When Letting Go of the In-Laws Hurts Worse Than the Divorce

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It may be those little things you’ll miss the most. The dinnertime banter, the inside jokes, the shoulders cried on — indelible memories that transcend any kind of separation. Can you still text on occasion? How about if you run into each other in public? What if it’s not your ex-spouse you’re talking about but instead, your in-laws?!

Not All In-Law Relationships Are the Same

In sitcoms and stand-up routines, divorce is almost always portrayed one way. Ugly. The same can be said for in-laws. Thus, if we were to trust pop culture, we wouldn’t expect to miss our ex’s parents. Pro tip: Don’t look to pop culture for life guidance.

In many cases, we share special and unique experiences with our in-laws. We go on vacations with them, celebrate holidays and other events, mourn shared losses, and perhaps even welcome new lives into our familial universe. Of course, we don’t choose our in-laws, but it is often difficult to not find a connection under the circumstances.

There are, in fact, some instances when one spouse or the other genuinely bonds with in-law family members. How realistic is it to assume you can move on from such relationships without feeling grief and loss? Answer: Not very realistic at all.

What We Can Lose

After a divorce, the likelihood exists that former partners may be saying an abrupt goodbye to an entire side of their extended family. Needless to say, there are conditions that outweigh this loss, e.g.

  • Infidelity

  • Mental and/or physical abuse

  • Dysfunctional family relationships

But when a couple splits for reasons of growing incompatibility, it doesn’t mean they instantly dislike everyone related to their soon-to-be ex. Sadly, it just may mean a sudden loss of contact with people with whom they share positive memories and family history. This is a massive life change and it requires careful contemplation and thoughtful communication.

If You Must Lose Contact

Perhaps more often than not, circumstances dictate a full split from your spouse and their family. If this is the case, it’s absolutely essential to treat this development for what it is. It’s a loss and therefor cause for grief, mourning, and seeking support.

If You Can Maintain Some Contact

In those instances where your in-laws can remain somewhat present in your life, there is much to ponder. First and foremost, you must examine your decision to stay in touch. Most of all, recognize that it’s not healthy for you to harbor motives related to “winning” your ex back through in-law relationships. Unlocking this motivation may require the help of counseling before continuing contact.

If you have children with your ex-spouse, your in-laws will continue to be their grandparents. Having a cordial relationship can ease the transition of divorce for both the children and these grandparents.

Other factors to consider include the following:

Set Ground Rules

Embrace healthy communication as a path toward healthy boundaries. Leave nothing to chance as you venture into uncharted territory.

Remember: Nothing is Permanent

Accept that the in-law issue is subject to change. You or your ex may eventually find new partners. Any member of this extended family might relocate or reconsider the difficulties of staying in touch. At any point, the entire arrangement may be called into question. This shift can be initiated by one or more people.

Be Grateful for Your Devices

Thanks to smartphones and social media, your sustained contact can feel less invasive, less judged, and less in need of explanation. This is one time social media can enhance a relationship rather than damage it.

If You’re Not Sure Where You Stand

At the point of divorce, each couple stands in its own unique place. If the split is not acrimonious, this adds even more variables.

This is why more and more divorcing couples seek couples counseling. It’s a proven way to identify and address the countless loose ends that exist during such a transition. Knowing how to proceed is made much easier when done under the guidance of a trained therapist. If you find you need help navigating the loss of your in-laws, or any other matter related to separation and divorce, consider reaching out for help.