Three Tips for Making the Best of In-Law Relationships

In my surveys of over 700 long-married older people, I heard one lesson again and again: “You don’t just marry a person;adult children you marry his or her family.” . Despite the fact that most dating couples do not spend much time thinking about their partner’s family, the elders tell you unequivocally: in-laws matter.

It’s no coincidence that popular culture focuses so heavily on in-law relationships, from the meddling mom and dad in “Everybody Loves Raymond” to the “Meet the Parents” movies. These images reflect deep-seated worries about balancing loyalty to one’s spouse with life-long bonds of attachment and obligation to parents, siblings, and other kin. This worry is not an irrational one; research also shows that in-law relations are a key determinant of marital happiness.

But what should you do? As I combed through hundreds of reports of in-law relations — ranging from loving and respectful relationships to “in-laws from hell” — I uncovered three terrific lessons for insulating your relationship from problems with one another’s’ families. These rules for in-law relations have been tested by hundreds of the oldest Americans for decades — given what’s at stake, we should pay close attention.

Rule # 1: Your loyalty is to your spouse.

Life is full of difficult decisions in which no solution leaves everyone happy. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what a difficult in-law situation creates — a classic example of ambivalence that in a worst-case scenario may persist over years (or even a lifetime). But sometimes the elders cut through all the complexity and just tell you what to do. Here’s their advice on dealing with the supposed ambivalence of in-law relations:

In a conflict between your spouse and your family, support your spouse.
The elders are unequivocal; it is your duty to support your husband or wife and to manage your own family in a way that consistently conveys this fact. Further, you both must present a united front to both families, making it clear from the beginning that your spouse comes first.

In couples where this allegiance did not happen, marital problems swiftly followed. In fact, some of the bitterest disputes occurred over a spouse’s failure to support his or her partner. When I asked Erin, 66, to describe a conflict that came up in her marriage, she didn’t hesitate:

Oh yeah, his mother. A lot of conflict. I had the impression she didn’t like me very much. I could live with that, but my husband never stuck up for me, so we fought about it. The apron strings were tied to him, and you just didn’t go against Mommy. And we fought about it because he would say, “Oh you’re crazy, she never said that.” And I’d go, “I don’t believe you don’t believe me.” And arguments would start. And after it was over I’d say, you know, how stupid we’re arguing about this, God forbid we get divorced over her. My husband would never say anything like “Hey mom, that’s my wife, cool it.” I never got that.

So when there is conflict between your family and your spouse, don’t feel caught in the middle, because your place is on your spouse’s side. To do otherwise is to undermine the trust that is the underpinning of your marriage.

Rule # 2: Remind yourself why you are doing it.

This tip from the elders is one that many have used like a mantra in difficult in-law situations. Tell yourself this: the effort to accommodate your partner’s family is one of the greatest gifts you can offer in marriage. You are used to putting up with your own relatives and you have accommodated to their quirks and foibles. But now you have to do it all over again. The closest thing to a “magic bullet” for motivating yourself to put the effort into in-law relations, the elders tell us, is to remember that you are doing it because you love your spouse.

Most important, by staying on good terms with his or her relatives, you are honoring and promoting your relationship in one of the best ways possible. Gwen, 94 and married 67 years, puts it clearly:

You may not like your mother-in-law or your father-in-law or your in-laws very much but you certainly can love them and stay close to them. Remember that they’re your loved one’s family. I learned to love them. I mean, I loved them because they were my husband’s parents and I loved him.

Rule # 3: Eliminate politics from discussion.

Here’s a specific tip that could not be more relevant during this election season: Keep political arguments out of in-law relations. It can be the biggest bomb in the minefield, and the elders say that these conflicts are unnecessary. There is simply no need to attempt to engage your in-laws in political debates or to convert them.

Often, the urge is to make parents-in-law “really understand” what’s going on in society and to show them how irrational or wrong-headed they are politically. I heard many accounts of holiday dinners and family gatherings disrupted by debates over the President, the Congress, abortion, the death penalty, and on and on.

