When your lives are no longer intertwined, can you stay close to your ex's folks?
You’ve met, fallen in love, eaten more ice cream in bed than should be physically possible between two humans, and now there’s one thing left to do on the new relationship checklist: meet the family. It’s arguably the most nervy stage of a relationship and your future as a couple pretty much depends on this interaction going well. What if his mum doesn’t like you? What if it becomes brutally obvious that your other half ‘s family is painfully different to your own?
Now picture the scene: it’s months, maybe even years later. You love his family, they love you. You’ve built meaningful relationships with them, you adore their company and his friends are your friends. Then suddenly, it’s over. You split up, and those strong bonds you’ve built over time are instantly splintered.
You’re not just losing one person you love, but a group of other people more tied to your partner than to you. But is it really, truly necessary to cut ties or can you keep in touch with these people that you’ve come to know and love?
When Kat, 36, ended a six-year relationship, this was the conundrum she was faced with. “When I met my ex I was so fortunate to forge friendships with his mother and sister,” she recalls. “His mum and I would catch up for coffee a few times a week and would even arrange days away to go shopping together, while his sister quickly became one of my closest friends. We’d plan nights out together, swap clothes and WhatsApp each other most days.
I felt so lucky that I’d not only gained a boyfriend, but two great friends. Then we broke up. It was pretty amicable but I was still completely heartbroken and deeply confused about where that left my relationships with his family. It was like a double blow, breaking up with him, while not being able to properly confide in two of the people I trusted most about what I was going through. For a while it was really painful being around them because it just reminded me of my ex and I knew that as much as they loved me, first and foremost their loyalty lies with him.”
Angela*, 37, suffered a similar fate when she and her husband divorced. “When my ex-husband Dan* and I decided to separate, I naively thought my relationship with his family wouldn’t change,” she explains. “After all, we’d said our vows, his family was my family too, but from the moment we split things were different. It felt so strange that I was no longer invited to family occasions that I had been attending for years and even stranger when I’d see the pics of them all laughing and enjoying each other’s company online.
“I lost my father as a teenager so in a way his dad had become a bit of a father figure for me. I’d always consult him when I needed practical advice but without Dan as our middle man I wasn’t sure I could even talk to him anymore.”
The stereotypical in-law relationship may be adversary and point-scoring (like the overbearing mother-in-the-law or the overprotective Dad, for example), but as Kat and Angela’s stories illustrate, it’s clear that lots of people have loving, meaningful relationships with their spouse or partner’s family.
Far from wanting to see the back of your in-laws after a split, it’s normal to feel heartbroken at the possible demise of these relationships and to wonder optimistically if you can still remain a part of each other’s lives. So what are the rules? Is it ever possible to lose your other half, but keep their family and the ties you’ve built with them?
Psychotherapist Trish Murphy reckons it is possible in some cases but you need to tread very carefully indeed. “It may be likely that the feeling is mutual and they are suffering the loss of no longer having you in their lives too. In this case, of course it is possible to keep in contact and maintain a relationship with them but this might be very difficult if you want to have no actual contact with your partner.”
Before you consider picking up where you and your ex’s family left off, it’s good to remember that time’s a great healer, so give everyone, including yourself, the space they need to come to terms with the breakup before making a move to rekindle any of those relationships.
“The best option,” Trish advises, “is to wait until after a reasonable recovery time, then speak with your former partner and ask if they would support you having a relationship with their family. If they say no, it is best to honour that, keeping in mind that there may be opportunities to rekindle the contact over the time.”
It can be much more complicated if kids are involved – after all, you don’t really have a choice about keeping your former partner and their family in your life if there are smallies in the picture. But again, it all has to be treated with the utmost respect because maintaining a relationship with the other branch of your child’s family isn’t just important, it’s essential.
If all goes to plan and you get to keep those wonderful people in your life post-split after all? Great, but you’ll need to consider some boundaries. First and foremost, remember that the primary relationship is between your ex and their family and supersedes all else. “This needs to be honoured and understood by everyone,” Trish explains.
“So no bad mouthing your ex to their family and they should also not speak badly of them to you. This will allow everyone to keep a relationship that does not involve secrets and behind-the- back conversations.” And if you’re still meeting with your ex’s family socially? “The best way to navigate this is honesty; it’s best that this is known by everyone.” Angela had to learn to accept that her relationship with her in-laws had changed.
“It wasn’t easy but I learned to get on with it. There’s no bad blood, we just don’t spend time together socially anymore. Sometimes I’ll run into Dan’s family when I’m out and about and we’ll exchange pleasantries but it doesn’t go too far beyond that. I know that we can all be civil to one another and that there’s no bad mouthing going on and that’s good enough for me.”
Meanwhile, Kat eventually found a way of navigating a relationship with her ex’s family. “It’s not the same as it was before, but maybe in some ways that’s a good thing. About once a month, I meet his mum for brunch to catch up and I still go on nights out with his sister every now and again, with the caveat that he isn’t the main topic of conversation. I think if you truly want to maintain a relationship with your ex’s family or friends you need to give yourself time for the wounds to heal. Set some boundaries and reconnect after everyone has had time to get over the breakup.”