If marriage is one of the most complex relationships, then it should be no shock that divorce is equally intricate. It is thought that somewhere between 45% and 50% first-time marriages end in a divorce; rates are even higher for second and third marriages. One person may fall out of love and in love with someone else, or both people slowly wring every emotion out of the relationship until it dries out. Every woman who has been through it knows that divorce is treacherous territory and often you realize that it is the culmination of dozens of failures over time. To paraphrase the onetime famous French actress Simone Signoret, marriage is threads, hundreds of tiny threads, which break.
The Extended Family Impact of Divorce
Those tiny threads that break apart can represent multiple relationships torn away by the chaos. Often, one of the deeply wounding realizations is that you are no longer part of your husband’s family. I know a recently divorced woman who always received an annual gift of money from her mother-in-law while married. When they first separated, she learned that her husband had forced his aged mother to promise not to send her the typical Christmas gift. The old woman wept with sadness and grief.
While there are some women who maintain close relationships with their former in-laws, it isn’t always possible to achieve. Success may depend on whether or not there are children involved, in which case you are highly motivated to keep the relationship alive. A mother might be forced to figure out a plan that preserves a grand-parent’s relationship with her children, or with her husband’s siblings and extended family, for the welfare of her family.
If no children are involved, you still might be able to preserve your relationships. The key seems to be certain interpersonal skills. While grieving, flexibility, forgiveness and the ability to see a way through the powerful changes are critical. I have a long-time friend who was completely abandoned by the father of her two girls. He left the country. For years she did not know that he had remarried and begun another family. She maintained a close relationship with his aging mother and siblings, despite the irresponsible behavior of her ex-husband, who left her in debt and embarrassed. Her attitude and tender behavior towards her children’s biological family enabled a broad open-door policy with her former mother-in-law and sisters-in-law. Today her adult daughters and grand-children are the beneficiaries of my friend’s wisdom; they still have an extended family.
Sadly, sometimes neither creativity nor flexibility enable relationships to survive. One of my favorite memories is of my mother-in-law and me rowing hopelessly on a lake in the Sierra Nevada Mountains on a blustery autumn afternoon. As we sloppily dipped our oars into the frigid blue, we made absolutely no headway against the wind-whipped waves. Our laughter skipped like a pebble across the lake and we collapsed with giggles. I loved her. She taught me things that my own mother did not know, and I shared a special relationship with her. Of course I could have continued to write and visit her. That’s the theory. But in fact, I found it far too painful to be in the vicinity of the family cabin where I had spent my honeymoon and many gorgeous vacation days. My heart couldn’t take it; I’m not naturally forgiving. The first Christmas of my separation from my husband my in-laws did send flowers, but after he moved in with his pregnant girlfriend, I heard less and less from them.
That behavior killed me and yet, I must admit that I’ve behaved severely to my own estranged sister-in-law. My brother and his wife separated after a thirty-two year marriage. While listening to and caring for my distraught brother, I realized that I needed to choose a side. Even though I know first-hand how hurtful being excluded from a family can feel, I was compelled to support my brother unquestioningly. Is this where blood is thicker than water? Am I the worst sort of hypocrite? None of it feels good, but there is no easy answer. The truth is that all these tiny threads make contested relationships nearly impossible to gracefully unhitch. Often two things can be true about a marriage at the same time, and each aggrieved partner may be right in their own way.
Some situations are so toxic that no amount of positive thinking can provide improvement. We each have to establish our own healthy boundaries. Many mothers suck it up and hold their tongues in order to create an environment where her kids can take part in an ex’s family. Most divorced parents who love their kids will not keep their children away, unless there is an issue of psychological or physical risk. One key observation: you cannot fight a rising tide. For instance, if your ex’s family has always celebrated large on Christmas on Christmas Eve and your children are used to attending, do not imagine that you will be successful dragging them off to your new boyfriend’s house instead. Try to apply creativity to form a new tradition; something that will be doable on another date or at a different time on the contested holiday.
No less awkward are the divisions of long-time friends after a divorce. People have difficulty remaining friends with both people in a divorce unless it is one of those rare, amicable separations that supposedly happen, like the “conscious un-couplings” apparently had by numerous famous couples. It seems that most behavior is grittier, and if analyzed in a brutally honest fashion, less forgiving. Unfortunately, some friends no longer fit once your post-divorce life unfolds. First of all, friends tend to take sides. Next, when you remove one member of a small tribe, the dynamics shift quickly. For instance a single woman might want to pay careful attention when spending time with couple-friends. I recall spending the night with a couple that had been one of our best friends. At morning coffee, the husband began to compare my gal pal’s working habits with mine, hinting that he wished that he had such a hard-working wife! I only had to hear these comments once and notice the pained look on my friend’s face to realize that I needed to be careful moving forward with these two.
There is no “one size fits all” solution to preserving and maintaining pre-divorce relationships with family and friends. Certain efforts will work and others may not slip together any longer. Some friends or family members may become the glue that holds as you patch your life back together. You will grieve each change, because it means that your life will never be the same, but time helps numb the pain. Time, however, doesn’t remove the scars, and no matter how many years elapse, you may still mourn what has been taken from you. If you are lucky, new friendships form and a new family may displace the one that is irretrievable now. Surviving doesn’t mean that you won’t feel hurt. It simply means that, while still missing those old relationships, you will learn how to grow in a different direction.