Shortly after divorcing her husband of 15 years, Maureen Greenwood, 52, a former nightly news anchor in Syracuse, N.Y., got an unsettling newsflash of her own: After sending her four children on a routine summer trip to visit their grandparents in Massachusetts, they returned home to report that Greenwood had been the subject of many negative comments from her ex-mother-in-law, Gladys Green.
Photo by Drew Jordan
“Their grandmother told them that I was a difficult person and hard to get along with,” Greenwood says. “They didn’t believe these things about me and were surprised at their grandmother’s sudden disapproval of me.”
This complicated an already difficult situation for Greenwood’s children (all four children were under ten at the time), and indicated a shift in the family dynamic.
Many women struggle to maintain healthy extended family relationships while going through a divorce. “Women value family relationships more than men do,” says Cynthia MacGregor, co-author of After Your Divorce: Creating the Good Life on Your Own.
Typically women take on the role of coordinating and maintaining family connections – organizing holiday get-togethers, supervising birthday presents, and making sure the mother-in-law receives a proper Mother’s Day gift.
Greenwood’s divorce strained her relationships because the rest of the family, including her own parents, believed she made the decision on a whim. “After contemplating divorce for a while, there really was just one day where the decision became clear to me,” Greenwood says.
“While telling my friend about the negativity in my marriage she said to me, ‘This will be your children’s impression of what married life is like,’ and I knew I had to end it.”
Those outside the marriage saw her decision as rash and selfish. Greenwood did what she thought was best for her immediate family, but the extended family cut her off altogether and the trouble with her ex-husband’s mother began.
“It is a tricky area where very often there is friction between the mother and the former in-laws because the mother most likely has custody of the children,” MacGregor says. “The mother has to go to great lengths to maintain, at minimum, civility between her and the extended family if there are children involved.”
And if tension develops between the mother and the in-laws, it can be more damaging than beneficial for mothers to uphold these relationships.
Greenwood tried to keep her relationships with her ex’s family intact. For divorcees trying to maintain those connections, success partly hinges on the nature of extended family relations during the marriage, according to A. Stephen Lanza, a marriage and family therapist in Connecticut.
“Some extended families recognize boundaries, while others are largely involved in the lives of the nuclear family,” Lanza says. Greenwood and her ex-husband, Steve, always made their extended families a priority when they were married.
Maintaining the Bond
Despite the five-hour drive between Syracuse and their relatives’ homes in Massachusetts, they gathered for holidays and saw each other about four times a year.
“Any opportunity for our parents to see the children involved us getting them there. We didn’t mind. We wanted our families to still have a role in our lives,” Greenwood says.
She believed in the importance of continuing her children’s relationships with their grandparents after the divorce. Greenwood never intended to alter the relationships with the entire family.
“I knew I was breaking up my immediate family, but I was trying to do that without creating a domino effect with the extended family,” she says. But her attempts to make contact went unanswered.
“I remember receiving a letter from Steve’s cousin in California shortly after the divorce. I wrote him back telling him that Steve and I had divorced, but I would love to stay friends. He never responded,” Greenwood says.
“Any time there is one change in a system, it will affect other areas of the system. Divorce changes the areas of many relationships within a family,” says Tracey Reichert Schimpf, clinic supervisor of the Goldberg Couple and Family Therapy Center in Syracuse.
“Some people might be comfortable with sustaining relationships after divorce and some might not.”
Take Positive Action
When Greenwood learned what her ex-mother-in-law told her children, she reacted firmly but rationally. She wrote a four-page letter and gave Green an ultimatum. “I informed her that if she had issues with me she should address them to me, not the children. I finished the letter off by warning that if she persisted with these comments I would work my hardest to keep her from seeing them,” Greenwood says.
Thankfully, it never came to that. The comments stopped, and Greenwood’s kids continued to visit their grandmother.
“It is important to remember that just like marriages take years to get over after divorce, the same goes for getting over or redefining family relationships,” Lanza says. It takes time, effort, and patience, but it will benefit everyone involved – especially the kids.