When Melody Brooke, 57, of Richardson, Texas, divorced her husband 30 years ago, she didn’t just lose her spouse, she also lost her best friend: her mother-in-law. "She stopped calling and stopped talking to me," she says. "She stopped supporting me in any way."
The sudden absence of her mother-in-law wasn’t exactly a surprise since the divorce had been Brooke's idea. Even then, Brooke, who is also a family therapist, understood how hard it must have been for her mother-in-law to stay close to her when her loyalties were with her son. "It’s really hard to make that shift especially when you need to be there for your child," she says. "I understood it, but it still hurt." Over time, Brooke and former mother-in-law became friendly again, but were never as close as they were.
Divorce isn’t easy on anyone in the family, and grandparents are no exception. The hurt feelings, sadness and anger that erupt can threaten—and potentially destroy—even the most harmonious and loving family relationships.
Put Hurt Feelings Aside After the Breakup
But staying in touch is important, not just because you cherish your former daughter- or son-in-law, but because you need to be there for the grandchildren. "The most important factor is your grandchildren," says Tina B. Tessina, PhD, a psychotherapist and author of Money, Sex and Kids: Stop Fighting about the Three Things That Can Ruin Your Marriage. "Even though your son or daughter is divorced from the other parent, they will still always be connected through the children, and your connection is important, too."
That connection may become especially important if your child or former in-law gets remarried, and circumstances change. "You’ll want to maintain the connection with the kids because they’ll need someone safe in their lives," Brooke says. "But in order to maintain that connection, you need to keep connected to their parents."
Extend Your Friendship for the Grandkids
Keeping the relationship friendly with a former son- or daughter-in-law may not be easy. "He or she may not trust you and may be projecting hurt or anger onto you," Brooke says. "Often, ex-spouses have the sense that the former in-laws are no longer in their corner, and that prevents them from feeling safe enough to ask for help or support."
That’s why the onus may fall on the grandparent to reach out. Here’s how you can create a more harmonious relationship:
- Start by checking in with your child. Ask your son or daughter if it’s okay that you contact the former spouse. If there was a serious betrayal involved, you may jeopardize the relationship with your child by becoming too friendly with his ex, says Debra Castaldo, PhD, a therapist in Englewood, NJ and author of Relationship Reboot. "Balance your child’s needs with the need for your grandchildren to see a healthy relationship between the grandparent and both their parents," Castaldo says.
- Make the first move. Regardless of who might be at fault or who initiated the divorce, the dissolution of a marriage is painful for everyone involved. A loving phone call, a kind email or even a good cry over a cup of coffee will go a long way toward setting the stage for future relations with your ex daughter- or son-in-law. "Call the future ex in-law and let her know how sorry you are that things didn't work out, and that your heart is also breaking," Brooke says. "If you don't feel comfortable calling, reach out by snail mail and write a hand written note."
- Be reassuring of her role. "Let her know that you’re not blaming her and that you respect her as the parent of your grandchild," Brooke says. "Making sure that she knows you are available, and want to be there for her as a supportive grandparent to their child, can help her feel safer.
- Provide practical help. Life is never easy for a single parent, so if you can, offer to prepare a meal or take the kids, so your ex in-law can get a reprieve. The kindness can help pave the way for a better relationship.
- Be patient. It’s not unusual for the former in-law to harbor angry feelings toward you. Give her some time to come around, and don’t be afraid to offer your help several times.
- Be empathetic. Try and view difficult situations from the perspective of your child and your in-law, Tessina says. "Try not to be critical of one parent to the other, and definitely not to the grandchildren," she says.
- Talk to safe people. When your ex-in-law or child does something that upsets you, talk to other grandparents, a therapist, or friends—not to either of them. "Let off steam to 'safe' people, so your children and grandchildren don't experience your anger and frustration," Tessina says.
"And if you can find other grandparents who have succeeded in overcoming their children’s divorce and stayed in touch with the former in-law and the grandchildren, find out how they did it."