Divorce may be an event between two spouses but the ending of that relationship causes ripples throughout the extended family. Some relationships will be lost, some will continue and some may be revived.
My current guest, Candi was married for thirty-five years. Her family was very supportive of her divorce and since she was never close to her in-laws, the divorce had little impact on those relationships. Here’s Candi:
We married so young. I had just turned 19, he had just turned 22 and we married quickly within a year of meeting. From the time we decided to get married until we divorced, my family was never very happy with him, my friends never really liked him and of course, all of them, his family and my family and friends told us, “Don’t get married. Wait, you’re too young. It won’t mean that you’re not right for each other.”
Of course we didn’t listen. Young kids never do. And they were right. They were absolutely right.
Throughout the marriage, I did not tell my family or my friends what was going on, because I felt like unless I was in the position to leave and not put up with it anymore, I had no right to complain about it. Most of what happened throughout my marriage, my friends and family didn’t know until after I left and started telling them. Then, it was like vomiting out all of this stuff, “… and this happened and this happened and this happened,” but they all knew that it was not a happy marriage.
They just did not know why. They didn’t know what was going on. They were all amazed that I never said anything for all these years and every single one, except one of my brothers, every single one of them was very happy for me.
He’s come around to it now. At first he just felt really sorry for my ex. I guess he’s just kind of old-fashioned and he thought—he didn’t know all that was going on either, but he felt, “Gosh, you guys have been together so long, how could you leave?” I didn’t tell him everything that had happened, but I told my sister-in-law and she told him. So, now he’s come around to it.
Everybody else was very supportive. I have a great support system in my family and friends.
I have four half brothers. My mother and father were never married, but she married my stepfather when I was very young and they’re all his, but they have never had a happy marriage. That’s what my brother grew up seeing and for him, he himself has a happy marriage, but I think that because he grew up seeing that and they’re still together to this day—they’ve been married for 51 years, to him that’s okay.
I don’t know. He’s an odd one. I think men just look at it differently too. Now that he has found out a lot of the stuff that I went through, he’s very supportive. He comes over, he helps me with stuff around here and he helps me with my car.
Two of my siblings live in California, so they don’t have any contact with my ex anyway. Two of them live here. The one still talks to him, because my husband will call my brother and talk to him about stuff. The other brother that lives here, they have never liked each other, so they never talk and there’s no relationship there whatsoever.
My ex has got two brothers and two sisters. He did not have a good relationship with any of them and I did not either. They’re an extremely dysfunctional family. Every last one of them has got more problems than you could carry around in a wagon. So, he is not close to his family. None of them live here.
We were both born and raised in New York and that’s where we got married and we left New York and moved to California shortly after we were married. So, from that time on we have never lived in close proximity to his family. We briefly moved back to New York and at that time, we lived by them, but we didn’t see them very often.
The only person he ever really got along with well was his stepfather. Then, his stepdad died a few years ago from cancer. I’m sure that has a lot to do with the way he is. He grew up in a very dysfunctional family, but the way I look at it is, you can accept that and say, “Okay, I understand why I am the way I am,” but you can’t continue to blame the way you are on that.
You’ve got to change or get help or move on. You can’t remain a dysfunctional person yourself and refuse to do anything about it and just, “Well, that’s the way I grew up. Look at the way I grew up. That’s why I’m this way.” I don’t think that’s right. And that’s the way he is. Keeping quiet about what’s really go on inside your marriage is not uncommon. It may come in part from a belief that what happens inside a marriage is between spouses. It can also come from a fear that being open with others about your challenges may change the relationship you have with them or make family events awkward. It can also come, as Candi says, an acceptance that you made the choice to get married, and that you need to make the marriage work, that divorce is not an option. Opening up and sharing what’s really been going on takes courage because it makes you vulnerable and it hurts when family members don’t support you.
There are a number of reasons why family members may not be supportive.
The first is thinking that divorce means having to align along blood lines. I don’t believe this is a given and it really depends on individual circumstances. When you have established friendships with in-laws that are genuine and supportive, there is no reason why your divorce should bring these to an end.
Another is that they are judging you but remember, a person can only judge you when you accept the judgment. If they’re trying to judge you, they are not being supportive, they are not a true friend and that means it’s time to reassess your relationship. With family members you may still have to come in contact with them but you can keep them at arm’s length and be careful about the information you share.
A third reason is that their behavior is about what’s going on in their life. It could be that they are experiencing something similar to you and are afraid that if they talk to you about your situation, they’ll end up talking about their own situation. This is not something you can do anything about. You can reach out to them, be compassionate but if they’re not able to support you, you’ll need to accept them distancing themselves.
Try having a conversation with the family members with whom you want to stay connected. Tell them you value their friendship, that you’re not expecting them to take sides and that you’d like your friendship to continue. And don’t give up … sometimes people need a little time and distance.
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