✝︎Friends and Family Relationships After Divorce

by Kim Johnson

Marcy was shopping when she turned a corner and came face to face with her sister-in-law. Or, her ex-sister-in-law to be exact. Totally surprised, Marcy smiled. She and Leah, her ex-husband’s sister, had been really good friends before he left. Even though she hadn’t heard from Leah in a while, she was unprepared for what happened next. Marcy watched as Leah’s expression rapidly changed from surprise, to disbelief, to something Marcy could only think was anger. Without a word, Leah turned and quickly walked away. Devastated, tears stung Marcy’s eyes as she stood there. “What just happened?” she thought.

Impacts of divorce

Everyone knows the unfortunate consequences of a divorce. There’s an end to your legal obligation to your ex; possible impacts on your living situation; a definite change in your tax status; a probable change in your medical insurance; and the list can go on.

Yet, there are more than just legal ramifications. Divorce also means the end of the emotional, mental and physical ties with your former spouse. And when the dust settles, there are other effects on relationships created through the marriage, which you most likely didn’t anticipate. These are connections that include extended family members like in-laws, aunts, uncles, cousins, as well as friends.

The thing is, you don’t realize just how much of your world is built around those relationships until it is split in two. For years, your life had a rhythm, a ritual of seasons and life events, like dinners, weddings, gifts and traditions. However, when you and your spouse split up, many voids are created.

In-laws and Extended Family

The fall-out from an ended marriage naturally cascades onto the immediate family. It also impacts relationships you and your spouse had with other family members. Even though your relationship with your former in-laws may have been great while you were married, divorce alters it in big and small ways. There is a huge possibility your ex-in-laws (parents and siblings) will take sides.

Not only that, the pain and resentment of your split can ricochet through the lives of aunts, uncles and cousins as well. You may not be prepared for this seismic shift. Phone calls, play dates, BBQs, and family get-togethers will no longer include you. Ready or not, the reality of an ended marriage relationship will be mirrored in those connections. And unfortunately, the ripple effect doesn’t end there.

Mutual Friendships

The wave of change may also touch mutual friendships you shared. It’s normal for spouses to share the same friends. Dinner dates, movie nights, even vacations were much more fun when you enjoyed them with friends you had in common. However, now that you are no longer a couple, that dynamic can make your friends feel uncomfortable.

This can be especially true in acrimonious splits. While some friends will choose one of you, others may not want to make a choice at all. Your divorce will cause your friends to feel awkward. They may want to stay neutral, but find it hard to do so. Social events will change if both you and your ex can’t be in the same room without antagonism. So, when it becomes too difficult to deal with, mutual friends will drop out of both of your lives.

Remaining Friends with Your Ex

Another difficult relationship after divorce is the one you have with your former spouse. You may still be in love with your ex-spouse, which then begs the question: “Can you remain friends?” It’s an easy question to ask, but not an easy one to answer.

Staying friendly with your ex will depend on the unique situation of your divorce. Most of the time, a post-divorce relationship will not be friendly, or even doable. This is especially true if the divorce was a nasty battle; or if there was abuse of any kind. Trying to move from lover to friend may not be a good idea, as it leaves the door open for more bad behavior.

Sharing children will make it difficult to navigate these muddy waters. Being a divorced parent means you will have to stay in contact with your ex-husband. Communicating about custody arrangements, co-parenting, sporting and school events, and even medical issues is a must. So, this relationship is going to need time and thought as you move on from your divorce.

5 Tips for Surviving Changing Relationship Dynamics After Divorce

A divorce undeniably changes the dynamics of family and friend relationships. However, you can view this season of your life as an opportunity to create something positive for yourself and your children. Taking the time to learn, grow and heal can only be helpful.

  • Former in-laws. Even though it will be difficult at best, you can still reach out with the understanding it may not work. Be prepared for rejection and don’t blame anyone if they don’t respond kindly. However, when it comes to your kids, your former relatives will likely want to stay connected to their grandchildren. You may be bitter and want revenge, but don’t make your kids the pawns in that game. Allow them to continue to love their grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, even if it makes you feel left out. Responding in a healthy way will help your children cope with the pain they are experiencing.
  • Extended family. While some people believe the other parent is responsible for extended family contacts on their side, this may not work to your kids’ advantage. You can’t assume your ex-spouse to be equally willing to help them maintain an ongoing relationship with his family. Take some time to come up with a plan that will work for you. There’s no “right” or “easy” way to nurture extended family relationships after a divorce. However, not trying may deprive your children of a valuable support system.
  • Relationship with Your Ex. Remaining friends with your ex-spouse can be tricky, especially if the divorce was not a mutual decision. While reconciliation is sometimes a possibility, trying to maintain a friendly relationship can lead to more rejection and hurt feelings. Healthy emotional detachment is important after a divorce. Communicating may make this difficult. When you share children, however, you must keep the lines open. Work on disengaging your feelings and accepting where you are in your life. Seeing a therapist can help. Letting go is not easy, but you must if you are going to move forward. Maintaining a healthy relationship with your ex will help your children as they navigate the changes in their lives.
  • Maintaining mutual friendships. This may be one of the most difficult things to do after a divorce. There are no clear rules about who gets the friends. You may be surprised who will stick with you and who won’t. Be prepared for this to happen organically.
  • Biblical Advice for Repairing Relationships. Of course, the goal would be to respond with grace and peace. But this does not mean you continue to expose yourself to hurtful or even toxic behavior. The instruction to “turn the other cheek” as Jesus stated in the book of Matthew, means to forego seeking retaliation. It does not mean you let abuse continue. There are many scriptures which give you the freedom to disconnect and stay free of these toxic influences. Proverbs 4:14-17; Proverbs 22:24-25; 1 Corinthians 15:33; James 3:16; 2 Timothy 3:1-5. Even Jesus had the wisdom to walk away when he felt the situation warranted it. Matthew 16:4.

Dealing and Healing

There’s a good reason divorce is listed as one of the most stressful situations anyone can experience. Trying to stay strong when dealing with interrupted relationships is really hard. Remember, your family and true friends won’t leave you; won’t make you prove anything; and won’t have unrealistic expectations of you.  They’ll simply continue to love and support you. Turn to them when you feel rejected and stick to the relationships you can trust as you heal.

Give yourself and those broken relationships time. At some point they may heal and the awkwardness, anger and resentment will fade. Be careful to keep your expectations realistic. However, it may not happen. Sometimes you have to be like Jesus and just walk away.

Most of all, be open to forgiving. Sometimes forgiveness will grow out of small things like a smile, a courtesy or a kind word. Walking away can seem freeing.  But hurt feelings will catch up with you and unresolved anger can turn into bitterness. That hurts no one but you. To truly heal, give yourself the time to work through your losses and grieve them. Then move to a place of forgiveness. You can disconnect from those hurting you and still forgive them. It’s your choice, under your control and actually the gift you give yourself.

This Isn’t the End

Through all the change and pain, it is important to remember this isn’t the end. Your life isn’t going to stop and this event in your life does not have to define the rest of it. While the dynamics of your family and friend relationships will probably shift, be willing to accept it. Expect adjustments and don’t put extra pressure on yourself to hold on. Give yourself permission to grieve and then let go.

Focus on your healing (and if you have children, on theirs as well). You can’t ignore how the split will impact those around you. But you can’t control their responses either. So, concentrate on what you can change and how you can move on to the next season of your life.