Divorced: Now What To Do With The Ex-Laws?

Former Mother/Father in Law: Step Children and Step Grand Children: Ex Brothers and  Sisters In Law, Ex Nieces and Nephews: Divorce is the highest stress factor in our culture. Breaking up The Coupledom, the  family and the household, is excruciating. And then there is the mess it leaves behind in the hearts, minds and pocket books of all involved. One of the groups of people for whom no protocol exists, as they stand outside of legal documentation, is the relational world of The Coupledom; the relatives.

Emotional Detritus: All too often, a dissolved marriage leaves a wake of  loss and confusion. An uncle who was dear to his nieces and nephews has vanished and young children are missing him. Older kids don’t know whether it is appropriate or “safe” to contact their aunt, a treasured confidant, now renamed their uncle’s “ex” wife; does that make her an “ex aunt”? A grandfather of step grand kids is finding it uncomfortable connecting with his former step son.  Unable to solve this conundrum of familial fractures, he abandons contact with the youngsters who consider him grandpa, and have no notion of what “step” means anyway.

Cousins of Divorced Families are restricted to joint play dates when the parent from their “side” has them for  the weekend …until they can drive. And even then, if the residue from the divorce is continuing to belch forth toxic fumes, driving over to pick up a cousin may  be tricky, an irresistible opportunity to excrete further poisons, and even unleash clan warfare that leaves teens puzzled, guilt ridden or furious.

Folks Who Were Once Called Mom and Dad: These questions don’t get any more bizarre than when the  folks who were once “mom and dad” become at best, “acquaintances” and worst, enemies. What do we call them, “my ex/former mother in law, father in law”.  Then there is the ever complex “blended family divorce”, where step parents now have “ex  kids”, former step kids? What is  that?  The Bizarro world? Yes.

Divorce Is Fertile Ground For Triangles: The inspiration for this article came from a client who was anguished about her relationship with a “step daughter” after the break up with her dad. Though a grown up “step” the young woman is triangulated by loyalties to her dad and “ex step mom”. When they meet for coffee, the air is choked by the invisible but omnipresent “he”; whose version of the break up to believe, whose reality to trust? Spontaneity is replaced by watchfulness; something will be said to cause further animosity, more pain and guilt. The ex-step mom is in limbo, finding some of the content of their conversation provocative and irritating, some hurtful and sad. Can this relationship survive? How to recalibrate its components to make going forward possible.

Behind My Back:  The Cornerstone  Of Triangles Is A Secret: Deepest of betrayals in the new frontier of ex laws is secretiveness and its twin “lying”. Lying can be both by omission and commission. The second biggest wallop to post divorce ex relationships is “Taking Sides”. These two components: behind my back, and taking sides, carve out the emotional insides of the participants and sow seeds for lifelong  animosity and some pretty rotten teaching to children of any age.

What Are The Necessary Tools To Navigate The Terrain of Ex Laws? Dyads Not Triangles. Never should communications concerning two individuals be delivered by a third party. With young children this is difficult but what it means is that the ex law aunts and uncles meet one to one, and lay out a relational plan for the cousins that is in the “best interest” of the children. Never should the message be, you and I are done with that family because they sided with your dad during the divorce. That is a giant NO NO! TABOO! What you deliver with that message is “distrust and uncertainty; don’t risk loving because next will be loss” and powerlessness. Kids feel powerless enough. Subtracting important people from their lives because you are hurt or pissed is wrong. Uncles and Aunts remain forever Uncles and Aunts, whether their sibling remains your spouse or not.

GROWN UPS  GROW UP! Let time play a part in the process. And even though there is a powerful temptation to feel the victim, and spice it up with anecdotes of rejection and humiliation, no one but you can craft the next years of relationship with ex in laws, brothers in law, sisters in law: folks who may have been  “like best friends” before the deluge.

Contact In Steps: Chafed skin is raw and red. Only when the new skin grows over it, does the flesh feel ready for contact. So too the heart. The first months after an acrimonious divorce may best respond to “indirect contact” with the ex laws, while the new skin is laying down its cover. Emails; letters; phone calls that don’t demand a response. Requests to meet over coffee at some point may follow. Or “perhaps we can bring the kids by sometime: they miss you.”

If You Are The Sibling Of  A Bitter Divorce: Approach your sib as a dyad, one and one. “I am fond of Henry and miss him. I would like to see him sometime and bring the kids. I don’t want to hurt you but I think this can be done without taking sides. I will not get into any “stuff”. You are not asking permission. You are respectful by “not lying” or sneaking behind their backs:  no omission here. And if the reaction is intense or attacking, give it time. Perhaps postpone the visit and let your sibling “think about this”. But ultimately this is a grown up thing…making judgements about what went wrong in someone else’s marriage, and taking sides, is a bad idea. It is like the telephone game: by the time you get the message, the original communication is lost with each iteration.

Courage:  Facing ex laws can’t be easy. If they want to get into your “stuff”, just abstain with the caveat, “this is not useful”. Highlight the importance of  “respecting those boundaries so we can get on with our relationship going forward”. If they don’t get it, or perhaps want to pick on your ex for their own purposes, again boundaries. Otherwise, quicksand. Watch Out!

The Experts: As always, if you do step in some quicksand, before you sink down too far, seek out the experts. The third eye,  third ear, someone who helps you to hear and see options that are hard to see alone.

© Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2010

6 Responses to “Divorced: Now What To Do With The Ex-Laws?”

  1. JLSimons

    Wow, Jill. The fear about others lying about you stuck a nerve, and I’m neither divorced nor contemplating it. The uncertainty, the suspicion, that would eat me up.

    It does seem as though a lot of people I know are in the process of getting divorced, or have recently divorced (if I add it up, I may just be nearing that 50% number in my circle) so for me at least this is not only timely, but relevant. Sound wisdom as always. I even tweeted it — maybe some of the people I know could benefit.

    • jilledelmanlcsw

      Jeff, so glad this offers some perspective for others. Your honesty is gratifying. Who isn’t afraid of folks misrepresenting and maligning them. Powerful and painful stuff, these break up scenarios where one coupledom’s derailment brings down so many, unless this is a wise, caring and cautious ex coupledom. Thanks so much.

  2. Anne Carpender

    Descriptions all so true! Keeping your own boundaries makes such sense.

    Great writing.


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