My mother-in-law is a well-balanced person. She’s got a chip on BOTH shoulders.

How many mothers-in-law does it take to change a light bulb? One. She just holds it up there and waits for the world to revolve around her.

Mother-in-law jokes have survived for generations, perpetuating the stereotype of overbearing, controlling mothers-in-law. Television shows from Bewitched to Roseanne have embraced the stereotype, often hilariously. But in the real world, conflicts between mothers and their sons-in-laws can divide families with anger and hurt.

Fran Goldstein, 77, a grandmother of three in St. Louis, lost her mother many years ago. Her husband, Bernard, is deceased as well. Yet she still cannot forget or forgive the way her mother treated him. When Goldstein’s mother first met Bernard, she told her daughter she shouldn’t wed him because his parents were poor and uneducated. The couple married anyway, and for the next 25 years, Goldstein’s mother made her disapproval clear every chance she got. “She was very cold and critical of anything he did,” Goldstein says. Even on her deathbed, “She never accepted him.”

Thrown Together

Psychologist Carl Pickhardt of Austin, Tex., author of Stop The Screaming (Palgrave Macmillan), describes the mother-in-law and son-in-law dynamic as an “appendage relationship,” in which two people who don’t love each other are forced to come together. It can be difficult for mothers when someone else becomes their daughter’s primary confidant and source of support. That tension is amplified when the daughter is an only child (like Fran Goldstein), or when she marries someone with different standards or values than her mother has.

The experts see signs of improvement, however. St. Louis psychologist Diane Sanford believes relationships between sons-in-laws and mother-in-laws are better now than in past decades because of men’s evolving roles as fathers and as household partners. “I see more men interested in having a good relationship with their mother-in-law,” she says.

Mothers may also be lowering their standards for potential sons-in-law. Many are so eager to see their daughters marry, especially after they reach age 35, says Greenwich, Conn., psychologist Ann Caron, author of Strong Mothers, Strong Sons (HarperCollins), that they’re accepting of flaws in the girls’ fiancés. Or as one of her patients said she told her daughter, “Just get a man!”

Shela Dean, 61, a grandmother of two in Richmond, Va., says she has always tried to make her son-in-law, Bill Fisher, feel part of the family. “The most loving thing a person can do is support their children’s marriage,” Dean says.

Fisher, 35, says Dean has done much more than that: “She’s been more of a mother to me than my own. She provides the same kind of unconditional love one would expect from a mother.”

Can you make your relationship with your son-in-law, the father of your grandchildren, more like Dean’s and less like Goldstein’s? With some work, it’s possible, experts say.

Be welcoming, respect your daughter’s feelings (he is her husband and she loves him!) and maybe most important, spend time with your son-in-law to get to know him.

Psychologist Fernando Colon of The Ann Arbor Center for the Family in Ann Arbor, Mich., suggests that the time mothers-in-law and sons-in-law spend alone with the children can be especially valuable, as they show the mother-in-law how devoted he is to her grandchildren and how committed he is to making their grandparents a part of their lives. Seeing each other interact with the kids should build mutual respect and, if all goes well, even admiration.

And that’s no joke.