Q&A: losing your former in-laws

Anonymous, who is a mother of two little kids and is thiiiiiis close to being completely legally divorced, writes:

"Is it strange that I really am mourning the loss of my relationship with
my Inlaws more than I am mourning the loss of any happy relationship
with my soon to be ex-spouse?"

I say no. Not at all strange.

For a lot of us who are divorced or in the process of divorce or splitting up or realizing we can't go on, there's a moment when you realize your (ex-)spouse was never really, truly, a friend to you. As much as you told yourself s/he was at the time, or wanted it to be so, you can often look back and realize the other person was at worst cruel or at best disengaged in a way a real friend wouldn't have been. But it's hard to see that when you're in it. There's a constant tug-of-war between what you want to be, and what your spouse wants to be, and it often gets really blurred and the façade and the reality intrude on each other.

But in-laws seem to be more obviously either friend or foe. Either they are truly supportive and want you to be part of the family, or they make it obvious that you don't measure up. If they've been actively hostile, losing them in a divorce can relieve a lot of stress. But if you luck into the supportive kind, it can be like losing your own family if you lose them when you split up.

I wish that former in-laws could all realize that they still need to have a relationship with the parents of their grandchildren. No matter what those parents have done or what they perceive those parents to have done (barring abusive or illegal things), they still have a connection to each other. It's better for children to have their parents and grandparents communicating and being as kind to each other as possible.

But you can't force other people to do the right thing. You can only behave yourself in a way that invites openness and care. And if your former in-laws are determined not to continue a caring relationship with you, then you need to circle your own emotional wagons and do what you need to to heal yourself while still allowing your children to enjoy their grandparents.

Any thoughts? Has anyone else felt this way about losing former in-laws? How did you make it through?

36 thoughts on “Q&A: losing your former in-laws”

  1. Great topic. On a semi-related note, I have lost my current in-laws, because DH had to cut his parents out of our lives (see what @Moxie said above about “abusive or illegal things” and draw your own conclusions). They have never met our children.I’m with you @Anonymous and agree it’s normal to feel the loss of IL-relationships. Even years later, I can relate to the feelings of loss after I ended a 4-year relationship I had with a guy. When I dumped him for cheating and other offenses, I found that I missed his folks way more than I ever missed him. That was one of about a thousand signs that getting out of the relationship was a good call! Hugs to you and your little ones.

  2. Such a timely topic for my life. I’m actually in the camp of in-laws that are/were lost… My twin brother and his wife just divorced and it has been tough for us all. My (former) sister-in-law actually said she felt like she was losing her entire family as she is much closer to us than even her own parents and siblings at this point. Thanfully, as divorces go, there’s was amicable and we’re all doing our best to be supportive. I do have to say that if there were not children involved it would be easier to have a “clean break.” We all work hard at staying positive and communicating for the sake of my niece. I find it challenging to strike a balance b/w maintaing that relationship while also respecting my brother and his need to “move on.” It’s just weird from all angles. All this to say to anonymous, I think it’s very normal to mourn the in-law relationship!

  3. It sucks and it’s a real loss so, yeah, mourning it would be natural. I’ll never understand adults who refuse to put aside their differences for five minutes to be polite in front of their children.

  4. I agree, it isn’t strange at all to mourn the loss of family – even if you manage to maintain a relationship with them, they won’t really be family in exactly the same way. My ex and I didn’t have kids, and we had a really amicable divorce, but losing his family was very strange. On the one hand it was nice that their problems weren’t my problems any more, on the other hand they were a nice alternative to my own parents and I do miss that sometimes.Maybe part of the problem is that while we negotiate the terms of our separation from our former spouse, we don’t really negotiate with the rest of their family – and maybe formalizing that might make it better. And then again, maybe not. Especially when it isn’t an amicable separation and everyone is sitting around wondering what everyone else is really thinking – either that or wishing that they would stop saying it already.