According to the elders, you may not be able to avoid conflict over your in-laws’ disapproval of your marriage, your job, your lifestyle, or how you raise your children. But you can make it a rule to take noisy and unnecessary political debates off the table. (Remember, we’re not talking here about a lively, enjoyable political discussion; I mean the kind that ends with slamming doors and a spouse crying in the car.)

Let’s return to Gwen for her advice. Gwen made in-law visits much more tolerable by following this lesson and cutting politics out of the interaction.

My husband didn’t care for my dad because my dad was a completely different kind of person compared to my husband. My dad was the boss of everybody and everything. He was never aggressive; he never hit us kids or my mother. But he was a total boss. What my dad said was law and order and we all knew it. And my husband was a gentle, soft-spoken, easy-going person who would rather die than make a fuss. He was a completely different personality. In particular, they didn’t see eye to eye about the government. My dad was a Democrat, my husband was a Republican. They’d get into those arguments.

So finally, I made the rule that there would be no discussions of politics when we were all together. And I said to my husband: “If Dad starts in about the Republicans, I’m going to walk out of the room and you come see what’s wrong with me because I don’t want to hear this anymore.” I guess that was the only problem in our early marriage. Of all the big decisions we had to make in marriage, I think the most important was deciding that I wasn’t going to listen to that problem between my father and my husband.

You may wish to apply this same rule to other “hot-button” issues (based on my own extended family, I’m tempted to include Red Sox versus Yankees…). When buttons are pushed on a repetitive and sensitive topic, leaving the room is an excellent — and potentially relationship-saving — option.

Tne Secret about Aging You Need to Know

Looking for the best advice about aging? We asked over 1200 older Americans to offer their lessons on how toelder humor be happier, healthier, and more fulfilled. Some of the most interesting insights in the book from the project, 30 Lessons for Livingwere about aging itself. Of all these lessons (having hit 60 recently myself), there’s one I like the best.

Here is the elders’ secret: Being old is much better than you think it will be.

It’s a bit difficult to believe, perhaps, because of our negative stereotypes about aging as a period of loss and decline. But I found that the Legacy Project elders defied these stereotypes. Over and over, I got the message that being old (and sometimes really old) was much better than people ever expected. Let’s hear from three elders about their surprising experience of aging.

Ursula, 94, is surprised when people comment about her longevity. She told me:

Worry about aging? No. I wake up and I know where I am, I lead a very normal life. I eat, I drink, I like to talk, as you can see! I have an interest in what’s going on in the world. Flexibility, that is important. I don’t have to worry. I get very upset when people complain. You wouldn’t believe the complainers. I tell you, you have to think positively. And if you think positive, physically and mentally, things are all right. So one day I don’t feel so good, so what, you know? I think positive and that is my blessing. I have my mind and my wonderful memories. You need to do things, you see, or there’s no quality of life, sitting home and crying doesn’t help. I have been lucky to be healthy. I have everyday a glass of wine.

Davia,74, discovered her knack for business later in life and runs a successful bed-and-breakfast.

Well, when it comes to aging, it sure as heck not the way I would have thought old age or growing older would be like! I never thought it would be anything like this. I always thought: Oh, I don’t want to think about that or that sounds terrible. That was when I was young and I would be thinking about what old age might be like, if it somehow cam up as a topic of conversation.

But I still feel like I’m on the road of life to somewhere, and there’s so many things I still want to do, that I love to do. I don’t look at old age as something to be pitied or dismissed. Now very young people, they’re going to do that anyway I know, up to certain point in their lives anyway, they will.

But there are so many things I’d like to do. I’d like to do more traveling. I don’t have great funds to do it with, but I’m going to do some more. And I’m happy to have a bed and breakfast to run and it still excites me. It’s tiring when it’s busy, but I can sleep when I need to. I can manage to rest up. My health is pretty good and I make a point of eating healthy foods ands trying to go a little exercise on a regular basis. So I don’t feel like it’s the end of a life, not yet.

