Staying Connected to Your Ex-Daughter-in-Law After Divorce

Just because your child's marriage didn't work out, it doesn't mean you're out of the picture. How to preserve the friendship, plus tips on safeguarding your grandkids' feelings.

By Winnie Yu

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."

Comments

My heart goes out to all the GPs below, yearning for contact/more contact with their grandchildren! One of the factors, it seems to me, that most people don't think or talk about when it comes to divorce, is that it can affect other family members, as well. Grandparents, unfortunately, are often among the first casualties. Very sad.

I think we GPs have to realize, also, however, that if a divorce occurs, we may end up seeing our beloved grandkids less often than b4. And while I like the suggestions in the article, I think we have to realize, also, that our best connection with our grands is our son or daughter and we often need to work out any visitation with them. Granted, in some unfortunate cases, like macpop24's, below, the non-custodial parent's visitation isn't "solid" or takes a while to establish and that's not the GP's fault - but often, it's not the custodial parent's fault, either. (I know, too, that in some scenarios, if the other parent is supposed to have supervised visits or anything like that, there may be some fear that their parents/the GPs will let them, secretly, see the children more often, if they're with the GPs, and w/o supervision.) In most situations, though, to my limited knowledge, the non-custodial parent does have visitation, and they and their parents/the GPs seeking more time, need to work out something based on that.

I understand that, sometimes, it's hard for the non-custodial parent (usually but not always, the dad) to factor his own parents into his visitation schedule, especially if his time is limited. But I also see that it can be very difficult for the custodial parent (usually but not always, the mom) to work still another set of visits into an already very busy schedule - remember often, she also has to figure in her own parents, other relatives, play dates, extra-curricular activities, etc. Sometimes I think we forget that just b/c she may have the kids with her longer than the dad, doesn't mean she has more time open for visits.

Regarldess, I think the advice to discuss any problems with the custodial parent in with "safe people" is a good one. And one of the places I think it's can be good to do that is in the Community area, right here on GP.com. I can't promise that it's totally "safe," in that there's no guarantee that your ex-DIL (or ex-SIL, etc) won't ever see it. But with your anonymous username, you may not be that worried. Nor can I promise that everybody will agree with your viewpoint. But, at least, you're not likely to face consequences with your ex-DIL or whoever. And you won't have to worry about your grands feeling your "anger and frustration," as the article mentions.

If you're interested, just go to the very top of this page (above the website title) and click on Community. Then take some time to choose a group or groups from the several listed there and come on in!

Meanwhile, if your email addy and/or first and last names are in your username, you might want to change that for greater privacy. If so, just click on your username at the top-right of this page and change it where shown. (You'll have to log out and then log in again to see the change.)

rosered135 on 2013-08-26 11:35:10

There seems to be little support for grandparents in this situation. I've never done anything to my ex daughter in law but she seems to think I am the devil incarnate or something. She will even let my son's new wife's parents see my granddaughter....but not me. It's heart breaking and there's no where to turn.

Gmommyto3 on 2013-06-04 18:47:44

I wonder if you were more accepting of your x-StepGS during the marriage. How sad for this boy that someone he considered a GM decides "he is no relation to me". I don't blame the mom for what she did. They are brothers, Would it have been so much to ask to continue to treat him in an inslusive manner?

PinkRedYellow on 2013-02-04 09:27:03

I have a similar situation. My son divorced his wife 3 years ago and we were able to see my grandson as long as we took his brother with us. This was good for about 2 yrs or so. Now this was not a issue even though my grandsons brother is no relation to me. My x daughter-in-law had this child before she met my son. Anyway 1 weekend I wanted to have my grandson to have a birthday party at my home with my family but the mother thought I was treating her son unfair. That was May 2012. I have only seen my grandson once since then for only about 2 hrs and that was because my son had him. My son is also going through some issues and does not have solid visitation rights at this time. The situation stinks and I feel that I have absolutely no rights to see my grandson also. I am going to see a lawyer though and hope that I can get some kind of visitation. Grandparents should have rights when it come to seeing their grandchildren especially if they had a relationship with them since birth.

macpop24 on 2013-01-29 18:24:52