  5. By far, this was the hardest part about splitting with my ex. Almost two years later, I am still grieving about the loss of my in-law family. It was an amicable separation, but his family was so upset that we decided to stop trying at our marriage. They were *hurt* and we were hurt because they didn’t support our decision. We completely misjudged the depth of feelings the family had about our break up.In any case, holidays are especially hard. I was with my ex for 11 years and his family WAS my family (my own is kind of broken). I don’t know what kind of communication they want from me, and many of them feel like I left them behind…lots of feelings and so complex. I miss them so much.

  6. I am in the exact same boat. Near the end of the divorce (fingers crossed) and missing my ex’s family. We weren’t especially close, but they were my family for many years. And since I am the ex-DIL, there is no wish on their part to remain in contact. I don’t know how they can so easily just wipe me out of their lives, but they are loyal to their sons (have seen this same thing happen with his brothers) and to them, that means choosing him over me.

  7. When I was a child my dad left my mom for another woman. This was shortly after my mom’s mother had died fairly young, and her father had also died a few years before that. So she didn’t have her own parents anymore, and she had always had a very close relationship with my dad’s parents (had known them since she was in high school).We lived across the country from them, but that summer my mom took me and my sister out to her former in-laws for a visit, like always. I still remember sitting in my grandmother’s living room while she said to my mother, “No matter what happened with you and our son, you will always be our daughter.” It chokes me up to think of it even now, 25 years later. My mom continued a close relationship with them until they died. It’d be nice if more in laws could continue that relationship, since the person is still the parent of their grandchildren.

  8. I had a similar situation– I dated a guy for 4 years and (though we didn’t live together), we lived about an hour away from his family. I spent 1-2 weekends a month at their house, and I had a very close relationship with his mother. We got along like a house on fire.The relationship didn’t make it– we were never married, but I was closer to his mom than I am to my MIL now, just b/c we live so far from my inlaws that I don’t have much opportunity to become close. It has been 6 years but I still miss my ex-boyfriend’s mother. We didn’t stay in touch. She was wonderful and a good friend.

  9. My parents divorced after 30 years of marriage and though his parents passed away soon after, his siblings and their spouses have always made an effort to keep in touch with my mom (in this case they thought he was an idiot for leaving my mom and said he couldn’t make THEM divorce her too). It is really a nice thing for me and my sister.

  10. I’m not going through a divorce but I do want to throw out there that probably many of the in-laws are also going through their own mourning too when this happens. Especialy for folks that were married a long time before they were divorced. I love @albe’s story. I wish more could turn out like that.

  11. This makes me sad — my husband’s sister is recently divorced, and her ex was probably the family member I felt closest to, perhaps because we were the only two that weren’t a biological part of the family. I didn’t keep up with him (i.e., I dropped him from facebook), largely because it just felt wrong. Now I wish I hadn’t.

  12. My parents divorced when I was little and my mom drove us 3 or 4 hours to stay with my dad’s family a couple of times a year for my whole childhood. She is still close to her nieces (my cousins) and my dad is not because of his personality. We were just there for a family event, and my husband commented that I should thank my mom for making the effort (which I did). But I think it was important to her, too.

  13. I have a totally unique perspective to offer. My MIL is VERY close to my husband’s ex. To the point that I have met her exactly once, and she has met her grandson (my son) twice. She is extremely engaged in her other grandkids lives and in their mother’s life. I totally get that she wants to be supportive of the ex but it drives. Me. NUTS.

  14. My husband was married before and has three older children. My MIL has maintained a VERY close relationship with my husband’s ex because it was her way of staying close to the children.This is great…. except that now she refers to her as her Daughter-in-law and me as “Mike’s wife”. Nice, huh? I’m at peace with it now (11 years in and our son is 4), but it makes my husband crazy. He and his first wife had a VERY ugly divorce and he knows she wants to stay close to her grandchildren, but she doesn’t see how it effects the relationship she has with us now.

  15. I haven’t been divorced, but I’m the child of a divorce and still have a very close relationship with my paternal grandmother even though I don’t speak to my father. My parents split when I was a year old. My grandmother told my mother how important it was that we always have a relationship, and she and my mother are on good terms as well. I have always been grateful for this, and I know my mom has, too. I treasure my grandmother.

