When we marry, for all intents and purposes, we do not wed only one person. We marry an entire family. From meddling mother-in-laws and controlling father-in-laws, to jealous siblings, crazy aunts, creepy uncles, stepchildren, and those family members we all love to hate, when we say, “I do,” these relatives become ours, idealistically, for better or for worse. But what happens when the “worse” actually comes to pass and we divorce? Is it possible to maintain accord with the relatives we once adopted as our own or is it best to part ways even before the ink dries on our divorce decree? Maintaining healthy relationships with an ex’s family is possible. Doing so will not necessarily be easy or feasible in all cases, but here are a few simple tips that might help facilitate success.
1. Define and enforce your boundaries. Divorce is often the period in our lives when we become cognizant of those transgressions committed by our spouse we are no longer willing to accept. The same should hold true for all of the other relationships in your life, including those with your ex’s family. Divorce is a chance for a fresh start, not only for a new life but also for asserting ourselves where we may not have done so before. I was forced to grin and bear a lot of slights and insults from my ex’s family over the years, as my then husband continually advised me to ignore their disrespectful behavior. In his effort to keep the peace (for himself!), he caused me a lot of anguish along the way. No one should ever make himself or herself feel good at the expense of someone else, least of all you. A healthy relationship means being respectful of one another. If you do not value yourself enough to stand up to bullies, how can you ever hope to be respected by others? When someone is rude, insulting, or condescending, speak your mind. You have nothing to lose except their mistreatment.
2. Address pre-existing issues. Do not expect a divorce decree to suddenly cure all that ailed those troubled relationships you suffered through with your ex’s family members. I mistakenly believed when my marriage was unraveling we all had bigger and more important matters to worry about than the nonsense some of my ex’s family and I bickered over. Not the case. Divorce can be an opportune time to mend old wounds. But keep in mind your issues may be completely independent of your marital woes. In that scenario, divorce or no divorce, sometimes these relationships are simply not meant to be, and may not survive your dissolution under any circumstance.
3. Do not bad-mouth your ex. When push comes to shove, it is important to remember that in most cases blood is still thicker than water. Your ex’s family may acknowledge his or her faults or wrongdoings, but that does not mean they are eager to discuss them with you. Seek to reinforce and build upon your existing relationships on their own merits, apart from the ties that originally brought you together. Yes, you share history. But if you have enjoyed each other’s company for a long period of time, it is likely you have common interests apart from your ex. Focus on those similarities that will strengthen your relationships, not weaken them. I have enjoyed a wonderful friendship with one of my ex’s cousins, both before my divorce but even more so after. Our conversations rarely have anything to do with my ex, with whom she still remains in contact, and I truly value her opinion and enjoy her company.
4. Take the high road. Continuing a relationship with an ex’s family member will not necessarily be easy, and requires willingness and dedication on the part of both people who seek to maintain that friendship. Try to see your position from your spouse’s family’s point of view. Should things not work out, be conscious to part ways amicably. Always be cordial if your paths later cross. Better not to burn bridges or create enemies where there were none before. You can only control your own behavior, so now is the time to behave with dignity, class, and style. Do not give ammunition to anyone who can potentially disparage you. You never know what may come back to haunt you later.
5. Be prepared to say goodbye. If you are in the process of divorcing or are divorced, chances are there is already a lot of water under the bridge. Even though you have tried your best to preserve the relationships you once enjoyed with your ex’s kin, the reality is divorce changes family dynamics. There may be a new significant other in the mix for you, your spouse, or for both of you, or there may still be feelings of ill will stemming from the breakup, or from a time even before that. Whatever the situation is, staying in contact may not be possible regardless of your good intentions and wholehearted attempts. If a particular relationship is causing you unhappiness or stress, walking away, at least for the time being, is also a viable solution. As with any relationship, goodbye need not be forever. The old saying, time heals all wounds, applies to divorce as well. The great thing about the future is no one knows what wonder and amazement is in store. I like to believe the best is yet to come.
How is your relationship with the people you once called family?