The downsides of divorce can seem endless. Every gain has a counter-loss, often in ways you didn’t anticipate. Losing your in-laws in divorce can be one of those unexpected surprises.
When you’re consumed with the must-do checklist of divorce, it’s natural to be focused on “just getting through it.” There will be collateral damage, to be sure, but you can deal with (and anticipate) only so much at once.
You know you’re about to lose what will always be one of the most important relationships in your life.
Mention “in-laws,” and visions of Marie and Deborah snarking it out on Everybody Loves Raymond may fill your brain space.
Then again, you may have had a beautiful, “bonus family” kind of relationship with your husband’s family. And the thought of losing your in-laws in the divorce may be heavier than you had anticipated.
Grief and The Family Dynamic
Readers may remember the late psychologist John Bradshaw. His work on “The Inner Child,” shame, and family-of-origin influences helped define a notable period of self-help and trauma recovery.
He used to do a family-of-origin exercise on the opening day of his Reclaiming and Championing Your Inner Child workshops.
Then, he would invite several attendees, one at a time, to come join him at the front of the room. He would then instruct each person to “attach” himself/herself to him in specific ways.
“Lie on the floor and wrap your arms around my ankle. You’re my mother.” “Hold onto my arm. You’re my brother.” “Stand behind me and pull on my shirt. You’re my father.”
After building this clumsy pyramid to the laughter of an unsuspecting audience, he would deliver the indelible punchline: “THIS is what you marry when you get married.”
He was a genius at driving home messages that desperately need to be understood if people are going to heal and make healthy relationship choices.
Fast forward to you, your in-laws, and your divorce.
One of the realities of divorce is that it mobilizes everything. It’s like a game of musical chairs — the music stops, everyone scrambles for a seat, someone is ousted, and it all starts again. Everything is in flux, and much of it is unpredictable.
And so it goes with in-laws.
They’re the family you agree to adopt when you marry.
They’re the new dynamic you have to learn and navigate.
Lastly, they’re the “other half” of extended family to your children — grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins.
And they’re a goldmine of insight into your spouse… and now STBEX.
So what do you do with these in-law relationships now that you and your husband are going your separate ways?
Consider some of the countless ways your in-law relationships can go:
- You’re glad to be done with them, and the feeling is mutual.
- You both want to remain friends, and your STBEX is fine with that.
- You both want to remain friends, but your STBEX isn’t fine with that.
- You’re close with some of your in-laws but not all, and you want to stay close with them.
- Some of your in-laws have a “loyalty” gene that stands to ruin any chance of friendship with the family.
- Your in-laws would choose you over their own relative any day. They know he had a great thing, and they are sad to see you go.
And then there are the dynamics you know you will have to navigate, regardless of everyone’s affections (or lack thereof):
- You have children, and you know they need to have an ongoing relationship with that side of the family. How do you make that work if the breakup isn’t amicable?
- You have children, and you know you will be in the same room with your ex and ex-in-laws for years to come — birthdays, sporting events, recitals, graduations, weddings. How will you make it work so your children know they are safe and loved? (Check out “Coparenting Through Children’s Birthdays After Divorce.”)
- You’re suspecting that your husband is filling your in-laws’ ears with a one-sided story against you. What do you do now?
- You and/or your STBEX may bring a new love interest into your life. Will that make an ongoing friendship uncomfortable? (Consider reading “Playing Nice When Your Ex Has a New Girlfriend.”)
If you fear losing your in-laws in the divorce, you do have choices. But those choices will be influenced by more than just your own desire and vision for working things out.
Keep taking steps toward your healing. Read “46 Steps to Ensure Your Divorce Recovery: A Definition and a Guide.”
Negotiating Future Contact
Ideally, both you and your spouse will handle your divorce amicably and respectfully.
If you have that kind of relationship, despite your pending divorce, this is the time to talk about in-law relationships. After all, your husband may have the same feelings about your family.
“I love your family, and I would love to remain friends with them. But I want to be respectful of your wishes and comfort. I also want the kids to be able to talk freely about all their relatives, with no fear of animosity from either of us.”
Even if you are on the other end of the spectrum with your feelings, it’s still wise to have these discussions with your STBEX, especially if you have children.
It’s also wise to have these discussions with your in-laws. Call a spade a spade. Tell them you know how uncomfortable this is for them, too.
If you are looking for a community of like-minded women, women who are also committed to healing and making meaning of this newfound place you are all in, consider our powerful Paloma’s Group for women recreating after divorce.
Let them know that you intend to play a positive, supportive role in their ongoing relationship with your children. Even if they want nothing to do with you, you know they play a defining role in your children’s lives.
How much you disclose about your divorce to your in-laws really depends on you and the relationship you have with them.
It may be tempting to lay out your side of things with your in-laws, especially if you suspect your STBEX hasn’t been truthful with them.
But you would do well to err on the side of diplomacy. You can always share more later, but you can’t take back words spoken.
For further tips on how not to divorce your spouse’s family, read here.
Losing your in-laws in the divorce can be a great loss or a blessing in disguise.
And sometimes the loss or expulsion you fear is tempered by time, maturity, acceptance…and forgiveness.
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