Family Tree Divided

Grandkids and in-laws after divorce

Illustration by Emma Moreman

Your son’s heart is shattered over the break-up of his marriage, and you’re convinced that his lousy, lying, cheating, no-good ex-wife is even worse than the Wicked Witch of the West.

But don’t bubble up the brew by trying to poison your grandchildren’s minds about your ex-daughter-in-law and turn them against her.

Divorce is always difficult, and the ensuing hurts, recriminations, anger, bitterness, sadness and other raw emotions can disrupt, or possibly destroy, even the most solid family.

First and foremost, say experts, never speak ill or disparagingly of your child’s former spouse or partner in the presence of your grandchild. Got that? Never.

Your ex-in-law may now be the outlaw, but he or she is still and will forever be one of your grandchild’s parents. Any negativity in your words and actions will be perceived by the child as horribly hurtful, which can harm your grandchild in the long term.

“Everybody needs to realize that the children are the most important part of this family dynamic. The grandparents’ main priority should be to keep the focus on successful, positive interactions with the other family members,” says Kortney Yasenka, a licensed clinical mental health counselor who practices in Hampstead and Salem and specializes in children, adolescent and family issues.

Experts advise you to forgive if you can’t forget, or forget if you can’t forgive. Then put your personal feelings aside and put on your happy face.

But that’s much easier said than done, especially when you despise your child’s ex, and by extension, perhaps more of the relatives on that side of the family.

“It’s not the child, or sometimes even other family members, who have chosen the divorce. Other people have to always keep that in mind, even when their emotions are running high and they may hate another person,” says Yasenka. “You must realize that the child will always be connected to this person, and even if he was a horrible husband, I’m sure he has some positive attributes.”

“It is common for the children take it personally,” adds Yasenka. “If someone in their family is talking badly about their father or their mother, they will feel like they have to defend that parent. That puts a child in an awkward position of thinking they must choose sides, and it makes them have non-age-appropriate conversations with other family members. That is not fair to them.”

Sometimes the scenario with your ex-in-laws is the complete opposite.

You may have adored the woman who was married to your son, and your former son-in-law might have always been more like a son to you and your spouse. Perhaps you were very friendly with the other set of grandparents and socialized with them frequently, even going out to dinner, playing golf, or vacationing together.

When that family dynamic changes, there is an added level of the personal sense of loss and sadness over the marriage breakup. But, most often, blood is thicker than water — and if you make the choice that your loyalties must lie with your child, you will likely pine for the closeness and camaraderie you cherished with the ex-in-laws once they are cut out of the picture

“In some families, the parents and grandparents can be great about it. They are able to still stay friendly and can do fun things together. Unfortunately, that’s not usually the case. A lot of times, some other family members will ask, ‘How can you want to have anything to do with that person? Why would you want to involve them anymore in what we do, because they are such a horrible person?’ They have to then remember that maybe the other person did a horrible thing, but, even so, they are connected to the grandchild for the rest of everyone’s lives,” says Yasenka.

When your child moves on and forges a new romantic relationship, it puts even more stress on your grandchildren and your family. The stakes, not to mention a gamut of emotions, are raised significantly higher when your adult child moves in with or marries a new partner, especially if the new member of the family has children from a previous relationship.

When the stork delivers a basket to the blended family, it isn’t always a fairytale ending.

“Often, when families get blended and there is a new mom or dad, new siblings, and even a new baby, the child will feel, ‘My parent has this new family, and now even has a new baby, and where do I fit in?’ That’s when the grandparents can play a vitally important role by letting them know that even though their mom and dad might not be together, we’re still here, we’re still family, and we always will be,” says Yasenka.

This presents the perfect opportunity for you as a grandparent to be an emotional rock. Provide the steadfast and unconditional love and support that show the children you will always be a constant in their lives, their safe harbor and their sounding board.

Unless there is a situation where the grandparents are unstable, unfit or would pose a danger to the children, they have a right to see them. A vindictive ex-in-law can’t intervene.

“That wouldn’t be a problem because the grandparents can see the grandkids when their child has the kids, so they don’t need to depend on the ex-in-law. They can’t prevent that. There shouldn’t be a problem as long as the grandparents have a good relationship with their own child,” says attorney Ronna Wise, the co-chair of the domestic practice group at Sulloway and Hollis in Concord and the former vice-president of Child and Family Services of New Hampshire. “The best advice I could give is for the grandparents to maintain a good relationship with their children.”

The golden rule is still the best rule.

“The most important thing to remember is that children of divorce whose parents treat each other with kindness and respect are the kids who do the best long term, and the same thing applies for grandparents,” says Wise, who has been in practice for 35 years. “They should always treat both their children and their former daughter-in-law or son-in-law with stability, kindness and respect.”

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