In a divorce it is not just mom, dad, and the kids who are affected. Your parents, siblings, in-laws, uncles, aunts, and friends are all drawn into the conflict. As you begin the divorce process, your tendency will be to think only of your most immediate world: home, children, and property. This is the core that is changing, but that can blind you to the larger world outside.
Whose friend is whose? Will you ever see your in-laws again? What are the fault lines of your children’s loyalties? Will any of their friendships be affected? Much of this turns on the divorce process itself. The nastier it gets, the more difficult these questions become. Can you remain friends with the couple that is still on good terms with your ex? When you’re around them do you have to watch every word you say?
As with all issues of divorce, this one is easier if the split is amicable. If you and your ex are on friendly terms, that feeling will usually extend to his relatives. But if things have been ugly, then relationships change radically. The bitterness in a divorce tends to bleed into far too many other parts of one’s life.
If you have things you must fight for – children, a home, a way of life – then a great deal of this is unavoidable. In a fight people take sides. We’ve all done this with others. I believe my brother, you believe your sister. I trust my old friend, but you trust your old sweetheart, or your golfing buddy, or your coworker. The one you are closer to portrays his wife as the villain, while I believe every word she says about him. Both of us are only getting one side of the story.
When you are one of the people who are divorcing, you suffer not only the loss of a spouse, but a whole set of people you cared about. These may be people you spoke to candidly, folks with whom you shared holidays and vacations. You may have even thought of them as people you would confide in about anything. Suddenly they are cast into an enemy camp, and you wish you’d never said a word to them.
For many of us this is the second stage of heartbreak. We don’t realize just how much the underpinnings of our world are built on trust until suddenly a huge chunk of that foundation crumbles. Someone who always smiled when she saw you in the supermarket now turns away. You go to a ballgame, and can’t even talk to the couple sitting next to you. It affects everything from what parties you attend, to where you stop the car to wait for your kids after school. It’s hard enough seeing the expressions on people’s faces. It is even worse when you know they won’t even listen to your side. You see them on the street, and know that behind their eyes are a thousand false ideas and impressions. And there is nothing you can do or say to change that.
For years I was close to my mother-in-law. I felt like she was a second mother to me. None of the old mother-in-law jokes or stories applied to us. We talked daily, took trips to Atlantic City together, and went shopping. We could talk about practically anything. When a crisis came I knew that she would be there, backing me up, and I played the same role for her. We both shared a love: my husband. While that might bring out jealousy in some women, it only drew us closer. After a time we shared more interests: the children. We never argued.
At one point I decided I wanted her to live with us. I built an extension on my home and invited her to move in. Looking back, I now see my mistake. Things changed. Soon the old expression about “two women in the same kitchen” rang true.
It took about a year, but then I saw my marriage beginning to come apart. One night at 2 a.m., I got a call that my husband had been beat up after leaving a nightclub. She blamed me, calling me “a cold wife.” She later apologized, but it was clear that there was a side of her I’d never known. As the marriage crumbled this side of my mother-in-law came into sharper focus. Our arguments heated to the point where I had to call the police. She said things I could not forget. Now I wanted this woman, who I had cared so deeply for, to leave my home. Our relationship was over.
I had lost my husband and now my mother in-law too. This was my children’s grandmother; others soon followed this break. It was what one would expect: his family lining up on his side, my family on mine. His family welcomed his mistress to Christmas dinner: a stranger in my spot.
None of this is easy on anyone. Each moment presents itself, and you feel each slight. For years your life has had a rhythm and ritual that moves through the seasons, with dinners, gifts, weddings, christenings, and all the rites from birth through death, along with holidays and traditions. Then a trusted in-law turns, and within days you realize that a whole world has split off, like a cliff falling into the sea.
Go Where the Love Is
The easy thing to say is: be strong. The most important thing to say is: go to the friends and family who have stuck with you. When people turn against you, go to those people who are true to you. Your real friends won’t ask you to spell out everything, or to prove anything. They will simply give you love. Always go wherever the love is. After our divorce was final, things improved a little. I spoke to my mother in-law for the first time, and we managed to be pleasant to each other in front of the children. Among the rest of our families some softened, while others are still angry.
So many aspects of divorce don’t end with the two of you. So many others are affected. New partners enter the picture. Inevitably people look at the date you bring to dinner, and compare. This too can be painful. Remember what anyone new in your life has to face in such situations. Though the comparison often works in their favor, being scrutinized is never easy. Also, there will always be those who assume that, if you made a mistake once, this new one must be a mistake as well. Take such attitudes with the grain of salt they deserve.
Keep Cool and Be Civil with Your Ex
Sometimes you hear things from your children that they heard from your ex’s friends or family. The sting seems amplified. If you hear something that is obviously twisted and wrong, you have a duty to speak up, but even then: keep cool. Sometimes a child is testing the waters, seeing what will make you react. Children do this to see how their changed world is settling. If you are always honest with your children, and make sure they know you are speaking out of love for them, that world will settle into a rhythm where everyone can live a little easier. Remember, your children deserve to maintain a healthy relationship with all their grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins.
Even in the worst divorces there has to be a time of healing and acceptance. If you have children, you should do all you can to maintain a civil relationship with your ex and his family. For a time you will feel all the venom that raises in a fight, but once the fight is done, don’t hang onto the bitterness. Think of the children. When faced with someone you felt anger toward, force a smile, say hello, and be courteous. You may find that wounds are healing. If not, you won’t have deepened those wounds. You do not have to like anyone you don’t want to like, just be friendly enough to put everyone at ease.
Forgiveness often grows out of the small things: courtesy, a smile, and a pleasant word. But in the end, no matter how painful, you need to do what is best for the children. Those of you without children have the luxury of walking away, but in the long run even this can be a trap. While this might seem liberating, hurtful feelings will eventually catch up with you. Unresolved anger will turn into long-term bitterness, spilling over into other areas of life. If you find yourself well beyond a simple, clean, childless divorce, and you still feel hostility and anger, you may need counseling or just a heart-to-heart talk with a friend. Work through the loss you have experienced, grieve for those you have lost, not just your spouse. Try and get to a place of forgiveness or at least indifference. When you no longer feel hate you will be free.
This article has been edited and excerpted with permission from the book Seven Secrets to a Successful Divorce (JGA Publishers) by Christina Rowe. This book reveals the secrets to a successful divorce for women. She shares her story and gives specific tips and recommendations on how not to be taken advantage of during the divorce process. Christina Rowe is an international authority on women and divorce. She champions a new women’s movement, providing psychological, legal, and spiritual support for women who face the transitional process of divorce. www.secretsofdivorce.com.