Letting go of the in-laws can be more difficult than divorce

  • Article by: JENNIFFER WEIGEL CHICAGO TRIBUNE
  • Updated: August 10, 2014 - 2:00 PM

It can be difficult, but not impossible, to maintain ties to your ex’s family.

300 dpi Eric Hibbeler illustration of a silhouetted man and woman, back to back, on a torn piece of paper, with the tear breaking apart a heart that both images share; can be used with stories about divorce, broken relationships, etc. The Kansas City Star 2012

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A divorce may separate a couple, but it doesn’t necessarily extend to in-laws. And this, in turn, leads to tricky situations. What do you do when your family is in love with your former spouse? Or you’re in love with your former in-laws? How does everybody establish boundaries while still keeping the peace and moving forward?

Although it’s not always easy to maintain or sever ties, it’s worth the effort to assess your situation and find the best solution for everyone involved. In many ways, it’s easier to accomplish today than it was in earlier generations.

“I was a product of a divorce in the ’80s, and any time my parents and extended family were in the room, it was so uncomfortable,” said Linda Perry, a divorce consultant and author of the e-book on mediation “A Clearer Path: The Divorce Consultants Complete Guide to Divorce.” “But today, my kids — who are products of divorce — find it incredibly easy to be in the same room with my former in-laws and me because my ex and I set the foundation that (it’s) OK for everybody to get along.”

Perry said that unless there has been a history of physical or emotional abuse in the marriage, making it important to limit or end personal connections, having a friendly relationship with your ex and his or her family can be beneficial, especially if children are involved.

“In divorce, you don’t only lose a partner, you lose an entire side of the family,” Perry said. “The old way of doing things was to declare war, but today it’s about finding new ways of communicating.”

Technology makes it easier to stay in touch now than it used to be, said Stacy Kaiser, a licensed psychotherapist and author of “How to Be a Grown Up: The Ten Secret Skills Everyone Needs to Know.”

“The old-school way was (that) all ties were severed during a divorce and your ally was your blood relative,” she said. “Nowadays, there’s email and texting. You can be in peripheral touch.”

Social media offers another option.

“With Facebook, you can keep those former in-laws in the loop with pictures, but it’s not intrusive or hurtful,” Kaiser said. “The best practice is to try and find a balance between taking care of what you need and being considerate of everyone else’s feelings.”

Be mindful of feelings

If you and your former in-laws are still lovey-dovey, be sensitive to your ex’s feelings; a divorced spouse watching from the sidelines as his or her parents continue a close relationship with an ex can be mildly annoyed to highly exasperated. If you’re the frustrated party, talk to your own family first.

“My mom stayed close to my ex-husband for a while, and she would call him and invite him to things all the time, and finally, I had to say, ‘Please check with me first,’ ” Perry said. “Enforce it gently — there’s no need to be defensive. Just say, ‘This is a sensitive issue for me, and it’s OK to include him from time to time, but I need to be sure that it’s something I’m comfortable with.’

“And you may have to enforce that boundary over and over. It really takes time for them to get used to it because divorce is hard on them, too.”

Kaiser agrees that being specific is the best way to set those boundaries.

“You have to think of every scenario that might come up and see what you would be comfortable with, and then relate that to your family,” Kaiser said. “If your ex has a birthday party, are you OK with your parents going? You can make ground rules that say, ‘I’m OK with you having a relationship with my ex, but it would really bother me if you, (say), called him regularly or attended a big event without telling me.’ Be very clear so there are no hurt feelings.”

Connecting with “ex-laws” on pre-determined dates can defuse potential jealousy or resentment from all parties. Perry, who is also an integrated life coach, has worked with many couples to establish a schedule, either with a mediator or through a counselor, to address time spent with former in-laws.

“I had a couple set things up in mediation, and it avoided so many problems,” Perry said. “They talked about when the grandparents will see the kids and what the holidays would look like. It helped lay the groundwork for how things would go for all of them, and the extended family had to follow suit.”

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