  16. My father split up with his long-time partner a couple of years ago. She is a pretty awesome lady and we (me, my sister, my mother, my father’s entire family of origin) mostly like my her better than we like my father. So she goes to my paternal grandmother’s house for family events. And my father does not. It’s weird, but whatever. If you get along with someone, whatever the circumstances, you can maintain that relationship.

  17. My husband and his brother became estranged four years ago and I terribly miss the brother’s wife. She and I became great friends and kindred spirits — I miss that friendship every day. My kids also lost their only cousins close in age and I mourn that for my children.

  18. I’m with Beth. My MIL is friendly with my husband’s ex when she sees her, but that’s it. It would be very uncomfortable for me if MIL was buddies with my husband’s ex.For some people, if the ex has acted particularly poorly, it can feel like disloyalty if family members remain close with the ex.
    Not to mention the passing of information from one side to another. I’m sure you can imagine details about your life that are none of your ex’s business. How would you feel if your parents or siblings spilled the beans to your ex over lunch?
    Politeness is a good thing, but there is also such a thing as over-involvement in my opinion.

  19. My maternal and paternal grandparents were nextdoor neighbors (that’s how my parents met), so of course, some level of civility had to be maintained for the good of teh neighborhood. But beyond that, my grandmother once had my mother over and told her she was a good mom and always would be the mother of her grandchildren.The same grandmother also shared a birthday with my aunt (who was her much younger nextdoor neighbor). Until her death, she always sent flowers to my aunt on her birthday.
    My grandmother was just that kind of lady.

  20. @Schwa — Ya know, it’s not too late to re-establish contact. If this is really someone admirable, he’ll understand “The situation was strange and I thought I was doing the right thing, but now I wish I had a way of keeping up with you.”

  21. My MIL recently joked right in front of my husband that if we ever divorce, they get to keep me in the divorce. It was funny, especially since the chance of my husband and I divorcing is .0001% to none, and they know that. But boy, that made me feel really and truly accepted as part of their family.My uncle got divorced 20 years ago, and my grandmother continued to make a point to visit with her ex-DIL every winter when she went on visits to her relatives (us, my uncle and my ex-aunt-in-law). I always thought that was a special relationship and good that it didn’t have to end. My grandmother also got along really well with my ex-aunt’s parents, and would visit them too. I wish I could have kept up some sort of relationship with her, because even though I type “ex” I still consider her Aunt so-and-so and my uncle’s second wife as simply so-and-so. If she lived closer, we might have stayed in touch.
    I think that when we accept an inlaw into our family, a lot of us do it 100%. They now ARE our family. Divorce affects all of the family, even extended family. I wish that people would always make an effort to continue some reasonable (for everyone) sort of relationship if those parties so desire. Stories like @albe’s give me hope that people can still continue the deep relationships that they develop with their inlaws. Hopefully in ways that don’t put out any new inlaw.
    Like the girl scouts say about friends: make new friends but keep the old, one is silver and the other is gold. Can’t that apply to family?

  22. I don’t think it has to be difficult for your MIL to be friendly with your husbands ex, particularly if she has grandchildren from the relationship. My husband’s father has been married three times, with children in the first two marriages. His mother, who is my son’s great grandmother has maintained fabulous relationships with all the wives. She stays with them and travels with them. She is an incredibly evolved and wise woman who nurtures the connection because these women are the mothers of her grandchildren. It sets a wonderful example I think and had she taken sides or been frosty or mean to her respective DILs then she wouldn’t have the wonderful relationships she has with her grandchildren. Its a crazy family, but it works…sometimes much better than a lot of families where people are still married.

  23. My parents actually did that part right, staying in contact with the people they liked from the other side of the family. My dad and my mom’s parents…my mom and my dad’s sisters.

