What Happens to Extended Family Relationships After Divorce?

Written by invokio1811 — November 21, 2022
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adapted from the book Combative to Collaborative: The Co-Parenting Code written by Teresa Harlow

Some people like their in-laws. Some hate them. And some simply tolerate them. When you split up, you have to face at what level the relationship with your child’s other family will survive.

If you aren’t very close or weren’t together long, it will be easy for you to disconnect from your former spouse’s extended family and vice versa. If you didn’t like each other, you may use the split as an excuse to eject them or they you from each other’s lives. If you liked your in-laws, you will be grief-stricken and may wonder if these dear family members are lost from you forever.

Or maybe your in-laws were part of your support system. They may provide you childcare, friendship, employment, or even a roof over your head. Depending on your situation, the impact on you of losing these relationships could vary significantly. But one thing we must remember is that these people are your children’s family regardless of whether you stay with the other parent or wish a relationship with the extended family members after the breakup.

Extended family can play important roles in your children’s lives. A grandparent may be a child’s cuddle buddy, fishing partner, spiritual guide, life teacher, or mentor. Aunts, uncles, and cousins serve as playmates, trusted friends, and shoulders to cry on. And of course, they too could serve as role models to your children.

If you want these relationships to survive your split with their family member, it will take intention, good communication, and consideration. Without these elements, you could end up living out one of the combative scenarios below.

Combative Approach

Denying In-laws Access to Your Children

Some parents—particularly those who harbor a lot of anger toward their ex or just don’t like their in-laws—deny extended family members contact with their children after a split. Grandparents and grandchildren become estranged from one another and miss out on this incredibly special relationship.

If you are not allowing your children to see your co-parent’s family members, stop to consider how you’d feel if your children weren’t able to see your parents or family.

If your former partner refuses to allow your family members to see your children, first look at what you can do to solve the problem on your end. Are you providing time for your kids to spend with your family when they are with you? Is your family asking because there is a special occasion? Have you asked them to honor your parenting schedule and plan events they want your children to attend during times when they are scheduled to be with you? Of course, sometimes this isn’t possible. Maybe a particular event is only available on dates the children are with the other parent. In these cases, you’ll need to appeal to your co-parent for an exception. But just as you would not want them asking you to give up your parenting time on a regular basis, don’t expect it of them.

If your co-parent is still unwilling to let your children participate in special events with your family, talk to them about it. But rather than coming at them with accusations like “Why are you so difficult?” start by assuming that the behavior is unintentional and ask your co-parent for help planning for each occasion as it comes up. Give plenty of advanced notice and provide specifics regarding the event so that they understand the circumstances you are working with. This is simply a discussion between two parents. It need not be confrontational. If your co-parent raises issues, then work to find a compromise or some other creative solution that everyone can agree to.

In-Laws Cut Off Ties with You

Some in-laws cut off ties with the parent who is no longer with their family member. In doing so, they cut off many ties to the children involved and as a result become much less involved with them. This could be because of you, or it may be that they are assuming you want nothing to do with them.

In this situation, initiate a conversation with your in-laws. Let them know that you would like to maintain a relationship with them and ask them if they would also like that. Let them know that you will make every effort to not talk about their family member so that they can relax knowing you’re not planning to put them in the middle of things with the two of you. I know this could change over time. But at least start here. If they have been hurt or feel their child has been hurt and feel the hurt was caused by you, offer an apology for their anguish. Something like, “I’m really sorry. I know this has been difficult for you. I don’t wish to cause you any pain.”

In-laws Fail to Include Your Children

Is it combative behavior for your in-laws to fail to include your children in family gatherings? I suppose it’s possible that they do this intentionally. But it could just be that they simply haven’t figured out how to navigate the new version of your relationship to them. They may not be aware of the schedule. And if you haven’t talked to them directly, they may not know where you stand or if you still want them in your lives. Your ex may not be good at communicating either to you or them, in which case plans simply don’t come to fruition.

In this case, you got it. Talk to them. Let them know the kids’ schedule and ask them to include your kids in extended family gatherings whenever possible. Also let them know that you too will try to be flexible so that the kids can participate.

Parents Fail to Put in the Effort to Sustain In-law Relationships

Some parents simply don’t put in the effort they should to ensure children’s relationships with extended family members survive the parental breakup. They don’t nurture communication between their child and the extended family. They fail to have their child recognize family members’ birthdays or allow their children to participate in special occasions with extended family even when it is during their scheduled time.

Putting Your Ex Down to Your In-laws

Do I really need to elaborate on this? I know you may want to justify your breakup or make sure that family members know it wasn’t all your fault. You may have this desire to set the record straight. While some claims made by an ex to their family may warrant your clarification or correction, this is the exception. In most cases, you are better off to avoid discussing your co-parenting relationship with their family.

 

Even if you trust your in-laws deeply, the temptation for them to share with their family member whatever you say about them may be too great. They may even view it as a family obligation to do so. Be careful not to use them to do this either. It’s not their affair. Don’t saddle them with your dirty work. If you have something to say to your co-parent, pony up and tell them yourself. If you can’t do that, maybe it shouldn’t be said.

Collaborative Approach

 There are many strategies you can employ to extend the relationship with in-laws beyond the end of your romantic relationship with their family member. There’s also a lot you can do to keep them in the lives of your children.  Here are some ideas for starters:

  • DO allow your child to see their grandparents, aunts, and uncles.

  • DO put in the effort to maintain a connection between your child and extended family members. Have your children call their grandparents regularly. Take them to visit.

  • DO talk to your in-laws to invite them to remain in your children’s lives and yours (if that is what you want).

  • DO provide your in-laws with information such as sports schedules, performances, and your child’s holiday and birthday wish lists.

  • DO invite the in-laws to your home for family gatherings with your child.

  • DO provide reasonable flexibility that allows your child to partake in gatherings and special occasions with their other parent’s family.

  • DO tell your co-parent that you would like to continue a relationship with their family. While you don’t need their permission to do this, getting their buy-in will position things more comfortably for everyone involved.

The Co-parenting Code – Extended Family Relationships

 To consider your child’s extended family relationships in the context of living by the Golden Rule—treat others the way you want to be treated—ask yourself these questions.

  • Does your child have close relationships with your co-parent’s family that they will miss if no longer there?

  • What level of connection do you expect your children to maintain with your family? Have you considered that your co-parent may want the same thing for his family and children?

  • Do you consider your in-laws to still be part of your child’s family?

  • Do your in-laws still consider the children part of their family? Are you sure?

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This post was originally posted on National Parents Organization.

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