front of the kids or Karel. He was yelling about how George Soros and Barney Frank had stolen his money and how he hoped I wasn't on their "side." I was screaming that I wasn't on any side, and that Fox News was polluting his brain. There was some cursing and even a threat or two before we came back to our senses. Afterward, there was nothing else to do but go into the kitchen and awkwardly make Christmas candy together while listening to smooth jazz. I still feel embarrassed when I think about that argument, because ultimately, it was just two guys rehashing the plotlines from their respective cable news shows. And it was also between two people who, despite all their differences, genuinely like each other. He's a good man who raised an amazing woman, a woman we both love and would do anything to make happy. And that is the important thing to remember- that no matter how difficult your relationship with your in-laws, they helped shape the person you've chosen to spend your life with. In fact, the things about them that irk you most may be the very qualities you adore in your partner. Case in point: Karel might look like a tattooed, crazy-hair-colored hippie, but she's actually the practical, conservative, and responsible person in our marriage-a perfect foil for my mental cacophony. And for that, I thank her parents, even if we might not agree on candidates, literature, or the merits of vegan desserts.
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