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Communicate wishes for post-divorce relationships

Q: My son and his wife of 10 years are divorcing. Since their marriage we have considered her three sons from previous relationships as grandchildren. We celebrate their birthdays and Christmas with presents equal to the gifts we give our seven other grandchildren. These bonus grandchildren are now 25, 20 and almost 18 years old and live in another city. Do we continue to treat them as grandchildren when we will probably not see them in the future? Are small gifts at the usual occasions appropriate, recognizing that for 10 years we have enjoyed their sports and their visits, etc?

A: Of course – and congratulations for treating the kids like they are part of your family. I like that you said, “We have enjoyed their sports and visits.” This implies you did not approach the relationship as an empty obligation, but were truly invested. Good for you.

People are often confused about how they relate to one another once relationships break up. I’ll never forget when one very sad woman asked, “What do I call my ex-stepbrother? We grew up together and now that our parents are divorced I don’t know how to refer to him. What is he to me?”

Your question isn’t that much different. Basically, you’re asking for boundaries now that your son and daughter-in-law have broken up. The truth is, you can be as close to the kids as you would like to be. It appears, however, that you think they may not be invested in you now that there is a divorce in the wings. Hopefully, the relationship you have cultivated over the last 10 years is not totally dependent on the fact that your son was married to their mother. That will be evident soon enough.

An important component to remember is that the responsibility to continue the relationship is not only up to you. These are adult children. They are not little kids dependent on their mother, your son, or you to continue the relationship. The groundwork has been laid and it’s good ex-etiquette to continue. If they are not devoted, that will be obvious – and if that’s the case, it would be understandable to pull back a little and possibly stop the presents. This does not mean to just arbitrarily stop. It means be observant. Even if they do pull back, a card around special occasions is always in good form.

Finally, since you’re anticipating a possible problem, don’t be afraid to initiate a conversation. Ex-etiquette rule No. 8 is “Be honest and straightforward.” Talk about it. Compare notes. Discuss how you all want things to be in the future. Do they want to stay in contact with you? Do they want you to be part of their lives and the lives of their children? You are not bound by convention. Create the relationship you want. Set boundaries based on your mutual interests and most important, follow through once the boundaries are in place. That’s good ex-etiquette.

Dr. Jann Blackstone is the author of “Ex-etiquette for Parents: Good Behavior After Divorce or Separation,” and the founder of Bonus Families, bonusfamilies.com. Email her at the Ex-Etiquette website, exetiquette.com, at dr.jann@exetiquette.com.