I've been divorced from First Husband for a little over five years. He and I still have a reasonably friendly relationship, although it's been altered by distance in both the physical and emotional sense - I moved 1800 miles away after the divorce was final and our son was ready to leave for college, and we're both married to other people now and our son is officially On His Own. But I told him a while ago that he'd always be family - and not just because of our son - although now it's more like a second cousin whom you don't talk to very often. As for the rest of our families: my sister still sends him Christmas cards, even though her husband doesn't approve. (It's definitely a loyalty thing with him; given some of the circumstances of our breakup, it's rather surprising that First Husband and I get along, and my BIL remembers a lot of what I went through.) My father has no contact with him. I haven't heard from his relatives in years, with one notable exception - his sister, whom I e-mail and IM with regularly. When she was a guest at my second wedding last fall, I introduced her to some people as "This is my friend Amy. I used to be married to her brother."
The truth is that when people divorce, little thought is given to the fact that it is not only the husband and wife who are enduring loss but also their extended families.
Considering that the number of divorced Americans rose from 4.3 million in 1970 to 18.3 million in 1996 and that very few studies have examined how divorce affects the continuation of relationships with the relatives by marriage, most people wing it. According to a study in the Journal of Marriage and the Family, sponsored by the National Council of Family Relations, only 11 percent of ex-spouses have a continued good relationship with each other's parents. And those low statistics are the ones presumably with kids.
But it is naïve to think that children are the only lingering connection. Ties are formed after spending years of intimate holiday celebrations, ranging from passing the turkey gravy to washing dishes on Christmas morning or simply talking on the phone for a weekly chat and commenting on the way someone may leave their socks on the floor.
As Dr. Allison Bell, a New York psychologist, puts it, "the people surrounding the divorcing couple make many assumptions about how they are supposed to behave, often based on ideas about loyalty. It is frequently the case that in-laws feel polarized to side with their child and to banish the other spouse from their lives, partly because we all believe that someone's the bad guy and someone's the good guy in a divorce. But people have become more modern in their approach to divorce."
Bell and other psychologists stress the importance of (communication) as a blueprint for the entire extended family -- including parents and siblings and their spouses -- especially for those who are left and need a support system.
Early in my relationship with TallGuy, he mentioned something about a conversation his mother had had with his ex-wife, and indicated they talked pretty often - and that made me nervous that his parents might have trouble accepting someone new in his life. (I worried more about that where his kids were concerned, of course...) They were great, though, when I got to know them...their main concern was knowing that their son was happy. Ex-Wife still is part of the family, though, especially in her own estimation. She and TallGuy have the major holidays with their kids in alternate years per their custody agreement, and my first Thanksgiving with him, in 2005, was spent at his mom's (his dad had passed away a couple of months earlier) with him, his kids (it was his year), his mom, some aunts and uncles and cousins - and his ex-wife. Christmas was the same, with the addition of my son (who had spent Thanksgiving in Tennessee with his father). It all seemed very modern, and at the same time a little confusing- why stipulate custody for the holidays if you're all going to spend them together anyway? Ex-Wife had the kids for the holidays last year, and they didn't come down to Mom-in-law's for Thanksgiving, but Christmas was the same as the year before. This summer, she took the kids to Mom-in-law's cabin in the Sierras for vacation. I've now had several holidays and birthday parties to observe her with TallGuy's relatives, and she seems to go on as if nothing's really different - as she said to Mom-in-law at Christmas dinner last year, "I didn't serve you with divorce papers, did I?" No, she didn't...and although the grandkids may be a big part of what keeps this going now, family doesn't just come and go, and a piece of paper has very little to do with your relationship with and attachment to someone. Years of shared history and common experience forge bonds that a legal proceeding doesn't necessarily sever, and really, why should it have to? Granted, in some families that might be for the best, but in a lot of others, people are just people. The newcomers have to respect relationships that pre-date their presence, and build new ones of their own - Mom-in-law and I get along just great, but that's about us and unrelated to her prior daughter-in-law.