Mothers-in-law constitute one of the most maligned groups in our society.

Mother-in-law jokes are common. Nearly every mother-in-law portrayed in books, movies and psychology self-help books is manipulative and meddlesome. There once was a hostile song that had the chorus, "And don't come back no more, muh-uh-ther-in-law, muther-in-law." Even mothers-in-law themselves tend to apologize for being mothers-in-law, as if they could be otherwise when their son or daughter gets married.

If you are one of those who suffer from a cold war or an outright series of skirmishes with a well-meaning but difficult mother-in-law, there are several ways to improve that all-too-important relationship. Not only does your peace of mind suffer when you have underlying hostilities with an in-law, but you may be setting yourself up for unnecessary and potentially disastrous conflicts with your spouse. Here are some guidelines that may be helpful:

* Don't blame your spouse for the eccentricities of your mother-in-law. Too often a disagreement or conflict with your mother-in-law turns into a dispute with your spouse. It is essential that you recognize that your feelings about your mother-in-law are indeed your feelings. Your spouse is not responsible for rescuing you, comforting you or even agreeing with you.

In fact, the more you expect or demand that your spouse take your side the worse it gets. Your spouse may be having the same problem with your mother-in-law yet may feel defensive because you're talking about his or her mother. Even if you are sure you are innocent and your spouse and mother-in-law are conspiring against you, you can't expect your partner to abandon his or her mother and side with you.

* Accept that a mother-in-law's job is to interfere. Once you stop resisting the fact that a mother-in-law always will believe she has a vested interest in telling you how to run your life and improve your marriage, you can take more effective steps to keep her interference to a minimum. Let her tell you how to pamper your spouse, but draw the line and tell her firmly and gently that sexual advice is off limits. Let her be involved in pampering her grandchildren, but tell her lovingly, "No, the kids are not going to get haircuts every time you think their hair is too long."

* Walk a mile in her shoes. If you were your mother-in-law, how would you deal with your child and his or her spouse? How would you extend your advice and assistance without interfering and being taken for granted? The greater your empathy for the often difficult role played by concerned mothers-in-law, the more you can set up a healthy win/win relationship in which her needs are listened to and your needs are met as well.

* Don't bend over backward to please her. Sometimes we spend so much time and energy trying to win the approval of a mother-in-law that we begin to resent her or feel burdened by her even if she has done nothing wrong. Other times there is simply no way to impress a mother-in-law who is convinced that her son or daughter "deserves better."

In either case, you need only to start seeing your mother-in-law as a relative you must treat with respect without making her more important than she is. You still are a good person and worthy son- or daughter-in-law even when you disagree or don't do what your mother-in-law would like. If you tell your mother-in-law, "I love and respect you even when I do things my own way," you can begin to establish that she is a close family member but not someone whose will supersedes your own.

* Don't treat your mother-in-law like an unpaid servant. Instead of assuming that your mother-in-law is to be assigned the unwanted tasks of baby-sitting, darning socks, cooking holiday meals and renewing car registrations for you, start finding out what she wants. Sit down and have a heart-to-heart talk about how she sees her role as your mother-in-law:

What does she like to help with and what does she feel is a burden? How can you both start making her role in your life a pleasure for both of you? What does she expect in return? What are you willing to go along with and what are you going to simply say no to?

The more you can communicate with each other, the more you can prevent misunderstandings and other, more hostile conflicts.

* Focus on what you appreciate about your mother-in-law and not what you disagree with. By learning more about what makes your mother-in-law tick, you can begin to discover the human being beneath the moods and demands. You may be surprised to find you have a positive role model, confidant or friend in this person you formerly thought was a competitor or threat. Even if the only positive thing you can say about your mother-in-law is that she gave birth or took care of your spouse, give her credit for that. By acknowledging that she did the best she could you can appreciate that she loved the person you now love.