Divorce is messy and complicated for everyone in the family it touches. Figuring out a new normal for you and your kids is part of the process of grieving the loss of family as you knew it, and everyone sacrifices. Keeping family connections is best, but it may have to look different, and change with time.

By Emily Edlynn, Ph.D.
April 14, 2021
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An image of a man and woman arguing and the shadows of their children in the background.
Credit: Illustration: Kailey Whitman.

Divorce clearly involves layers of complicated relationships and emotions, but I think you bring up an important one that is not often discussed. An ex-spouse's family is also your children's family always and forever, which makes them your family too. However, as you are experiencing, not everyone will agree on how to navigate this relationship. For you, it sounds like losing his family would be painful, on top of the loss of the marriage and family you have known for a decade.

Understand Grief and Loss

Although we often think of grief as a response to the death of a loved one, it takes many forms in daily life. Divorce represents a significant loss, which means a grieving process. No matter how mutual and amicable the divorce decision may be, there is a loss of the life you have built and the loss of the future you had envisioned. This is important to consider because everyone grieves differently, which can translate into confusing behaviors. It may be that your ex-husband feels compelled to keep his family close and connected, which means to him they cannot also be close and connected with you. At least, for now.

This decision, however, simultaneously complicates your grief. It sounds like those relationships are an important part of your life, and likely your support network to manage this huge life change. It is possible these relationships represent to you staying connected to valuable parts of your married life together. Staying close to your in-laws also may feel like an important way to maintain the greater sense of "family" for your children.

Allow Time

To answer your question, you are not being unreasonable. But neither is he. Both of you have valid wishes, but they are incompatible. As much as I agree that it is ultimately better for your children to have you close and connected with your in-laws, I also wonder if your ex needs these relationships to stay "his" as part of the healing process.

Would it be possible to set a time frame of a few months to respect his wishes, but open the door to revisit the issue when time performs its magical powers? Since you describe the divorce as mostly "on good terms," he may just need this time. If this cutoff feels temporary, that might help you respect his wishes and experience this as part of the process instead of a forever loss.

A Divorce Lawyer Weighs In

"A former spouse does not have any legal right to 'bar' a person from contacting his or her family, unless the contact described is a form of harassment, and the family asks for a no-contact order or order of protection," says Amanda Laird Creegan, Esq., a partner at Rabin Schumann and Partners LLP, a New York-based matrimonial and family law firm.

Creegan says that in her experience, many parents, in the interest of co-parenting, want their former spouse to continue relationships with their extended family but with boundaries.  "Understanding and respecting a former spouse's wishes will definitely help the co-parenting relationship; however, it is not unreasonable to request some contact and setting boundaries that both parties are comfortable with," she adds.

"One important factor of the 'best interests' standard for children is continuity," says Creegan. "If spending time with extended family was a normal circumstance in their life, it may be in the best interests of the child(ren) to maintain continuity of contact when they are with either parent.  It also shows that there is still love and respect between the families and helps with co-parenting." 

How to Explain This to Your Kids

As much as we can be the most emotionally mature and well-meaning parents in protecting our children from the adult pain of divorce, they listen, watch, and absorb. So, even as it is not appropriate to share every detail from our adult experience, it is just as important to share something. In your situation of managing the conflict around your relationship with your in-laws, if your children are asking questions, they are ready for answers.

Obviously, the hard part comes with how to answer. Especially when you are experiencing strong emotions. A few tips:

  • Manage your distress first. Unload to a friend, seek out therapy, write in a journal, or go for a run; whatever it takes to release strong emotion before you sit down and talk to your children about this issue.
  • Let them lead with their questions so you do not mistakenly give them more information than they really want!
  • Stay as neutral as possible, keeping in mind their relationship with their father. Honest and simple is best; for example, "Your Dad and I are trying to figure out this new normal. Part of that is how we spend time together as a family, like with your grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. We have different ideas that we need to figure out. I love all of them so much, and they are important to me, but I may not be able to be with them right now like we are all used to."
  • If they ask a question you do not feel prepared to answer, say that. It's completely acceptable to respond with "I don't know" or "I'm not sure yet."

Ideally, you and your ex-husband can be a united front so your children do not hear mixed messages. If possible, talk with him beforehand so you are both comfortable with the content and no one gets surprised. He should then be prepared for his own conversation with them, since they may have their own questions for why these extended family relationships are changing.

The Bottom Line

Divorce affects so many people besides the two making the decision. Although the focus is often on figuring out the "how" of two people being divorced instead of married, all relationships connected to the marriage need re-configuring too. Divorce shakes up everyone's sense of normal, and it takes a lot of work and time for the dust to settle into a comfortable new normal. Being patient with your ex while expressing what's important to you will hopefully move you all into a new normal where everyone feels like family over time, because that's what you are.

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Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., is the author of The Art and Science of Mom parenting blog and a mother of three from Oak Park, Illinois. She is a clinical psychologist in private practice who specializes in working with children and adolescents.