The crushing sense of loss has never left me, even after so many years. I went from belonging to a large, bustling European family to be entirely on my own with two children.
Stories were told. Connections were severed. I was shut out by and from the in-laws I loved for years.
I never had those infamous in-law problems that so many experience, especially at holiday time. For me, losing my in-laws after divorce was devastating.
With little family of my own, I didn’t miss my ex, but I certainly missed his family – my family.
When everything crumbled after a dozen years of marriage, it was as if I didn’t exist – at least, insofar as I had become persona non grata.
It was as if none of it had happened or it no longer mattered – to them – all the visits, the phone calls, the memories made together, the notes and photographs penned by hand and sent across an ocean, the holiday gifts chosen and exchanged with such care, the mischief-making with one sister-in-law and the long discussions with my father-in-law.
And it still hurts.
Let me rephrase. I still hurt.
When In-Laws Cut You Off After Divorce
I hurt at the way I was cut off after divorce. In some small measure, I understand this was an expression of solidarity. But it was extreme, certainly. In an ironic (and painful) contrast, my mother not only stayed in touch with my ex, but loved him and supported him in numerous ways until her death.
As for my in-laws, I ache when I look at the calendar and realize it’s my father-in-law’s 80th birthday. So I set the feelings aside. I hold back tears when I hear from one of my sons about a family reunion overseas and who was there. And I set those feelings aside. I am still numbed by the thought of the years that I have missed with people I love – people I will most likely never see again.
I wonder if my in-laws have missed me at all. There was the occasional “tell your mom hello” five or six years after the divorce, a message from one of my sister-in-laws conveyed through my kids. As for my mother-in-law and father-in-law?
I guess I’ll never know. There were never any responses to the photographs of their grandchildren that I continued to send for many years as I always had, and perhaps they thought it would be disloyal to their son or his new wife to be in touch.
Divorce Breaks Families
We talk about the damage to children when we divorce, and we discuss “who gets the friends.” But it’s rare that we talk about the damage to extended family – the allegiances that form with siblings or cousins not to mention parents and in-laws.
Divorce may be necessary and the impacts vary, but for some of us, divorce breaks families – even extended family – and leaves us with a sense of loss that is far more pervasive than “just” a spouse or “just” a marriage.
My ex-husband’s family is large. There were five children, all with spouses, and my ex isn’t the only one with a second spouse. There were 11 grandchildren in all, and for all I know, there may be a great grandchild at this point. In that context, the absence of one daughter-in-law – me – even if I assume they loved me, is a relatively small loss.
For me, the context is greater. They were my family. I lost them all.
But I did everything possible to make sure my sons – their American grandsons – stayed in close touch, went to visit, and grew up knowing their grandparents and their cousins to the extent that possible.
Elderly In-Laws, Blending Elders
As my in-laws are elderly now, I wonder where their memories return to. Do they ever think of those years we shared as a family? Their home was once filled with pictures of my boys, and of course, my boys with me and with their son. Were they all taken down when he remarried years ago?
There are babies that were born during my marriage and whom I haven’t seen in 13 years. They are in college or beyond. They don’t know me any longer, and of course, I wouldn’t recognize them.
But it’s my mother-in-law and father-in-law I think of most often. I wonder how difficult it is for them to accept second spouses into the fold – how difficult it is for any older parent to start over in a new in-law relationship when their adult son or daughter starts over with a new spouse. I wonder how difficult it is for the second spouses themselves – if they feel they’re competing with the mother of the grandchildren, or if everyone involved is gracious enough to be civil, open-minded, and compassionate.
That I will never see these two people I love again is painful. Equally painful, that realistically, I imagine they’ve never given it a second thought.
Divorce, Dating Older, and Alzheimer’s
After divorce, if we’re of a certain age, dating and relationships may come with elder parents and their care – if not our own, then that of the person we date and love and possibly remarry.
I’ve been seeing a good man for two years whose elderly mother has been wonderful to me. She’s in her mid-eighties and suffers from Alzheimer’s, but she knows me now, and she knows she knows me, though I came into her life too late for her memory to hang on to my name. There are difficult moments and difficult days, especially for him. Caring for elder parents is never easy.
She refers to me as “la petite” – the little one, or “ma fille” – my girl. She is a warm and gracious French woman with a rich trove of tales to tell when we tap into the store of memories that remains intact. When I spend time with her, she hugs me and smiles and says “You live with my son” and I say yes. It’s close enough to the reality of our relationship.
And she smiles and hugs me again. These moments with her are very precious.
I feel lucky to have her in my life, even in some small way. But the name she remembers – of course – is the name of her ex daughter-in-law, who is the mother of her grandchildren, who is still good to her, and whom she still sees from time to time. I consider both of them fortunate to have maintained that relationship.
Confusion for In-Laws, Ex-In-Laws
The fact remains that divorce must be confusing to our elder parents – especially if any sort of dementia is at play. I sometimes ask myself if it is confusing for my partner’s mother when she sees me with her son. After all, there were 25 years of history with another woman who was her son’s wife. Naturally, there were many experiences shared, and those are the experiences that she remembers.
So I see something of the perspective of the “second wife” though I’ve not remarried. I know what it is to come “after” – after the babies have been conceived and born, after the family gatherings at holiday time, after sharing the small milestones that we cherish in our children’s lives, after building a history of events – as family.
To come in after is to be grateful for whatever you can create – patiently, and with respect for the past.
For the elder in-law, I wonder about their sense of loss when they’ve loved the one their son or daughter married initially, when they’ve made her family, when divorce breaks long-held and treasured ties, and the repercussions remain for the rest of our lives.