The most inspiring elder I spoke with was Edwina, 94: Whenever I worry about getting older, I take a look at her view of the later part of life:

My advice to people about growing old? I’d tell them to find the magic.  The world is a magical place in lots of ways.  To enjoy getting up in the morning and watching the sun come up.  And that’s something that you can do when you are growing older.  You can be grateful, happy for the things that have happened.  You should enjoy your life.  Grow a little.  Just because you’re getting older doesn’t mean that you need to stop growing. I used to think that when you got old you sat back in a rocking chair and let the world go by.  Well that’s not for me and that’s not for a lot of people.  I can’t dance anymore, but if I could I would.

There’s no reason for anybody in this world to ever be bored.  That’s one thing I’ve always said.  Well if I died and went to heaven, I’d be bored to death with how they say heaven is.  There’s no need for you to be bored in this world.  There’s so much out there.

Our society is filled with negative attitudes about growing old. But what if they are all wrong? Based on the elder’s advice, many of us can all look forward to a happier old age than we expect!

Get the Job Done: Sam’s Lessons on Work – From Our Intern!

We’re pleased to share with you the post from our second summer intern! Melanie Turner is a junior at Welcome-Interns-Signthe University of Virginia, majoring in speech pathology and Spanish. She learned valuable insights from Sam about drive and commitment at work. Here’s her post:

86-year-old Sam, a chemical engineer who worked for 42 years at the same company, believes that being successful in one’s career requires a willingness to see any task through to completion: In his view, work’s not just fun. Work is work, by definition, and to get ahead in this life you have to work hard.

Looking back on his life, Sam attributes his promotion in the company to working hard, even on undesirable assignments. He recalls that when top executives at his firm were faced with a challenging interpersonal situation, his reputation for being competent and dependable served him well.

Be known in the business for the person who can get it done. I was always that way. I remember we had some environmental problems in the company, and three professors from a local university had put together a proxy statement that we were going to have to send out to our shareholders. And there were Catholic nuns – you know, Catholic converts – and they felt we weren’t paying sufficient enough attention to environmental matters. Of course, a company doesn’t like to send out proxies like that to its shareholders.

So we went around the room with all the ten executives sitting there, and we said, “Hmm, now who’s going to handle this problem?” And I could see everybody sweating, because they were all good at interpersonal relations. You couldn’t be in that room if you weren’t. But it always ended up with me. They all took a big sigh of relief around the table: “Thank God he didn’t stop on me! Good old Sam can do it.

Sam identifies his dependability as one reason for his success. Even though he didn’t want to reason with displeased shareholders, he was willing to approach the task optimistically. This attitude earned him respect with his colleagues. In fact, when the company faced a difficult circumstance involving a law firm, Sam’s reputation for always doing his job well saved his career.

They hired a New York law firm, and the guy said “Well, the first thing you gotta do is get a fall guy and fire him,” so that everybody can say, “They’re taking positive steps.” So the CEO called me in and said, “Sam, here’s the deal: the first step they recommend is that I’d fire you.”

Sam told me he was frightened, but that he did not give up hope. After reading an article about the way a different company’s interim CEO proved his ability to serve as the permanent replacement, Sam decided to advocate for himself on the basis of his effort and dedication.

I cut this out of the newspaper, and brought it into the CEO: “You know, I think I am the best guy for the job. And I just read this article.” And this is what happened. He said, “I can’t believe you read that article, because I read the same article in Fortune, and I thought about you.” He said, “You are the best guy for the job.” That was the answer. It was over. A month later I was voted to be the vice president of corporation, and corporate officer.

Sam’s hard work, willingness to deal with unforeseen problems, and commitment to the firm led to his continued employment and subsequent promotion. His tenacity teaches us that success in one’s career depends on pushing through no matter what challenges we face. In sum, Sam believes it’s all about “being the go to guy to get it done.”



Grace’s Advice on What We Can (And Can’t) Control – From Our Summer Interns

Our summer interns are back! These undergraduates spent part of the summer interviewing older people Welcome-Interns-Signabout their advice for living, through the Risk And Resiliency Internship at Cornell. Here’s the post from David Lachs, a junior attending New York University majoring in Neuroscience, Psychology, and Mental Health studies. While conducting his interview, David learned the importance of considering the role of control in our lives.