  24. I don’t really mourn the loss of my mother-in-law and father-in-law (see below), but I do mourn the loss of my ex’s brothers and their wives and children. I’ve known my ex since I was 13. His little brother was my “little brother”… I put a lot of time and energy into the girls his brothers dated and eventually married… I am/was the godmother of his eldest brother’s first child. Loosing the sister-in-laws particularly hurts b/c I take it personally that they couldn’t/wouldn’t see why I got out of my marriage. I understand on an intellectual level why they had to choose family over me… but on an emotional level it still hurts almost 5 years later that I lost my two sisters/girlfriends in the divorce.I do actually have a friendly relationship with my ex MIL. We don’t hang out or anything, but when we need to talk b/c she has my kids it is always pleasant and fairly comfortable. My FIL barely speaks to me–which is okay, I guess, as I rarely see him.
    My final point is that I had great role models. My mother stayed close with my father’s (her ex’s) parents… to the extent that even while my father was alive, my mother and step-father were routinely invited to my paternal grandparents’ house (and continued to be after my father died). My mother still visits my paternal grandfather and keeps in touch with my father’s family. It made growing up–despite being in a divorced family–feel a little more traditional So, I highly recommend you do what you can to foster friendly terms.

  25. I was married for 6 years to the ex (no kids). His family is weird and quirky and I always enjoyed hanging out with them. They are a hilarious bunch.I may have a different take. I miss the ex AND his family. He isn’t a bad guy – but he was the wrong guy. And the divorce was instigated by me after a few years of marriage counseling, because I knew that there was no fixing of a truly wrong match (personality styles, backgrounds, philosophies about money, kids … oy.)
    He was really hurt by my decision. I think he had steeled himself to be in a roommates-rather-than-lovers situation. So while I would love to have kept in touch with him, he did not feel the same way. I miss him and his friendship … Just not the marriage.
    I also had been completely embraced by his circle of friends, who were all very special to me. I loved them and was close to them and always felt thy were ‘extended family.”
    Heck yeah I miss everyone. For all of the reasons above … Plus my therapist pointed out that it much easier and ‘safer’ to mourn the loss of the in-laws rather than the ex-spouse.
    It’s normal. It sucks. But if the marriage wasn’t meant to be, then it’s just part of the deal. And you may continue to miss them and you’ll think about them on occasion. Keep the good memories because they were part of those good memories, too. I wish I had written them a letter thanking them for embracing me, and telling them of my sadness at the inevitable loss of them. I think it would have been easier to let them go. We had no closure -once I told DH it was over I did not speak to them again.
    Oh, and DH and I split in 2002, so it is not recent at all.
    I had a hard time adjusting to my new in-laws, because they are so different from the first set. I have grown to love them, but it is different for sure.
    I can relate. I am now going to wipe the tears from my eyes and get to sleep. I am sad for your loss.

  26. It may feel awkward or impossible now, but it doesn’t have to be that way permanently. My parents split up amicably, more or less, after 20+ years of marriage, and while it took a couple of years for everyone to figure out the boundaries, my dad (since remarried) has maintained ties to my mom’s family, including her mother and siblings. I think it is worth the work to figure out a new way to have those relationships, but give yourself and your in-laws some time, too.

  27. My husband’s parents divorced when he was 10. His dad’s family took his mom’s side during the split and continued to invite her to family functions for a long time (until she became involved with someone else) The downside to that – his dad and his stepmom didn’t feel comfortable around the family and the end result is they have all lost contact with that side of the family tree. It’s tricky.

  28. I actually have the opposite, my BIL is recently divorced, and I would love to maintain a relationship with his ex, but she has cut off all contact. She won’t return emails, or phone calls. They have 4 chidlren together, and I fear loosing out on my nieces lives since she has primary custody.I respect her need and right for space, but I also feel like, it doesn’t have to be like this, I am fully aware that my BIL is not a prince, I just don’t feel like the split needed to be so total.

