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In-Laws and Outlaws
When you get divorced, do you have to "divorce" your spouse's friends and family -- and vice-versa?
By Diana Shepherd

When Erica met Michael, she thought she'd died and gone to heaven. He was handsome, charming, and successful, and he loved her. To put the icing on the cake, he had a pair of wonderful parents -- Peter and Maggie -- who quickly accepted Erica as part of their family. This was terribly important to the 25-year-old Erica, who had been orphaned when her parents died in a car accident when she was just 16. An only child, she had desperately missed the bonds of family, and Michael's parents filled an important void in her life.

15 years and two children later, the marriage was in trouble. They fought bitterly over everything -- including Erica's decision to go back to work. As the marriage disintegrated, Peter and Maggie started distancing themselves from their daughter-in-law and aligning themselves with their son. "I had always had such a close, loving relationship with the two of them -- especially Maggie," says Erica. "I couldn't believe they could freeze me out like that, without even hearing my side of the story. Losing them was almost worse than losing Michael."

Feeling hurt and betrayed, Erica cut off all communication with her former in-laws. Since she had primary custody of the children, this meant Peter and Maggie's access to their grandchildren became extremely limited. Also, they found they missed the woman who had been like a daughter to them for so long. Finally, Maggie swallowed her pride and asked Erica to meet her for lunch. "She apologized for failing to recognize Michael's contribution to our divorce, and asked for a second chance," says Erica.

Although somewhat wary, Erica agreed to give her in-laws that second chance. Now, one year post-divorce, Peter and Maggie have largely repaired their relationship with their former daughter-in-law. "Although Michael and I are on fairly friendly terms, his parents and I have agreed that their son's personal life is a taboo topic. It's tempting to pump them for information about whether Michael is dating, for instance, but I realize that would put Peter and Maggie in an impossible situation and I don't want to jeopardize our relationship."

Divorcing your in-laws

When you get married, you also take on your spouse's relatives and friends to a greater or lesser extent. When you get divorced, do you have to "divorce" your spouse's friends and family -- and vice-versa?

Unfortunately, there's no "one size fits all" answer to this question. Just as your marriage was unique -- it was a partnership created by two people with unique histories, experiences, tastes, ethics, beliefs, etc. -- your divorce is unique, too.

If you and your in-laws loathed each other, your relationship isn't likely to improve after your divorce. So unless there are children involved, you can breathe a sigh of relief: no more holiday dinners with those awful people! If there are children, however, you will probably still have to have some limited contact with them for the sake of the grandparent-grandchild bond.

And the same rule about badmouthing your ex applies to his/her parents, too: don't do it. Ever! Aside from the obvious downside of creating more bad blood between you and your ex, your children may actually internalize some of the negative comments you make about your ex and his/her family. Your child might think: "If Daddy and his parents are no-good lying cheats, then maybe I'm going to become a no-good, lying cheat too."

This is a two-way street: do not badmouth your ex son- or daughter-in-law -- not even to your child. If your separated or divorced child needs to vent about his/her ex, listen patiently, make sympathetic noises, but don't throw fuel on the fire. "I always knew she was a tramp!" "He has always been an SOB -- I'm so glad you finally came to your senses!" will not help your child create a good co-parenting relationship with his/her ex. And if the couple reconciles, they'll remember what you said and turn against you.

After 10 years of marriage, Joan realized the only thing she had in common with her husband, Paul, was their daughter, Kate. She begged him to go to marriage counseling with her, but he refused, denying that there was anything wrong. After years of unhappiness, Joan met a man through work and fell passionately in love with him. When she announced she was leaving, Paul was shocked and distraught.

Seeing their child in such pain, Paul's parents united their family in an attack against Joan. They painted her as a scarlet woman, an evil witch who had intentionally inflicted totally undeserved suffering on their innocent son. At first, some of the things they said made Paul feel better; after all, they understood and wanted to reduce his pain. Then, after a great deal of soul-searching, he came to two realizations: one, casting Joan as the villain and himself as the victim didn't tell the whole story of their marriage; and two, they were calling the mother of his beloved child a slut and worse. "I told them they had to stop it: that I wasn't so lily-white in the break-up, and that they couldn't speak that way about Katie's mom," says Paul. "It was destroying my daughter. She loves her grandparents, but she also loves her mom, and she was being torn in pieces."

His father eventually came around to Paul's point of view, but his mother still feels that Paul is being weak by not "calling a spade a spade" and fighting Joan on everything. "My mother and I barely speak to each other these days," says Paul. "I hope we can repair our relationship somewhere down the line, but until she gives up her war against Joan, I don't see that happening."

