Divorce is never easy. The couple can feel pain, sadness, anger or disappointment. Anyone with a nodding acquaintance with divorce and its processes knows how painful marriage dissolution can be.
What we don’t discuss often, and maybe we should, is the effect that divorce has on the extended family. The pain caused by the divorce to grandparents, aunts and uncles are not obvious. It isn’t as intense as it is for the principle parties, either. However, extended family members can be treated to some of the couple’s problems when family events turn into child possession wars.
When special occasions arise, arrangements for the child’s attendance often have to be made with an uncooperative, hostile ex-spouse. Too often, the children cannot join the family because:
1. The non-custodial parent’s visitation is scheduled for the same time as the family event. If you don’t see your kids more than a couple of times a month, the time you do have with them is doubly precious. If the custodial parent has a habit of interfering with your time by making other plans with the child or is less than generous with the child’s time when you request it, you may not feel like making any concessions.
2. Any good will the other parent had towards the family has been used up. It is easier to find it in one’s heart to be generous to someone who has stayed neutral during the divorce. If Grandma maintains a cordial attitude towards the ex-spouse, she will be much more likely to cooperate with grandma’s requests for the child’s time. If, however, Grandma made it clear that she blames everything that went wrong on the ex-spouse, and treats him accordingly, it is less likely that the ex-spouse will be inclined to go out of his way to honour a special request from Grandma.
When the ex-makes the extended family work too hard for a relationship with the child, they often give up trying. Unfortunately, the child is the one who suffers because he is denied participation in what should be a positive part of his existence. Even when the child is old enough to make his own decisions, the chance to form bonds may have passed, and what could have been close enduring relationships are no longer available.
I have made Wills for people who exclude their grandchildren, or even their children from a previous marriage from inheriting. The child has grown up thinking that grandparents aunts and uncles on the non-custodian’s side never loved them, and the extended family loses interest in having the child in their lives.Sadly, the normal bonds are severed, not by any desire or action on the child’s part, but because the adults in charge of his rearing did not accept that their interests and his were different.
There are things relatives can do to keep the child active in the family. For one thing, staying out of the divorce will help. Unless the child is in danger, there is little you can say that can help the judge decide child custody. Since you are related to one of the parties, your statements are more likely to seem tainted and coloured by your love for the spouse who is related. If you have to testify because you were subpoenaed, don’t demonise the other parent. The judge won’t care that you dislike your soon to be ex-in-law, but the ex will, and is more likely to influence the child against you if you have been unkind or hostile on the stand.
Don’t use visits with the child as an opportunity to tell her what a jerk either of her parents happens to be. Even if you are complaining to another adult, chances are that the children will hear what you are saying, and report it back to the custodial parent. Since the custodian is only human, putting him down, or enumerating his faults is only going to convince him that you are a bad influence on the child.
Members of extended families do not have visitation rights. Their contact with the child is totally dependent on their bond with the child’s parents. The court will give the non-custodial parent times and places to be in the child’s life. The custodial parent will be more inclined to be flexible and generous with the child’s time if the person asking has been fair and not been a hostile presence in the divorce proceedings. In short, the best way to keep a good relationship when your grandchild, niece or nephew’s parents are divorcing is to keep a polite tongue in your head and stay out of the fight.
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