When your child goes through a divorce, you certainly wish to express loyalty and support to your own flesh and blood. But what if you have enjoyed a rich, mutually supportive bond with your child's spouse over many years? Should you be expected to give this relationship up?
There is no clear-cut answer: the camps will be divided as to the proper protocol. And certainly, the way the parties address this sticky issue will dictate how the relationships evolve going forward.
You are now placed in the unenviable position of navigating a totally different relationship with the very person you may have treated like a son or daughter. You must walk the fine line of deciding whether to maintain this bond when it could potentially alienate your son or daughter. The dynamics become further complicated when there are grandchildren involved: this person may the gatekeeper to your relationship with the young people.
When there is no contact, there is no way for your child's spouse to know what you are truly feeling. It is not uncommon for them to misread your silence as disinterest, or callous insensitivity, when in fact, the opposite might be the true explanation. You may actually be heartsick that you are not in touch.
A straightforward conversation with your son or daughter to address all feelings about maintaining contact with their ex-spouse is vitally important. The purpose is to initiate a clarification of everyone's views of family relationships going forward. The outcome is often determined by the circumstances and the emotional maturity and comfort level of the individuals involved. Depending on which spouse may have initiated the break up, there may be resultant hurts and sensitivities. Your child will probably be seeking reassurance of your loyalty and concern. Asking for help in setting boundaries to clarify off-limit discussions or activities is a considerate sign of respect for their feelings.
What do you do if your child is adamant they don't want you to have any contact with their ex-spouse? The answer is obviously loaded and not without consequence. There may tremendous angst if you are asked to choose sides. No one likes his hands to be tied.
You will have to sort through the discomfort of being asked to adjust to expectations that put you in a position of potentially behaving in a way that feels unnatural.
There are those of you who will be inclined to say: " I've had my own relationship with your spouse for many years. You're not going to tell me who I can be friends with." This conflict oftentimes comes up with siblings, as well, who have enjoyed the camaraderie of sisters or brothers in-law whom they have considered dear friends, rather than relatives.
And then there will be those who say, "Blood is thicker than water. I have no choice but to side with my family. I will sever ties to avoid complications going forward."
Each choice may bring a heavy heart.
When couples divorce, there may be discomfort they are being judged or blamed for letting others down. If your child has been deeply hurt and believes they've been treated egregiously, there may be hostility if there is any sense you wish to maintain a close tie. Even if the breakup was civil, some individuals are so insecure and mistrustful they can't tolerate their family members having a separate relationship with their ex-spouse. They may feel threatened this continued tie somehow diminishes their own relationships. If they lash out with resentment or make immature demands, it's probably a sign they are hurting and need an additional dose of reassurance and support.
Emotions are frayed on all fronts, so there may be a tendency for all parties to be defensive or thin skinned. You may have many opinions about how your children handled the marriage. However, the complicated reasons for why the marriage unraveled are for them to decide, unless they approach you for input. You should restrain from critical comments, or unsolicited advice, and especially avoid negative comments about the ex in-law. What's the point of telling your daughter that you never thought her husband would amount to much, or your son that you thought his wife was self-absorbed and a terrible housekeeper? There's a good chance your negative comments could come back to bite you. Many separating couples seriously consider reconciliation.
Even if you have been given the green light to proceed as you wish, you may feel awkward, believing you don't know the right words to say; or that saying the wrong thing might make things worse. You may become so intimidated by tough topics you avoid the conversations at all costs.
What you may not realize is that you don't have to know specifically what to say. Reaching out is a statement of caring and support at a difficult time. All that matters is giving your loved one a hug and letting them know that you have valued the relationship, even if none of you know what lies ahead.
Linda Lipshutz, M.S., LCSW is a psychotherapist serving individuals, couples and families. A Palm Beach Gardens resident, she holds degrees from Cornell and Columbia and trained at the Ackerman Institute for Family Therapy in Manhattan. She can be reached in her Gardens office at 561 630 2827, or online at www.palmbeachfamilytherapy.com.
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