Roselyn*, 44, thought she’d struck gold when she met her future mother-in-law. Carol* took Roselyn under her wing, offering her everything from a shoulder to cry on, to financial support when times were tough.
A day didn’t pass without the pair calling each other. Those chats were interspersed with long lunches where the two would discuss matters ranging from relationships to parenting. Carol offered heartfelt support without ever making Roselyn feel indebted. “I loved her for that,” Roselyn reflects.
Roselyn equally adored Bree*, her sister-in-law. Both women had their children around the same time and they became each other’s sounding board on baby-related affairs. “Once the kids were older, we were going to catch up at least once a week as ‘just the girls’,” says Roselyn. “It made me feel like, ‘Oh, this is what family’s about.’ “
But Roselyn’s dream family didn’t last. After eight years, cracks formed in her marriage and, after trying to work out their differences, she and her husband Matt* decided to part.
At first, the split was amicable. Roselyn was determined to stay friends with both Matt and his family. “I even said to him, ‘Let’s have a glass of wine and toast our separation,’ ” she recalls. While Matt was keen to stay on good terms with Roselyn – especially for the sake of their two young children, then aged three and four – it soon became apparent Carol had other ideas.
The first time the women saw each other, Roselyn knew a seismic shift had occurred. Instead of her usual warm greeting, Carol screamed at Roselyn about her “ineptitude” in front of her children. “She basically did a 180-degree turn on me and went into revenge mode immediately,” says Roselyn.
The relationship went further downhill. Whenever she could, Carol drove a wedge between Roselyn and Matt. She advised him to steer clear of his ex and also tried to turn Roselyn’s children against their mother.
“She’d say things around the kids that I think are totally out of line,” says Roselyn, “like ‘Mummy doesn’t wash your hair,’ or ‘That’s not a very nice top for your mum to give you.’
The relationship went further downhill. Whenever she could, Carol drove a wedge between Roselyn and Matt. She advised him to steer clear of his ex and also tried to turn Roselyn’s children against their mother. “She’d say things around the kids that I think are totally out of line,” says Roselyn, “like ‘Mummy doesn’t wash your hair,’ or ‘That’s not a very nice top for your mum to give you.’
Roselyn was crushed that Bree could toss their friendship aside so lightly. “In my heart of hearts, I wanted to stay friends with the whole family because I honestly loved them.”
Psychologist Janine Clarke from The Sydney ACT Centre says Roselyn’s situation is far from an isolated experience. “Changing family relationships seem to be an inevitable consequence of a marital breakdown.”
Clarke says the situation Roselyn found herself in with Bree – when an ex’s friend or family member decides to choose sides – is a common one, and that it happens because many people think it’s too hard to stay friends with both parties. In such cases, she says, people tend to side with the person they knew first.
That’s not always the case. Sometimes sides are created following a split, such as when Stella*, 54, got divorced 14 years ago. While she had hoped to continue her friendships (“I was very naive”), she was swamped by the “blatant sabotage” fed to her friends by her ex. “He went around telling everyone that I had been unfaithful to him but, because he loved me, he’d turned a blind eye,” she says.
She couldn’t believe how quickly her friends believed him and promptly turned their backs on her. “I ended up with no friends, and eventually moved town to get away from their petty slander and nastiness.”
The shattering of friendship groups is not uncommon in acrimonious splits, says Clarke. When things become really nasty, people may shun both parties. “If a choice appears necessary, or when things become uncomfortable, people generally decide not to see either one.” But that’s not the only reason friends abandon ship. Other friendships change because people don’t like confronting unpleasant situations.
“When someone passes away, people can find it difficult to know what to say or do to be helpful, so it’s the same response when someone they know is going through a divorce,” says Clarke.
She says avoiding the person altogether is a way for people to avoid having to confront uncomfortable feelings. That happened to a man she knew who told her that, after his divorce, he was treated “like a social leper” by other parents in the school yard. Those parents acted like “divorce was something awful you could catch”.
While Roselyn says she was spurned by some friends, she no longer sees that as negative. After all, she says, if a friendship doesn’t weather the storm of divorce, it wasn’t worth holding on to.