David writes:

We often find ourselves faced with challenges, stress, and difficult decisions on a daily basis. I interviewed Grace, age 67, who says it’s how we handle these situations that makes all the difference. When we encounter such a circumstance, Grace reminds us how critical it is to take a step back and exercise our judgment. She noted:

Many events that happen to us are a result of a chance. But of course many, too, derive from conscious choices we make. Nevertheless, consider the idea of us able to categorize things into two groups: that which we can control, and that which we cannot control.

She went on:

When the moment goes awry, and the circumstances drift away from you, recall the two aforementioned categories. If a decision is not yours to make, or an event is not contingent upon your will, or someone’s actions will be independent of your own, then what is the use in fretting [over them]? Stress is already abundant! And free for the taking. It’s not as if you can change these outcomes. Be conscientious with what you bring in your domain of concern.

Grace finds this advice particularly applicable for those “crunch-time” work situations:

If you have a big deadline to make, as an example, consider what is most probably in your hands: where you decide to work on the assignment, when you decide to do the assignment, whether to have a mobile phone around, whether to surf the web, and the option to use caffeine [she highly recommends coffee!]. But, how your boss reacts to your report is contingent upon too many arbitrary matters you do not have complete control over. Certain people prefer certain styles of writing and authors. Optimize your capabilities to promote the most desired outcome, and to make it a healthy transaction, so to speak, for everyone.

From my interview with Grace, I learned an important lesson for living. Some things we have control over, and some we do not. In making this distinction, a redefined sense of control can be empowering, allowing us to maximize our efforts and drop the futile concerns of changing the uncontrollable in a situation.


Why I’m Looking Forward to December

I’ve spent a lot of the past decade interviewing wise and fascinating older people. But I think I’m in for what may be my most exciting interviewee ever: Tao Porchon Lynch. For anyone able to get to New York City on lynchDecember 17 to join us, it should be a memorable event.

At 98 years young,Tao Porchon Lynch is still teaching yoga.  She marched with Mahatma Gandhi in the 1930 Salt March, helped Jews escape the Nazis as a French Resistance fighter during World War II, and walked with Martin Luther King. It would take much more than a blog post to list her other achievements, from being a contestant on America’s Got Talent (at age 96), to writing about the “spiritual side of being, to maintaining an active yoga teaching schedule.

The organizers of the series on life wisdom at the Rubin Museum have invited us to discuss “the secrets to a good life.” I can’t imagine a better source for information about that theme than Tao!

Go Out and Make A Difference

Today, one of the Legacy Project elders tells us to get out there and take action. Jared, 80, has been a farmer and making a differencebusinessman for 60 years and he has lived through setbacks and tragedy. But he is actively engaged in making the world a better place – and he thinks we should be, too.

My lesson for people is to get involved. Many times, I could have sat back and grumbled and nothing would have gotten done. But I got out there and made myself an annoyance enough so that these laws did get passed. You get involved and you can make a difference.

Maybe that’s my major point. People feel insignificant. They feel overpowered by the world. It’s easier to come home at night and sit in front of the television set or read the paper and go to sleep. I tend, I guess, to have maybe gotten somewhat of a reputation of a rabble rouser. Trouble maker maybe. If there’s something that needs correcting, I’m quite apt to get out there. In fact I’ve got a project going right now. I’ve been told maybe I should sit down and shut up. We’ve got an unfair situation the county I live in. I think it can be changed and straightened around, but it’s going to take a lot of work. That type of thing. You can make a difference if you get out and get involved!

Vacation: Use It to Learn from Your Family’s Elders!

During the summer, people often get together with their extended families, offering a great opportunity for summer elder wisdomfun, recreation – and gathering elder wisdom!

Why not use this time to encourage your kids to have meaningful “elder wisdom” conversations with the elders in your family?

Older people are a unique source of advice for living for younger people. And we need to tap this source much more vigorously than we are currently doing — both for young people’s sake and that of our elders.

We often do ask our elders to tell their life stories. But that activity is very different from asking their advice. You don’t just want their reminiscences; what’s truly valuable are the lessons they learned from their experience and that they wish to pass on to younger generations.

So while we are visiting older relatives, why don’t we all  take an hour (okay, it can be before or after the trip to the beach) to consult our elders about their lessons for living?