If you feel your in-laws present actual danger to your children -- they're alcoholics, drug addicts, virulent racists, criminals, etc. -- you are well within your rights to insist on no access until they've cleaned up their acts, and supervised access until you're sure they have truly reformed. If you merely find them irritating, however, it's unfair to your children to deny them a relationship with your ex's family. So be gracious, and allow your in-laws to attend special events such as birthdays, graduations, school plays, and competitions. Aside from the fact that it's the right thing to do, your generosity of spirit may encourage them to be helpful in terms of babysitting, or financial help with tuition, summer camp, or extracurricular activities.

Keeping your in-laws

Let's say your situation is more like Erica's than like Joan's: you always got along well with your in-laws and hope to continue the relationship after divorce. Some people have no trouble doing this, but for most, there will be bumps along the road to establishing a "new" post-divorce relationship with their in-laws.

For one thing, your ex-spouse may block it. "This is my family -- not yours," he/she thinks, "and I don't want you associating with them anymore." Initially, your ex's parents and siblings may want to show support by honoring his/her wishes, but eventually, they need to encourage your ex to get over it -- and this includes getting over the fact that they can still be fond of you without betraying the familial bond.

And then, the ones who choose to maintain the relationship may surprise you. "I was super-close with my sister-in-law Suzanne -- or at least, I thought I was," says Rachel. "But one year after we separated, it's my mother-in-law who calls me regularly to see how I'm doing, or sends me little notes or cards, and I haven't heard from Suzanne once." Rachel says that she's actually closer to her mother-in-law, Sherry, than she was while she was married. "Sherry has made me and my kids feel truly welcome in her home. She has told me I'll always be her daughter, which makes me feel really great."

Sherry's reaching out to her ex-daughter-in-law guarantees regular access to her grandchildren, and both women are enjoying the friendship without the pressures sometimes associated with an in-law relationship. Rachel now associates with Sherry because she wants to -- not because her husband is guilting her into doing so.

The last word

Just as no two marriages are the same, no two divorces are identical, either. Divorce itself has evolved to the point where most people no longer believe it's normal to have a "divorce from hell" in which the couple rips each other and everyone around them to shreds in their grief or rage. If you and your spouse can part with kindness -- or at least civility -- there's no reason why close in-law relationships can't survive your divorce. It may take time to re-establish your relationship with your in-laws, or it may be as easy as falling off a log. If you never liked your in-laws, then one of the upsides to your divorce is that you won't have to see them much -- or at all, if you don't have kids.

Be patient, gracious, and generous -- without being a doormat. At the very least, you'll be proud of your behavior; at best, you could be opening up the possibility for some great "new" relationships between you and your in-laws, and between your children and your ex-spouse's family.

Tips for in-laws
  1. This is not about you. Don't blame yourself for your child's divorce (unless you willfully did everything in your power to break up a perfectly good marriage, in which case you owe some pretty big apologies), and don't ask how your child could do this awful thing to you.
  2. Don't take sides. It's natural to want to side with your child, but if you viciously attack your son/daughter-in-law, you may make it impossible for them to have a friendly divorce. You may also find yourself out in the cold if the couple reconciles.
  3. Listen, don't talk. Your child may need to vent or moan, and listening sympathetically is all that's required of you here. Don't add fuel to the fire, and don't try to act as a marriage counselor. By all means, encourage your child to seek help from a professional counselor -- either alone or with his/her spouse.
  4. Refrain from gossiping -- even when others are pumping you for information about the divorcing couple. Tell Nosy Parkers that you're sure your child will share any appropriate information with them when/if the time is right, and reassure your child and/or child-in-law that you will keep all confidences that don't involve damage to people or property.
Tips for the divorcing couple
  1. Break the news gently. Unless they truly hate your spouse, this is not happy news for your parents. Each of you should talk to your own parents separately, letting them know the status of the marriage and that you'll keep them in the loop. Don't be pressured into providing lots of details, however: this will only fuel their upset and may make it difficult or impossible for them to accept your spouse again if you reconcile.
  2. Set limits. Just as you did when you got married, you need to set limits on how much information will be shared (between you and them, and also between them and their friends/family -- including your children). If you're fine with your family continuing the warm relationship they've established with your spouse, or if you need them to step back for a period of time, let them know.
  3. Let them know how they can help. People who love you will want to help you through this tough time, but they may not know how. Let them know you'd appreciate offers to babysit when you have to meet with your lawyer or mediator, or to be included in a family weekend at the cottage, or to be invited for dinner on Sundays whether you have the kids or not.
  4. Don't let them cast you as the victim. Although it may feel good for a while, it will not help your recovery to let your family heap verbal abuse on your ex-spouse. It denies the role you played in the breakdown of the marriage, which will prevent you from learning anything from the experience. It will also hurt your children and lead to an impossible situation if you and your ex get back together again.