When inlaws become outlaws: strategies and semantics

For some separating couples, the prospect of no more Sunday dinners at the inlaws is almost enough to make up for the pain of separation.

Not so for the lucky ones among us who count the family we partnered into as friends. Harper Lee could have been talking about ex inlaws in this passage from To kill a mockingbird:

‘Atticus says you can choose your friends but you sho’ can’t choose your family, an’ they’re still kin to you no matter whether you acknowledge ’em or not, and it makes you look right silly when you don’t.’

Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird, in-laws | See more at www.diywoman.net

It’s unrealistic to assume relationships with inlaws will be unaffected by your change of circumstances after separation.

Loyalties are divided, friendships are stretched. Evelyn Lewin details the diversity of possible outcomes for inlaws affected by divorce in her article ‘The EX files’.

Her case studies demonstrate a range of possible reactions from families on both sides of a relationship breakdown. Throwing children into the mix adds to the complexity of the situation, but equally increases the investment in making it work.

It is possible to retain close friendships with your ex inlaws.

You just need to tread carefully and avoid as many toes as possible.

  • Try not to expect your extended family to take sides. The old adage ‘if you’re not with me, you’re against me’ is extremely unhelpful, and can cause rifts that never heal.
  • Your parents may have formed a strong attachment to your ex-partner and may wish to continue a relationship with him. After all, if you have children he is the father of their grandchildren. This may take time and tact on everyone’s side. That first Christmas when they insist on inviting him to the family celebration can be excruciating. Comfort yourself with the thought that it’s unlikely to be repeated.
  • Equally, you may consider your ex inlaws to be family. This is often the case when your children and their cousins have formed strong ties. Don’t get too hung up about your new role in their lives. I sign off my Christmas cards to my ex-niece and nephew with ‘your favourite ex-auntie’. Their mother – my ex-sister-in-law – is one of my dearest friends. Nothing’s changed.

Domestic arrangements in the early stages of separation vary widely.

Leo Tolstoy got it right in the opening sentence of Anna Karenina:

All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

Leo Tolstoy, opening line, Anna Karenina, inlaws, families | See more at www.diywoman.net

When her husband left her for another woman in another country, a friend moved herself and her four children into her mother-in-law’s house. In later years, her mother-in-law would refer to her errant son as ‘that man you used to live with’. To paraphrase Tolstoy, all inlaws will adapt in their own way. Do whatever works for you.


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