Q: I love my daughter-in-law like my own child, but she and my son are getting divorced. How can I keep her in my life after the divorce?
A: Divorce is tough on everyone, but you’ve asked the question that might get the least attention during a divorce. All too often, families feel like they have to stand behind their own blood relative, and someone who was part of the family one minute suddenly is shut out the next.
The toughest part about staying in touch with your ex-daughter-in law may be dealing with the feelings of mixed loyalties — those of your son, those of your ex-daughter-in-law, and even your own feelings. In a perfect world, the divorce would be amiable and you wouldn’t have to choose, but with the way divorces are contested, that’s often not the case. So how do you balance keeping a positive relationship with your ex-daughter-in-law when you son expects you to be loyal to him?
Here are a few tips:
— First, hard as it is, don’t take sides. Except in the case of abuse or the most egregious circumstances, both parties contribute to a marriage falling apart. We’re human; bad things sometimes happen. So avoid the temptation to say anything that might imply that you blame one person more than the other (even if you do).
— Have a thick skin. Even if you don’t pick sides, someone’s going to think you did, if for no other reason than they’re looking to project their own stresses onto you. Your son may say things that hurt your feelings, such as you’re not loyal, or you’ve always been against him, or you should support him no matter what he may have done because you’re family. A good response might be, “I know you feel that way now, but I love you as much as I always did, and I always will.”
— Set firm boundaries. Don’t allow your son or your ex-daughter-in-law to tell you what the other one did “wrong.” They will try to put you in the middle of their problems; it’s human nature. When they try, simply say, “I know you’re hurt by the divorce, but I don’t want to hear bad things about either of you. I love you both, and you’re both still family to me.”
— Attention increases behavior. When you give attention to a behavior, it happens more often, so don’t engage in conversations that you don’t want to be in. Simply say, “You know I don’t want to talk about this,” and change the subject. When they try again — and they probably will — stay consistent with your response. Eventually, the lack of attention to the behavior will make them stop trying.
— Do it for the children. It’s good for kids to have both sets of grandparents in their lives. If you need a trump card, use this one: “I’m sorry things didn’t work out for the two of you, but it’s better for the kids if they keep all of their grandparents in their lives. They need as much routine and love as they can get. I think that’s easier to do if I stay involved with both of you.”
— Be patient. Your son and ex-daughter-in-law are going through an emotional grinder (along with everyone around them). Be patient while they process what’s happening and eventually work their way to acceptance.
— Don’t expect yourself to be perfect, either. You might slip once in awhile. If you catch yourself taking sides or find yourself in conversations that you shouldn’t be in, step back, take a deep breath, apologize if it’s appropriate, and remember your ultimate goal: for everyone you love to stay in your life.
— If the parents just can’t buy into this approach, suggest family therapy. There, the family can work on ways to do what’s best for everyone while still honoring the hurt feelings and angst that come with divorce. There’s no shame in family therapy for divorcing families; in fact, I’d recommend most families meet with someone specializing in family therapy during a divorce to help with the transition to their new lives.
(Carl Grody, LISW-S, specializes in family therapy at Grody Family Counseling in Worthington, Ohio. He’s a trained group leader in the Incredible Years parenting program, and he’s the family therapy columnist for Columbus Parent magazine. For an appointment with Carl, call 614-477-5565.)