THE BLOG
06/27/2007 06:26 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Is the Ex an Outlaw to Your Family?

I never thought I could relate to Angelina Jolie, but suddenly I have an opportunity.

Because I too have a mother-in-law who is friendly with my husband's ex-wife.

The truth is that when people divorce, little thought is given to the fact that it is not only the husband and wife who are enduring loss but also their extended families. This was highlighted this month when Brad Pitt's mother Jane was photographed visiting her ex-daughter in law Jennifer Aniston. The tabloids tittered with delight at the thought of Angelina Jolie morphing into a real-life Lara Croft and throwing daggers at her mother-in-law. But in fact, Angelina Jolie, like millions of us faced with this situation, had to choose whether to turn this emotional brushfire into raging jealousy and diva moment or douse those urges with reason and sensitivity.

Considering that the number of divorced Americans rose from 4.3 million in 1970 to 18.3 million in 1996 and that very few studies have examined how divorce affects the continuation of relationships with the relatives by marriage, most people wing it. According to a study in the Journal of Marriage and the Family, sponsored by the National Council of Family Relations, only 11 percent of ex-spouses have a continued good relationship with each other's parents. And those low statistics are the ones presumably with kids.

What interested some regarding Mama Pitt's visit to Jennifer Aniston is that there was no lure of the grandchild, no goo gah goo moment, which is often the thread that ties families together, however frayed and weakened.

But it is naïve to think that children are the only lingering connection. Ties are formed after spending years of intimate holiday celebrations, ranging from passing the turkey gravy to washing dishes on Christmas morning or simply talking on the phone for a weekly chat and commenting on the way someone may leave their socks on the floor.

As Dr. Allison Bell, a New York psychologist, puts it, "the people surrounding the divorcing couple make many assumptions about how they are supposed to behave, often based on ideas about loyalty. It is frequently the case that in-laws feel polarized to side with their child and to banish the other spouse from their lives, partly because we all believe that someone's the bad guy and someone's the good guy in a divorce. But people have become more modern in their approach to divorce."

By modern, she means, implementing lots of communication as in -- "Brad darling, I understand that people break-up but I don't' want to lose my relationship with Jennifer because I have loved her for seven years and still love her. Can you be okay with my continuing a relationship with her?"

Bell and other psychologists stress the importance of these dialogues as a blueprint for the entire extended family -- including parents and siblings and their spouses -- especially for those who are left and need a support system.

In the same way we help strangers from the trauma of tsunamis, one should rescue a loved one whose life has been ripped our from under them.

However, it does become tricky when the more injured party wants to talk about the ex to his or her family. My girlfriend never forgave her sister-in-law for taking a neutral stand on her divorce. "Divorce shatters your stability," Rebecca told me.

All of the existing relationships you had shift and are up for reexamination. My sister-in-law lined up with my husband's family. I would ask her if she heard anything about John and his new girlfriend and she would say, "I don't want to get into the middle of this. You have to get on with your life." And I felt like screaming through the phone and yelling, "This was my life for 20 years. What life would you like me to get on with??!!"

After seeing several therapists, Rebecca now observes that family members can't be totally neutral. Her sister-in-law should have validated the pain and shock and weathered the questions in a respectful manner, without completely trashing her ex-husband. "She should have allowed me to reestablish the rhythm of my life and just call once a week to see how I was," she said. "I not only lost my husband but people who I thought were my family too. Now because I'm happy and thriving she wants us to be friends but I never will call her again." In fact, many families just wait for the storms to blow over before resuming contact to avoid the messiness that is stirred by divorce. But sensitive souls should reach out. It always is appreciated.

One friend told me how after he got divorced, he started "cheating" on his ex by seeing her Aunt Sophie behind her back. "We were sworn to secrecy and would meet in way out of the way bars and restaurants because we both missed each other so much," h e said. "Finally, it had to end when my ex found out and laid down the law." But new "laws," through more open discussions about the changing rules of divorce, allows continued connections, post break-up.

For me, I wasn't the source of my husband's break-up and met him four years after his divorce. Yet I still remember the awkward feeling when my mother-in-law visited and asked to see his ex's new house nearby. Anger flashed through me like lightening until my husband, noticing my discomfort, pulled me aside and reminded me that my mother-in-law had known his ex for 10 years. "My mother can have a relationship with her and with you," he consoled. "There is nothing to be jealous about because I love you and am with you. And my family will love you as much as I do."

Now 13 years later, my husband's ex is invited to holiday events and family celebrations. But I am convinced that the initial hurdles laid the groundwork for a truly blended family. As Divorce Magazine advises, family members should encourage friendly divorces and ask loved ones to respect the history accumulated between the couple. The divorcing couple should break the news gently and set limits on how much information is shared and let family members know how they can help.

Of course, this is easier said than done. Angelina Jolie may be starring in a movie called A Mighty Heart, but in real life it requires one to navigate divorce and family relationships.

If you have stories to tell that I can use for a book and my TV segments, please also email me at jbrooke161 at aol.com