How to deal with other people’s grief about the end of your relationship

The surprisingly complex business of managing other people’s feelings about your separation or divorce

January 22, 2019
Mother and adult daughter

When a relationship comes to an end, we expect to have to have a lot of work to do to cope with our own grief and heartache — even if we know the separation is the right decision.

We may also expect our newly ex-spouse to have his or her own share of raw feelings to work through. If we’ve got kids, helping them adjust to the split and settle into new routines will be top of mind.

It can take us by surprise, though, when other people — parents and friends, for example — seem to go through their own grief over the end of our marriage or other long-term romantic union.

But when a separation occurs, a lot of relationships shift.

Our parents may grieve the loss of a son- or daughter-in-law. Our siblings may have similar feelings. On top of this, our families of origin may experience a lot of worry over the situation — in effect a loss of the confidence they once had that you, their loved one, was happy and “settled.” That could be considered a kind of grief on its own.

Where kids are involved, some grandparents may fear they’ll have less access to their grandchildren, particularly if they believe their son- or daughter-in-law is likely to have the kids more than half the time.

Even friends can feel quite invested in the idea of you and your spouse as a couple, especially those you socialize with in pairs.

All of this may complicate the already complicated process of uncoupling.

“When you care about someone, you often invest in their significant other,” says psychotherapist Kelly Bos, who specializes in family and relationship counselling. “When the relationship ends it is hard for friends and family to cut off the feelings they developed for the other person, or for the relationship itself.”

“This understanding can help you manage your expectations and let people work through their feelings while you work through yours.”

Though some friends and family members may try — with varying degrees of success — not to burden you with their own feelings while you’re experiencing such a challenging time, chances are good you’ll get wind of their own complicated emotions at some point along the way.

As one divorced mom shared in the Facebook group, Positive Co-Parenting After Divorce, “My family fully intended for my first marriage to be lifelong just as much as I did, and connections were made after years or activities and holidays together.”

“It’s weird to have someone in your life for years and then not — no matter if the title is friend, relative, sister-in-law or spouse.”

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“When my ex and I split, my step-father started to cry,” said Jennifer*, another divorced mom whose relationship ended when a long period of infidelity came to light. “The family felt betrayed as much as I did.”

Although today Jennifer is doing quite well co-parenting with her ex, things are sometimes complicated by the fact that her family doesn’t want anything to do with him.

“They will be pleasant to his face if there is a family event, but there is no relationship. My dad wanted to do a dinner for my daughter’s wedding and he didn’t want to invite my ex. I told him that was not happening. That we’re not married but he is still her father.”

Sometimes your families are quite entwined

In some cases, it’s not just a loss of relationship between parent-in-law and son- or daughter-in-law, or between sister- or brother-in-law that’s at stake.

Alliances and friendships often take on a life of their own. My best friends’ mother-in-law and father-in-law are such good friends with her aunt and uncle that they’ve been on vacation together. Luckily, my friend and her husband are happily married, but you can imagine the complexity of feeling in situations like this where an extended community has developed around your marriage.

“When I was married to my first husband, our families were very close,” said Suzanne*. “Every Sunday my parents, my sister, my niece, his brother and nephew, my husband and I would meet at his mom’s house for dinner. Then we would do some sort of craft or play board games. It definitely made it more difficult, and made it harder for our parents to get over the break-up.”

You may be further along with your healing

As Michelle* experienced when she split up with her partner, by the time she and her former spouse announced their separation, she was at a different place in her grieving process than the people with whom she shared the news.

“I was amazed at some friends crying when I told them. I was comforting them! I was at peace with it. I felt relief. My grief seemed so personal and yet it became theirs, too. I’m still puzzled by it.”

That’s a more common experience than you might expect.

By the time you announce a separation, you’ve probably been through months — if not years — of soul-searching and heart-wrenching decision-making. You may have been through counselling, alone or together with your spouse.

Setting your limits

If you find yourself feeling a little mystified at how others have responded to the end of your long-term relationship, Bos says it can be helpful to know that this isn’t a reflection of their feelings about you.

That said, it is a good idea to establish healthy boundaries about how much capacity you’ll have to help them sort through their feelings, she says.

“If they’re looking to you to process this with, share that although you understand that they might need support, it would be difficult for you to provide that support, as you are going through your own emotions.”

Then encourage that loved one to reach out to a counsellor, clergy person or trusted friend and to process this change and any grief they’re experiencing as a result, says Bos.

It could also help to remember that, as with all parts of the topsy-turvy early days of separation and divorce, this too shall pass.

*Names changed.

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