What is the value of keeping your in-laws in a divorce?
I recently heard a woman make an argument that she should be entitled to increased alimony because she lives closer to her in-laws than to her own parents. Many states use a rubric of factors to determine alimony. Factors may include length of the marriage, causes of the breakdown of the marriage, each party’s education/station/ability to earn a living, age and needs of the minor children.
One factor I have never seen listed in an alimony calculation, however, is geographical location of grandparents. I don’t believe it is something we will see any time soon. We live in a time when it is common place for people to relocate far from family for work, exploration, curiosity, advancement, and countless other reasons. So there is no special attention paid to how close or far one lives from one’s parents.
But, the woman does have a point. Her parents happen to live in Mexico, and she lives in New Jersey with her husband and two children. They are in the process of getting divorced and she is keenly feeling her lack of support system. If she lived close to her parents and siblings and cousins, there would likely be someone around to take the kids for a few hours; or help her move into her new apartment; to drop by uninvited and unexpected with a pizza and a bottle of wine.
Sure, friends may be able to pick up some of this slack. But only very good friends, and not necessarily without strings attached. Not the way family would. But what makes her situation more difficult is that up until very recently, she did have family in town – her in-laws. She was used to the informal, always at each other’s disposal, give-and-take of family. When you have spent a certain number of years not having to pay a sitter for every little night out, each annoying errand, or when you just need to go away overnight, there is a shock factor that comes along with suddenly having to shell out $10/hour for each of those “meaningless” excursions.
What about family holidays? Until now, every major holiday included her children looking forward to aunts, uncles, grandparents and cousins laughing together at someone’s house. They knew there would be gifts and favorite foods, “inside” jokes, and familiar arguments.
Now, she will have to choose if her children will spend holidays with their extended family or with her. She might need to take her kids to a restaurant for a Thanksgiving dinner, or cook her own Christmas feast to make them feel like things are still as good as they used to be. Or she might want to fly herself and the kids down to Mexico, so that she can be with her own family during the holidays. But, while being with her own parents and siblings might make her feel comfortable, it will likely have the opposite effect on her children, for whom everything will feel foreign and new.
Or, if she believes the best interest of her children is to keep having holidays the way they always did, then she might spend every holiday all alone, watching the clock until it is time to go pick them up again.
Instead of increasing her alimony, which might not even solve most of these issues, there is a less expensive and more obviously available solution: keeping her in-laws. Those people who are inextricably linked to the last person in the world she wants to see right now may hold the ticket to her salvation. But, depending on the details of the divorce, they might not be particularly interested in seeing her right now.
They have likely heard her husband’s side of the story. They might believe that she alone is at fault in the breakdown of the marriage. They may have been willing to keep an open mind in her regard at the beginning of the divorce, but by now might feel that she is being stubborn or greedy or hostile in the divorce proceedings, even if it is her attorney calling the shots instead of her.
How, then, could she bridge that chasm? Is there any hope for her of replacing her far-away family for herself and her children with the people she knows best in New Jersey? Yes. There is a chance. That chance is in her hands. It is up to her to reach out to her in-laws. Individually, if necessary, to mend any broken fences, and say things as simple as, “I hope that we will still be family, and that my children will always feel as close to you as they do today.” And, of course, she could take advantage of every opportunity to be kinder and more generous than she needs to be – both when her in-laws are watching, and when they are not. In matters related directly to the divorce, and in unrelated matters. She could make a point of always something positive about her ex-husband, so that everyone knows there are no hard feelings. And so that no one is worried what will happen if they are both at the same dinner.
This might sound difficult, especially if she has just cause to be truly angry at her husband. But we do the same thing in dozens of social situations all year long at parties, work, and school: pretending to be nicer, more forgiving, or more generous than we really are. And sometimes, if we are very lucky, those good feelings catch up with us and stop being pretend emotions. Sometimes acting as if you are a benevolent person actually makes you become one – inside and out.