  29. Hmmm. One thing I love about my in-laws is that every child is always loved and welcomed, no matter how tightly “connected” or how he or she arrived in the family (e.g. new child of former in-law who is therefore a half-sibling of other grandchildren but not related by blood or other family ties to my parents-in-law or siblings-in-law. Did I get that right? It gets confusing, but the point is, if you’re here and related by genetics or commitment to one of us, you’re related to all of us. G-d help you.). And two, exes are always welcome as parents (including ex-step-parents) of children in the group or as prior in-laws (e.g. exDIL shows up at ex-step-MILs funeral, she’s welcome there). That’s not to say no one ever says anything ugly about anyone else when they’re not present, but to my ear it’s always in a sort of “None of us is perfect” tone not a “holier than” tone.This is probably good, as DH’s family on average divorces and remarries pretty enthusiastically; if you want to join the fun, there’s currently one available woman in my generation, but no men. But there are plenty of unattached adult kids, so don’t feel limited.

  30. My parents and one of my siblings were so ashamed of me and angry over my divorce (I ended the marriage) that they cut me out of their lives but they kept fully in contact with my ex. Many people say how wonderful it is that they have kept the relationship with their Son-IL. Problem is, they’re doing this in part to make some sort of punishment point about me and my choice. This situation is also very painful and confusing to my children. Sorry folks – maintaining a relationship with ex Son-ILs or Daughter-ILs may not always be as wonderful as it appears.

  31. I think jen has a very good point. Giving people time to get themselves clear may be useful, especially for those who have taken the track of mourning the ex-ILs as a way to safely mourn the breakup itself. Personality-wise, some people won’t be able to reconcile the old and new relationship, but there are those who will, after some time has passed. Starting it up as a new relationship in new territory, and acknowledging the potential weirdness of that territory may help for them. And if they decline even then, at the very least you have communicated the endurance of your affection, and IMHO that’s never a bad thing – even if they have no idea what to do with it.In my family, the ILs were always there for the family, or not, at the same level they seemed to have been before whatever divorce that was (seven divorces between my bio parents, 11 total between them and all the steps and extended steps). My siblings are all my siblings, and I have to think a moment to get to the ‘step’ thing. The ILs were never ones to visit much in the first place, all around, so that part was probably easier, and some of them were toxic (so the divorces were useful as ways to duck those that should be avoided).
    That carried on – one of my sibs has multiple marriages, and each of us who were friends with her exes stayed friends with her exes for the life of those friendships. None SUPER close (and no kids), so over the decades they have drifted apart – but if they showed up on our doorstep, we’d invite them in without question. I also was never super close with the only other ex (SIL), though love her dearly from the interactions we did have – and miss her, too. The simple lack of having been close means I’ve lost track of her life, but I know another sister does keep in close touch (they live closer together), and that at least keeps me from feeling like we’ve cut her off. (Though it also helps all around that my siblings never took their marriage issues to me so I can say ‘hey, your split is your business, MY friendships are my business, and we don’t talk about the marriage or the divorce’)
    I have a feel for how tricky it can be to navigate around the injuries, but if there are places that can heal, working back toward the relationship *after* they’ve had time to heal may be the best option. Still tricky, though, especially if people haven’t actually healed but instead have just patched over the wound (‘reopening old wounds’ is not a fun place to go for anyone).

  32. Wow…how very insightful. This is a very real thing–its hard to have a separation from so many people you love. Some people maintain it pretty well, though.

  33. Only 6 Comments ? !Dr. Helen ! What gives ? !Ok I leave two, First commentMy wife, just like insta-lawprof/instapundit,an impcmceable judge of manliness and what makes great husband material …… believes that alas, good men ARE in short supply.I have to agree. She ALSO opines that even good men’s libidos generally, (but not always) exceeds their charming wives. She therefore is supportive of polygamy… But not in my case.That public vow with 200 of her handselected witnesses of “forsaking all others till death us do part” with legal binding agreements with assets and future income as surety enforceable in the courts, It’s an attention getter.For those with a rotten marriage to a career jerk or jerkess, it’s a nightmare. (in the case of my 25 year career filladering soon to be EX sister-in-law, it’s a license to steal)Econ-Scott

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