Besides, once those disposable attachments have been shed, there’s more room in your life for the people who really matter. Since her divorce, Roselyn has reconnected with her aunt and cousin, and has found that her relationships with the people who stuck around are so much stronger.
Clarke agrees that the changes in friendship dynamics post-divorce can be a hidden blessing: “I recall one woman telling me that one good thing about her divorce was that it had sorted her friends into true friends and acquaintances.”
Bridget*, 46, experienced those kinds of changes following her divorce 12 years ago. While some friendships floundered, she was surprised that others strengthened. She nominates one couple in particular: “I always believed they would choose my ex-husband’s side, as they were his friends first and foremost, but that was far from true.”
After her divorce, they stood by her and she now considers them among her closest pals. “I can call them in the middle of the night and they will be with me in a flash to help out,” she says. Bridget also suffered the loss of a few friendships following the breakup of her marriage. She was devastated when one woman she thought of “like a sister” walked out of her life.
“The minute I told her I was leaving my ex, she said, ‘Oh my god, that’s terrible.’ But the first thing she did after that was get on the phone to him.” Bridget’s then father-in-law also “dropped” her immediately. He rang her up, called her many “colourful” names and demanded she return every present he’d ever sent her. In contrast, her mother-in-law phoned her in tears, begging Bridget to stay with her son and remain part of the family.
While Maria*, 44, didn’t think her relationship with her in-laws would undergo such dramatic changes following her divorce eight years ago, she couldn’t have predicted the turn it would take.
Instead of leaving her, as their son had done, Maria’s parents-in-law supported her ferociously. Within weeks of the separation, they had moved into Maria’s house to help with her two young children as she struggled to find her feet as a newly single mother. “My father-in-law was great in taking the kids out while my mother-in-law made cups of tea and listened,” Maria says.
They also offered emotional support in the form of reassurance, constantly telling her she was doing a great job and letting her know that they wouldn’t abandon her.
“Successful relationships with ex-family members have a key feature,” says Clarke. They’re pursued because the friendships themselves matter, making them rewarding for both parties. When the “friendship” is continued because it’s aiming to serve another purpose – “such as trying to get back at the ex-partner, or keeping tabs of what the ex-partner is doing” – it’s likely to implode.
While Maria remained close to her in-laws during the turbulent period immediately following her separation, Clarke says it’s more usual for relationships to go through a period of upheaval during which friendships cool. Once the divorce dust has settled, people may then reconnect with former family members and their ex’s friends.
To maintain a harmonious relationship, Clarke says it’s important for both partners to make a conscious effort not to involve family members in the “unpleasantness” of divorce. In other words, once the foundation of the relationship has been rocked, new boundaries need to be enforced.
Maria discovered this first hand. A quasi “code of silence” ensued – Maria’s erstwhile in-laws never probed her about the complexities of the marriage breakdown, and she never tried to turn them against their son. The relationship flourished because of a fine balance between what was spoken and what remained unsaid.
Maria’s bond with her ex’s parents has changed again now her children have grown up. They still speak on the phone every few months and catch up in person when they can, but it’s not as intense.
“Our relationship is now not so much a daughter-in-law/mother-in-law relationship but an old friendship with the bond of the kids as an added benefit,” says Maria.
The presence of children in a divorce certainly adds incentive to prevent a rift between ex-family members. Melanie*, 49, credits her four children with keeping her relationship with her former partner’s family intact.
Following her divorce 10 years ago, Melanie and her ex-husband made a pact that they would always “respect and support” each other as co-parents. This allowed their relationships with each other’s families to continue. “There was no need for family members to take sides,” she says pragmatically.
Melanie was particularly keen to continue her close relationship with her then sister-in-law, who was heavily pregnant at the time of Melanie’s divorce. “I didn’t want to miss out on being an aunty to my niece and couldn’t imagine not having ongoing contact with my sister-on-law.”
That “niece” is now six and considers Melanie to be her aunt. “We might have to explain the intricacies of how we’re related when she’s a bit older, but I’m sure it will be no big deal,” says Melanie.
While the terminology for referring to former family members remains murky (is the term “ex-niece” correct?), the reason for remaining involved in their lives is clear. As Melanie says, “Family is too precious to walk away from.”
* Names have been changed.