Divorce affects relationships. While most people think about how divorce will impact relationships with their spouse, children and friends, one that is often forgotten is the in-law relationship.
While the stereotypical in-law relationship is adversarial, the reality is that many married people enjoy warm and loving relationships with their in-laws. In instances where a person’s relationship with their family of origin is strained, in-laws can even become a surrogate family, creating missing parental and/or sibling bonds.
What happens when the marriage that created those bonds disappears? Is it possible to lose your spouse but keep their family? While divorce will undoubtedly complicate your relationship with your in-laws, it doesn’t have to end it.
Even if you’ve known your in-laws for years and developed a strong and loving bond with them, they may feel obligated (or been told by their child/sibling) to limit their contact with you. This type of separation may be extremely painful; it may even be more painful for you than the loss of your spouse. While this change may be difficult for you, try to empathize with their struggle and desire to remain loyal to their child/sibling.
There is no roadmap for maintaining an in-law relationship post-divorce. It’s rare that your choice will be as stark as either never seeing them again or enjoying the exact relationship you had before the divorce. It may be difficult to establish the “ground rules” for this new phase and it may take some time for both of you to find something that works. Be open and flexible. The more that you can show that you are open and willing to adapt, the easier it will be for them.
Establishing a stable relationship will not be achieved quickly or with one conversation. You and your in-laws may need several conversations or interactions to establish your new normal. It may take a while to find a balance that is comfortable for everyone.
While the previous points stressed being realistic, flexible and patient, at some point, you will need to have direct communication with your in-laws if you want to maintain that relationship. You shouldn’t have this discussion right after you announce the divorce; give them some time to digest the information. When you do talk with them, be direct and compassionate, as this conversation is likely very hard for them as well. Try something like: “I realize this is complicated, but I wanted to talk directly with you because I value our relationship and want that to continue. I realize it will look different moving forward and I’m hoping to find a way for us to do that together.” If kids are involved, you will want to address that as well. “I also want us to be on good terms for the kids.”
This is such a key piece for your relationship with your in-laws following the divorce. Do not say negative things about your ex-spouse and do not put them in the position of taking sides. At the end of the day, their child/sibling is still a family member. Also, don’t use your interactions with your in-laws as a way to find personal information about your ex. These boundaries will help everyone feel that a continued relationship is healthy.
Similar to your relationships with your spouse and your children, the process of divorce can play a significant role in whether or not you maintain a relationship with your in-laws. Being able to work through your issues with your spouse in a respectful manner, such as through mediation or collaborative divorce, can set the stage for a better relationship with your in-laws.
The final point is to keep your children as you develop your post-divorce relationship with your in-laws. The more people who love your children, the better off your children are; maintaining relationships with extended family is beneficial to everyone. (This, of course, assumes there are no issues of abuse or addiction). Even if a close relationship isn’t possible, forging a cordial relationship with your in-laws will benefit your children. Just as you don’t want your children to feel trapped in the middle of you and your ex-spouse during a divorce, you don’t want your children to feel stuck in the middle of your conflict with their grandparents or aunts or uncles.
You can’t make your in-laws continue a positive relationship with you. However, following these tips, will help you do your part to maintain or re-establish that relationship, if they are open to it. Divorce will complicate this relationship (and many others), but it doesn’t have to end it.