Going through a divorce is often a sad and stressful experience — not just for the individuals directly involved, but for other family members as well. Often, if you are the niece, nephew, or sibling of one person in a divorcing couple, it can feel like you’re on the verge of losing a long-held and close relationship with the other spouse, since those (disappointingly) often don’t withstand the end of the marriage.
Couples choose to divorce for a multitude of reasons, yet family members might interpret the decision in ways that don’t align with the reality of the situation. “There is a very negative story in our culture about divorce. Relatives may have had their own experiences of it, or they may be children of divorce. They may have heard horror stories of divorces, so they get triggered by the divorce of someone they love,” Ann Buscho, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist who specializes in family issues and divorce, tells Thrive Global. “If the divorcing couple can set aside their own feelings for the sake of the family, they might be able to develop a more balanced narrative of the breakup. They might agree that extended family members need not take sides, act as judge and jury, or try to intervene in the divorce process.”
With a more balanced narrative of the divorce, family members will be better equipped to deal with “unanticipated losses,” Buscho says. One of the biggest unexpected losses from a divorce, Buscho notes, is the fracturing of the family dynamic along bloodlines. But that doesn’t need to be the case. Communicating with openness and honesty, maintaining respect and empathy, and avoiding blame can help family members stay close without causing or experiencing unnecessary stress.
“When aunts, uncles, [or] cousins maintain a relationship with a [family member’s] ex, it can be extremely painful, even though they may have had a close relationship for years before the split,” Susan Gadoua, L.C.S.W., an author, psychotherapist, and founder of The Changing Marriage Institute, tells Thrive Global. “The worst thing family can do is try to hide their continued relationship. The best thing family can do is to tell their loved one gently but firmly that they will be maintaining contact with their ex.” If you want to stay in contact, here are a few ways to handle the situation within your family.
Make your (good) intentions clear
If you know you want to stay in contact with a family member’s former partner, it is in your best interest (and theirs!) to emphasize your intentions and the significance in maintaining a relationship. “It’s important for the family member who is divorcing to understand that people are not maintaining relationships to spite him or her. They are maintaining relationships because they are important relationships. They may have met because of the marriage, but they do not want to end the relationship because of the divorce,” Gadoua says.
Encourage open dialogue
Encouraging divorcing spouses to discuss shifts in their family dynamic is also key when maintaining relationships in the face of divorce. Busho encourages families to be honest, respect boundaries, and avoid jumping to conclusions. “Divorcing spouses should talk explicitly about how the extended family relationships will be affected by the divorce. They might ask for or give each other permission to continue relationships that are important to them, despite the divorce,” she says. “Another conversation might be about holidays, and whether there might be a way to preserve some of the most important family traditions: for example, the Thanksgiving dinner that they did together every year.” If you find yourself in a situation where your divorcing family members are reluctant to have this conversation, you can respectfully initiate it with compassionate directness in a private setting.
Perhaps most importantly, family members should avoid placing blame on one another — not only will this make for more inclusive relationships, but it will also limit stress for both sides of the family. Families don’t need to decide who was “right” and “wrong,” and they don’t need to give advice unless it’s requested, Buscho says. “Divorcing spouses will need to make this an explicit request of each other, and then, of their family members. There are always multiple perspectives of what went wrong in a marriage, and generally most of them are valid. So family can be encouraged to keep a ‘wider lens’ and not enter into a blaming conflict.” Avoiding that blame and keeping a neutral outlook can insulate you from the couple’s stress and anger, and allow you to maintain relationships with both sides. That, in turn, will make for a much happier family life post-divorce.
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