My friend’s son is divorcing, ending a twenty-five-year marriage. Although sad, my friend doesn’t question the decision. He sensed from the sidelines that neither partner had been happy for some time and he was aware of their sincere efforts to work things out.
He and his daughter-in-law had come to know each other well in recent years, drawn together as she lovingly helped to care for his wife during her final illness. Often she was on call to be present when he had to be away, and upon his return they would talk over coffee, engaged in ever more meaningful conversations evoked by the impending loss of his life partner and his own advancing years. His wife as well had come to think of their daughter-in-law as a daughter of her own, and a deepening friendship had grown between them. He was sure that despite the marital rift, his daughter-in-law would remain a cherished member of his family.
So throughout the difficult months of the couple’s estrangement and then their separation, my friend was determined to preserve good relations not only with his son but also with his son’s soon to be former wife. She continued to join him for occasional meals and from time to time they spoke by phone, skirting the subject of the marriage that was ending. She even talked with him about others with whom she was developing new connections.
One evening when he was at a concert, soon after the divorcing couple entered the legal arena, he encountered his daughter-in-law’s parents. They were cool to him and hastened their departure. It was upsetting but understandable, he thought, and shrugged it off. He wouldn’t even bring it up. At least his relationship with his daughter-in-law would not change.
But, of course, it had already changed.
As the legal process escalated, her hurt and anger toward his son rose. Her feeling that she was the one more aggrieved slowly seeped into every conversation and email. At first she would make only a nuanced negative remark. But soon she spoke more unguardedly of his son’s failings. Lawyer involvement increased and settlement talks faltered. My friend made no response, staying silent or attempting to change the subject. He thought the communication boundaries were clear, but they continued to erode. No longer able to be empathic in the face of her repeated accusations, he retreated, and their contact ended.
When he spoke of his dilemma to others, many responded quickly and easily, “Blood is thicker than water.” He remained unwilling to be judgmental, wise enough to know that no one but the marriage partners themselves could speak of the realities and that even their perceptions would surely differ.
“ I love them both dearly,” he lamented, “but I’ve lost the close bond I so valued with my daughter-in-law.”
I didn’t think it had to stay lost in the long term, so I offered stories of others I’ve known, myself included, who mended similar relationships once the most painful time of the marital collapse and its aftermath had passed. For one, I renewed my connection with my son’s former wife. Although I had to acknowledge that the nature of that connection had changed, it was still loving and even intimate at times. But other doors would always remain closed.
So many important attachments are lost to both parties when the terrible angst of divorce seems to call for taking sides. Need they be? Perhaps not. Extended family members and common friends need a protocol and an agreed-upon time out. Necessary boundaries should be made clear and be respected, to protect against hurtful expressions of disloyalty toward one or the other and to avoid a permanent breach. In an ideal world, friends and extended family would make communication boundaries explicit, even written in a thoughtful note expressing sadness but a hoped-for future.
But perhaps more than anything, we need to have realistic expectations of the significant healing time required for friendship to win out over recrimination and the pain of loss.
Nancy Nolan writing here: You’ve just read a sample from Bea’s new book, The Third Person in the Room: Stories of Relationships at a Turning Point. You can get your copies at one of these locations:
Also: Mark your calendar: On Tuesday, March 24 at 6:00 p.m., Bea will discuss relationships at a turning point and read from her book at the downtown Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County.