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How to Not Divorce Your Spouse's Family

Losing in-laws is so painful. You can save those connections with these tips.

 Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels
Kids need grandparents and grandparents love their grandchildren—these relationships shouldn't suffer when there is a divorce.
Source: Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels

Sherrie (not her real name) was devastated when her in-laws cut her off during her divorce. They’d been close for 17 years and lived nearby. They often joined the family, including their grandchildren, for holidays, birthdays, BBQs, and even some vacations. Sherrie couldn’t understand how her in-laws could just break off their relationship completely. She worried about what they might be saying to the children. She wondered what her STBX was saying to them. She was heartbroken.

James was confused when his brother-in-law told him that he was no longer welcome at their home. He said, “I would love to still be friends, but my brother is demanding me to be loyal to him. He says he needs the support. He says if I don’t block you on Facebook I am betraying him. I guess blood is thicker than water.” James was stunned and told me, “I was divorcing my wife but not everyone else in the family. I didn’t expect to lose all of them too. They knew things were rough between me and Lexie, and even that she’d cheated on me. I don’t get why they had to take sides.” James and his wife did not have children and she wanted to just “move on,” leaving him behind and in her past. He grieved the loss of her siblings, with whom he’d been friends for years.

Adrien said that the true victims in her case were the children, who no longer saw their cousins as often as before the divorce. “When the kids are with me, they aren’t allowed to have their cousins over. That just seems crazy! And wrong, and so sad. I trusted that my sister-in-law and I would stick together, but she just dumped me.”

Divorce is like a death in so many ways. It is the death of the hopes and dreams you had when you married, and if or when you had children. Nick said, “I didn’t want my whole life to change. I didn’t want to divorce my in-laws, just my wife.” Like most people, Nick was shocked at the many unexpected losses.

Ellen’s experience was quite different. Her parents had loved their son-in-law and wanted to maintain contact with him. They spoke with Ellen about it because it was important to them that she agreed. Ellen spoke with her STBX and suggested that he talk to his parents too, and ask them to not take sides. Ellen’s parents offered to talk with his parents as well. “For a few months it was awkward,” Ellen recalls. “But once all the parents saw how well he and I were able to get along, and how we were co-parenting so well, everyone was able to relax. It wasn’t the same as before, especially when we each started dating and new relationships. But we were able to be together for holidays and family celebrations, like when our twins graduated from high school. I don’t see them as often as before, but I don’t feel completely abandoned either.”

So there are two questions:

  • Why do in-laws and other extended families choose sides?
  • How can you prevent this in your divorce?

Parents instinctively want to protect their kids, even their adult kids. If your parents see you as vulnerable or as the victim because your spouse initiated the divorce, they will want to “circle the wagons” to support you. Your siblings may also want to rally around you, especially if they have been through a divorce themselves. Even if you are the one who initiated the divorce, your parents will probably want to side with you. As it is often said, “Blood is thicker than water.”

Ask yourself, have you asked for your parents’ and siblings’ loyalty? Have you asked for their allegiance in unspoken ways? Why would you want them to turn against the person you once loved, married, and with whom you perhaps made babies? How will your children experience these losses, and what does it teach them about how to handle relationship problems?

What story of your marriage and divorce are you sharing with your family? If your story is black and white and lays all blame on your spouse, your parents will assume that you need protection. “You’d better lawyer up,” said one father to his 40-year-old daughter who had been served with divorce papers. Unfortunately, this approach escalates an already volatile situation.

Lisa said, “When I was divorced, my in-laws refused to speak to me again for the rest of their lives. My kids were so confused and hurt by this since they loved their grandparents and they loved their parents. When I reached out several times over the years to try to reconnect, I was vehemently rejected. My ex even wrote me a scathing letter when I sent a condolence card after the death of one of his siblings.”

 Ketut Subiyanto/Pexels
A conversation might reveal that you agree about this one thing—you still want the connection with the in-laws.
Source: Ketut Subiyanto/Pexels

Yes, your parents may instinctively abandon your spouse. And your in-laws may feel they have to cut you off to prove their loyalty to your STBX. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

So what can you do? First, have a conversation about this with your spouse. You may agree that you both want to maintain a connection with all of the in-laws. Do you want to have a friendship with the person you are divorcing? Or a civil relationship that might allow you both to keep your friends? Talk about whether you have asked your extended family to take sides, directly or indirectly. Discuss whether you can work together to support healthy extended family relationships despite the divorce.

Admittedly, when you have kids you have more leverage since they give in-laws more reason to stay connected with you. If you have children, talk about how this can help them recover from the marital breakup. If it would help, have this conversation with a neutral third person, such as a therapist.

Second, you can ask your family not to reject your spouse. Try to develop a story about the divorce that doesn’t lay 100% of the blame on your spouse. It would be great if you could acknowledge how you might have contributed to the breakup.

Ellen told her parents, “I should have agreed to go to counseling with him, and now it is just too late. The love is gone but we don’t hate each other, and we aren’t trying to hurt each other. If you reject their dad, it’s going to hurt our kids.” Use the “we” word, such as “We would love your emotional support, but please don’t feel that you have to take sides. At least for the sake of your children. We are trying to work out our separation with as little harm as possible to our kids.” Ask your spouse to do the same with his relatives for the sake of peace in the family.

Lastly, choose a non-adversarial divorce process such as mediation or Collaborative Divorce. A divorce that keeps you out of court will allow you and your STBX to heal and recover from the breakup. If there are kids, your family can be restructured without the damage of a litigated or high-conflict divorce.

A respectful divorce that isn’t a war lets you tell your in-laws that you’d like to be able to stay connected despite the divorce. If you have kids, you can tell your friends, and your extended family, that “We are still one family, under two roofs.”

© Ann Gold Buscho, Ph.D. 2020.