THE BLOG

Whose Divorce Is It Anyway? Divorcing Your Spouse May Require Setting Boundaries For Your Parents

09/15/2011 01:29 am ET | Updated Nov 12, 2011

Several years ago, I was retained to represent "Joey", a 35-year-old gym teacher who had recently been served with divorce papers. When he arrived for the first office appointment, Joey brought his mother and readily waived confidentiality so that Mom could participate in the conference. For the next hour, I asked Joey numerous questions and Joey's mom responded to my questions by telling me all about her lazy and undeserving daughter-in-law. At one point, in an effort to plead her case, Joey's mom turned to her son and cried, "Tell her, tell her how 'Susie' hasn't even had sex with you in over two years! What kind of a wife is that for my son?" Much to my dismay, Joey simply smiled and allowed his mom to overstep her parental boundaries at the commencement of the divorce case.

Recently, I was reminded of Joey's mom during my representation of the husband in a high conflict divorce case which was pending for almost two years. Starting with the first settlement conference, "Janice", my client's wife, brought her father to every court appearance, every mediation session and every office appointment with her own attorney. (I know this from reviewing her attorney's bill as part of the discovery process). In court, when Janice's father was ordered to leave the courtroom at my request, he glared at my client and openly called him a coward for denying his father-in-law the opportunity to hear the testimony. When I asked my client about the various reasons for the failure of his marriage, it was no surprise when he offered the top reason on his list, "My father-in-law."

Having practiced family law for almost thirty years, I have observed firsthand that, much like a marriage, a divorce is quite often a family affair in which extended family members become actively involved in the proceeding. In the majority of cases, the parents of a son or daughter who is getting divorced provide their adult child with emotional support which is loving, appropriate and productive. Additionally, in a tough economy where divorces often arise after a foreclosure or job loss, the parents of a divorcing spouse are often a major resource for the payment of attorney's fees, temporary housing or temporary child care. When the parents and their adult child set appropriate boundaries for the parents' involvement in the divorce, the divorcing party is fortunate to enjoy the benefits of this valuable support system.

In other cases, when divorcing adults afford their own parents unfettered access to and control of the case, they create unnecessary conflict while stunting their own personal growth. As Karl Marx observed, "The road to Hell is paved with good intentions." If given the opportunity, an otherwise loving, supportive parent who despised their "miserable" son or daughter-in-law throughout the marriage will gladly jump into the fray by openly berating the soon-to-be ex-spouse. For the divorce attorney who is trying to minimize fees and obtain an equitable and amicable settlement, it can take months to undo this unnecessary escalation of conflict. More importantly, whether a party has been married for three years or thirty years, a critical component of the divorce process involves establishing one's post-separation independence from their spouse. If you trade dependency on a controlling spouse for dependency on a parent who is treating you like you're back in high school, you're probably a long way from obtaining the desired benefits of your divorce filing.

If you remain unconvinced of my plea for parental boundaries in the divorce process, please heed this final word of caution from an experienced divorce attorney: Every once in awhile, a client in even the most acrimonious divorce case will surprise me with a phone call announcing a full reconciliation and a request to dismiss their case. If you and your spouse decide to kiss and make up but you've allowed your parents to spew hatred for the past few months, don't be surprised if your husband or wife decides to snub your parents at the next Thanksgiving dinner.