Your children are the best ones to start this conversation and they can ask questions that are highly relevant to them. Is Sammy concerned about bullying? Some elders (especially immigrants) were ferociously bullied as children. Is Pat concerned about finding the right partner? You have elders who have long experience in relationships, but who are rarely asked for their advice about them. Are your college kids worried about the job market? If so, how about advice from people who went through the Great Depression?

Remember that this is different from asking Grandpa “What did you do in World War II?” or Grandma “What was life like in the Depression?” The goal is to genuinely and interestedly ask for advice: “What lessons for living did you learn from those experiences?” Taking this approach elevates the role of elders to what they have been through most of the human experience: counselors and advisers to the less-experienced young.

Give it a try on vacation (and let me know how it went!). Here are some questions to get you started; it can help to send these in advance to your elders so they can ponder them a bit. More information is available in the book 30 Lessons for Living.(and you can watch elders sharing their lessons on our YouTube channel).

  • What are some of the most important lessons you feel you have learned over the course of your life?
  • Some people say that they have had difficult or stressful experiences but they have learned important lessons from them. Is that true for you? Can you give examples of what you learned?
  • As you look back over your life, do you see any “turning points”; that is, a key event or experience that changed over the course of your life or set you on a different track?
  • What’s the secret to a happy marriage?
  • What are some of the important choices or decisions you made that you have learned from?
  • What would you say you know now about living a happy and successful life that you didn’t know when you were twenty?
  • What would you say are the major values or principles that you live by?

Add go ahead and add your own. I guarantee it will enrich your summer vacation this year!

Finding Happiness in Simple Things

Many of the elders in the Legacy Project advise us that the present moment is what is critically important, and that we miss each happiness notemoment in our drive toward the future and our pursuit of material goods. Evette, 79, tells about the things that delight her and make life worth living – and none of them are “big ticket” items.

At my age you learn that “things” aren’t important; people are.

The love of your family, the sharing of their milestones and the joy when they ask you about yours.

The touch of their young smooth cheek or hand on your non-elastic skin sends warmth all over you.

I’ve learned that there’s no substitute for a good book while you’re under a down comforter.

I’ve learned that there’s no substitute for good hearty laughter that brings color to your cheeks and a jump to your heart.

I’ve learned that when you want to stay in bed because of aching joints, a brisk walk or a stationary bike does wonders!

I’ve learned that everyone has a story that’s worth listening to.

I’ve learned that it’s okay to ask your children for help even if you were fiercely independent before.

I’ve learned that the beat of your heart is dependent on the hearts of your children and grandchildren.

Cultivate Equanimity and Awe for Real Happiness

These observations from Mary, 90, really got me thinking. So many of us associate happiness with emotional awehighs and gathering possessions, but Mary believes it lies in emotional states like equanimity and awe.

Equanimity, the ability and discipline to maintain clarity and balance regardless of the forces around us, enables us to develop as true individuals, never before and never again in existence. Only with the development of equanimity are we able to stand in our own unique space, to differentiate our essential being, and thus to offer our particular gifts to the world.

Awe, that rush of quiet passion, that sudden gasp in the presence of great beauty or immensity or unfathomability is another necessary ingredient for the full appreciation of life. Cousin to gratitude, fear, and ecstasy, it overwhelms and enriches us beyond our usual boundaries.

Arnold, 95, Preaches Tolerance – with Humor

I met Arnold, 95, at a New York City senior center. A victim of Nazi persecution, Arnold fled Germany to the United wisdom signStates and made a good life for his family. He believes that curiousity and tolerance are the keys to lifelong happiness. He’s a funny guy, so he offered wisdom with a joke.

You ask about life lessons? I will tell you a story. A father talks to his son, and he says to his son, I want to talk to you about sex. And the son says, “Dad, what do you want to know?”

There’s your answer. We have to learn from the young and always stay curious. I had such convictions that I changed completely. Circumstances taught me that what I believed wasn’t so. One of my advantages is that I am willing to recognize change. In life, we are confronted with constant change, and you can’t be dogmatic. You see what happens with nations, what happens with people when they are dogmatic. You have to be open, be involved in new things.