I know, I know, it doesn’t technically start with ‘x’. But it would seem strange not to include the ‘ex’ in an A-Z of divorce. In this instance though, there’s a different focus. It’s not so much our exes themselves as their families.
There are myriads of mother-in-law jokes, but these tell only a tiny fraction of the in-law story. You might love your in-laws, hate them, or be somewhere in the middle depending how much time you’re in the same house together over Christmas. But in-laws usually come with the spouse package. As we separate and divorce, the relationship with ex-in-laws can be a difficult one to navigate for a number of reasons.
A helpful place to begin is remembering to be respectful of their role. Whatever you think of them, their decisions or their attitude to you, they are the family of your ex. As such, there’s an expectation that they will support them. This can feel immensely frustrating if, from your perspective, you feel your ex doesn’t deserve that love and support: your expectation may be for their family to push them towards reconciliation. Yet with those we love the most, we often love them despite their actions. Their love for a child or sibling is likely to take precedence over their relationship with you which is healthy and natural. It’s likely we will expect our own families to love and support us regardless of our behaviour. We must also remember that although we may not see our ex-in-laws championing our marriage, we don’t know what is said behind closed doors. Ex-in-laws may be challenging their behaviour, encouraging their positive relationship with us, or suggesting they cut and run. We don’t know. And that’s okay, because our ex’s actions are just that – their actions. Ex-in-laws aren’t to blame for individual choices made by exes, but it can be hard to separate the two. Their relationship may look like a condoning of behaviour, perhaps it’s just familial, unconditional love.
A further difficulty is that involvement in your ex-in-laws’ lives might need to continue, even while the life with your ex does not. Forgiving your ex-in-laws for anything you know or imagine they may have done that’s hurt you is a big ask. Forgiving anyone is hard. But if you have children, the people who are your ex-in-laws are your children’s family. Forgiveness may look backwards at past events, but it might also mean graciously letting go of not being invited to an event, or being kept in the loop about something. It may mean having to forgive them whenever they seem to disregard your parental role in your children’s lives. It may also be harder to forgive in-laws as we do not love them in the same way, forgiveness is (slightly!) more straightforward where there is deep love; there’s a vested interest to forgive. Choosing to forgive once you’ve worked out where you’ve felt hurt, aggrieved or rejected is powerful, not just for them but for you and your continuing relationship.
It might be that there is no reason to stay in touch. This can be as challenging. It may feel like another rejection if you were close, or an inevitable and justifying conclusion of what you thought about them if you were not. But try to finish well. Ending without bitterness and without resentment brings closure to whatever the relationship was. Write to them perhaps, a positive letter thanking them for anything they’ve brought to you. If you have children and you want to continue the relationship, keep them in the loop about their achievements and share the joys of their lives together, even if it’s hard to interact about your own lives.
As you decide whether to remain in touch, remember your family are in-laws too. Your ex being in touch with your family can be a challenging dimension. Just as you get to choose who you do, or don’t, stay in touch with – so do they. Your family and your ex may have their own relationships existing outside your marriage. It doesn’t mean they’re talking about you, in fact, they’re probably not. Giving space for others to end or continue their own relationships is an adult approach to the problem. We may not want them to be best friends, but it’s not our call to make. We may feel that by being friends it will draw our marriage back together, but that’s not what their friendship is there for. Finding a way to make peace might be hard. Perhaps ask if you can be warned if they will be at an event, or can stagger timings so you don’t meet initially. After time you might not mind, but to start with it’s fine to put some boundaries in place around your own interactions with your ex via your family, even though those can’t be who other people see.
It’s a tricky world, the one of ex-in-laws. You’ve been put into one another’s lives and now you’ve been torn out of them. Feeling sad over what the relationship was, could have been or might have been is a normal process. However you decide to navigate it, remember they are people too. We’re all fallible, we all make mistakes, us as well as them. You may not have control over their actions, but you can choose your own. Treat them with the same kindness you hope your ex would treat your own family. After all, you are the ex-in-law too.
Leave a comment below to share how you left things with your ex-in-laws.