Divorced couples with children will be a family forever. Only their marital status and their living situations will change. When I remind my clients of this, I usually offer up scenarios where they’ll be together as a family: graduations, birthdays, weddings, holidays, or school performances. And I reinforce that being civil with one another during the divorce process is a pretty good indicator of positive interactions down the road.

It stands to reason, therefore, that the in-laws will factor into scenarios regarding not only events, but also day-to-day occurrences.  Sometimes it’s a revelation that divorcing couples are also divorcing their entire extended families. And sometimes misplaced loyalty finds its way to the children with the potential for subsequent adverse effects.

A pretty accurate predictor is the type of relationship that existed prior to the divorce. Did Justin call his in-laws “Mom” and “Dad?” Or did he call them anything at all? Did Rachel have more than a surface-level relationship with her brother-in-law, Jason? Or with her husband’s sister, Jessica? Did Justin’s in-laws respect him, or did they think he was a loser? Has Rachel even seen or spoken with Jason or Jessica since the separation?

How can divorced couples co-exist with their former in-laws?

One suggestion I have is for the divorcing couple to develop the characteristics of a turtle: retreating into one’s shell when necessary. But a better suggestion is that the couple and their respective families make an attempt to establish a few ground rules for moving forward.

Here are some constructive examples:

Encourage your parents and siblings to be Switzerland; try not to take sides about issues that don’t directly concern them.
Set limits as to what information you pass on to your own family.
Insist that there be no badmouthing of your ex in front of you, and most emphatically, never in front of your kids.
Remind everyone that they can be, at the very least, civil.  Better yet, they can be congenial and you won’t see it as betrayal.
Be patient. It will take time for your extended families to adjust to your “uncoupling.”
Remember that there are no victims here. Insist that you not be treated as one.

Frequently, I add language to my Mediated Settlement Agreements referencing the ground rules divorcing couples make with respect to their extended families. And even post-divorce, if co-existing with the in-laws remains problematic, and if the kids are being put in the middle, maybe one session with a qualified Mediator will be enough to work through the situation. 

In-laws don’t have to be outlaws after divorce.  While it’s inevitable that extended family relationships are likely to change, taking the high road and setting a respectful example in front of the kids will benefit everyone in the long run.  If you think your father-in-law is more Billy the Kid and less Billy Graham, maybe you could anonymously send him the link to this article.  I’d be happy to do it for you!