As you may know by now, we are releasing our long-awaited book, "Intentional Courtship: a Mid-Singles Guide to Peace, Progress, and Pairing up in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints," on November 5th. Intentional Courtship contains a lot of counsel and information about coping with loss and recovery from pain and trauma through the power of intention.
On that subject, I think one of the hardest and most unanticipated consequences of divorce is the impact it has on our relationships with in-laws and mutual friends. Some families and friends handle this well, but most do not.
In the church, we have such a dim view of divorce that we tend to subconsciously believe that giving compassion to someone getting divorced is condoning divorce. Often this motivates people to stay away or to try to determine who was at fault in the divorce and take the other person's side. In families, we tend to be very tribal. The family tends to line up behind their blood relative, regardless of the circumstances, and have animosity toward the person their family member is divorcing. I remember a lengthy conversation on a Christmas Eve in 2008 with a sister-in-law who compassionately told me that my (former) wife treated m terrible and I deserved better. She said I should get divorced. She wound up the conversation by saying that she was a supporter of my (former) wife, "because that's my role." The truth is, I didn't mind if she was loving toward my former wife. I thought she could be loving toward both of us. But that was not her approach--at least at first.
I think the loss of relationships with my former in-laws was one of the most painful things about divorce. My former father-in-law had always treated me like a son. He and my mother-in-law had always been welcoming to me and treated me like part of the family. We had even lived with them for a few years when we moved to Washington and I was getting a law practice going.
My former wife's youngest brother went on a mission to Hawaii while we were staying there. I determined to write him every week and did so faithfully. When I first met him, he was nine years old. So I have known him for almost 30 years and he is in his late 30's now. We were always good friends. But after the divorce the relationship was more distant for several years. That was a very painful thing for me.
Overall, I think I felt a deep disappointment about something I believed I had learned about human nature. I had previously believed my former in-laws loved me for me, and not just because I was married to their family member. At the time of the divorce, they seemed very tribal from my perspective. Needless to say, that was very painful and disappointing.
I think it is important to remember, when we are going through divorce, the alienation we feel tends to be heightened. Our deepest fears of rejection are triggered by the hostility or indifference of our most important companion. To a lesser extent, the experience is traumatic for the entire extended family. In many cases, they simply don't have any education in how to treat or think about a former son or daughter-in-law or brother or sister-in-law.
During my years wandering in the wilderness of mid-singledom, I had sometimes wished I could call my father-in-law and just talk about things the way I could before. But the relationship seemed distant and even a little hostile.
I would like to fast forward several years in this story and tell you that Cathy and I took a trip to Washington in the Summer of 2020 and visited my son who lives up there. My former father-in-law invited us to stay in their home, which we did for two nights. Cathy liked them very much. There was some familiar talking and laughing and reliving past experiences. It felt like we had come a long way.
At Christmas five years earlier, I had returned to Utah from Texas after getting divorced for the second time and laid off from my corporate job in Houston. My younger son was living with me at that time and his mother wanted to see him. She was in Utah for the holidays. So I got together with my former wife and her oldest brother and sister-in-law and their family and we all went to dinner. In my mind, that was the first moment of real healing. We had occasion to talk about what had happened with my second wife. In a funny way, my former brother-in-law and his wife were lining up behind me and being tribal in support of me, the same as they had done for my former wife when she was divorcing me. The irony of that was not lost on me. Even my former wife was supporting me and concerned for my well-being. At the time, I observed that Christmas was a time when we celebrated new life and the healing Jesus Christ had brought into the world. I was grateful to have had some.
My former father-in-law was a cosigner on some student loans I took while pursuing my post-doc degree. During the financial problems that occurred after being laid off and divorced for the second time, I fell behind on my payments. I eventually ran out of forbearance on those loans and he was getting notices in the mail. He contacted me one day, upset about the situation. I explained my situation to him and said that I was doing my best and would start making the payments as soon as I could. He softened toward me and counseled me not to give up or give in to discouragement. In that moment, I kind of felt like I did prior to my divorce--when I knew he cared about me. In the middle of everything I was going through at that time, I found that oddly reassuring. (Thankfully, I paid off those loans he had cosigned last year.)
Neither I nor my former-in-laws handled the situation well in the immediate aftermath of our separation. Of course we didn't. We were all in shock. There wasn't a rule book or manual to tell us all how to behave. We had our pre-existing experience and expectations, many of which were not realistic or mutually shared.
Having said this, my former in-laws are genuinely good people and I still love them very much. Given some time and space to process things, I think they came around to the idea that I was a member of their family for a long time, and they cared for me. Ultimately, our better angels prevailed. Well I think we have a long way to go, the hostility and resentment are gone and some of the fondness and affection has returned.
How do you create this? Let's begin by being clear that you can't create it by yourself. It is a matter of human agency. If your former in-laws won't play, you can't make them.
Having said this, there are things you can do to promote light and healing. To begin with, stop bagging on your former spouse. As flawed as he or she may be, that is their loved one and they are hurt by your verbal assassination of him or her. Even doing so outside of their presence gets back to them. If you want to begin a healing process with your former in-laws, start with your former spouse. Strive for peace and reconciliation. I am not suggesting you should get back together. I am merely suggesting that you can promote a more peaceful relationship by giving dignity and respect to your former spouse.
In most cases, you have some significant common ground to build on. In addition to your history together, your children are their grandchildren. You all love them and want the best for them. We involved my former in-laws when our son was having some issues because he was close to them. I think that helped the thaw begin too. Realize that because your children are their grandchildren, you will always be family in some way. To whatever extent it is possible in your situation, acknowledge that to them and let them know you want to have a good relationship.
With regard to friends, begin by telling your mutual friends that you do not need them to choose between the two of you. Let them know that they can be supportive and loving to both of you and it will not be awkward. One of my former wife's college roommates did the final proofread of Intentional Courtship. When you read it, you will find that there are statements about my divorce from her friend in the book. I honestly wanted to know from her whether she thought I had been fair to my former wife. (She did.) I could give numerous other examples. Many friends that I met through my former wife have stayed loyal to me even as they have been loyal to her. That's the way I want it. That's the way I always wanted it. The transition of one relationship does not need to send the dominos toppling in every other relationship. We don't need to line up behind one person or the other, and we don't need to try to determine who is guilty. Our role as friends is just to love and support. Becoming tribal increases conflict and hurts the kids.
If you are the one going through the divorce, your friends will be affected by that. But let them know that you do not expect them to choose sides or be alienated from either of you. Let them know that their continuing friendship with your former spouse is okay with you.
Divorce is a significant event in the life of everyone who is divorced, in their extended families, and in their circle of friends. Many people handle it badly because there isn't a lot of education or awareness about this in our culture. Good people can become tribal and even hostile.
Try to make it peaceful, even if the only thing you can do right now is restrain yourself from throwing gas on the fire. Give it time. Your divorce was not only painful for you and your children. It was painful for your family and friends too. Reach out in love and healing--with the understanding that all involved have their agency in these matters and all involved have been hurt by the divorce.
If some people choose to reject you because your spouse did, there's not much you can do about that. You can simply maintain an open and loving disposition toward them. Do the best you can, while knowing that others may not always respond the way you hope.