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You Don’t Have To Divorce His Family When You Divorce

I'm living proof of it.

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Wedding cake toppers of divorced couple
Gregory Reid (Prop stylist: Megumi Emoto)
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I met them my junior year in college. It was love at first sight. My boyfriend had brought me home to meet his family during Christmas break, and it was clear to me — and them — that we were meant to be together forever. Fast-forward 25 years and two children later, my marriage was over, but my love for his parents was stronger than ever.

While the relationship with my own parents has always been loving and close, the bond I formed with my ex’s parents was special from the start. There was no place I would rather be on any given holiday than at Nana and Papa’s. Their home, a constant presence of family and pets, was comfortable, welcoming and full of love. Nestled in the woods at the base of the Olympic Mountains, the dogs, ducks, rabbits, deer and squirrels roamed freely. Their home was like something out of a fairy tale.

When I was pregnant, my father-in-law, who was charming and generous with his love for his family, would cook special meals just for me. Saturday mornings meant Papa’s breakfasts. Thick-cut bacon and buttermilk pancakes were his specialty and, when no one was looking, he let me pour all the syrup I wanted on my pancakes. He took me fishing in the Strait of Juan de Fuca and taught me how to cook a perfect turkey. We would sit for hours together watching John Wayne movies, and I would listen to stories about his adventures in the Coast Guard.

My mother-in-law and I have a similar bond. We love the same mystery novels, movies and music, and share the same aversion to the post office. Over the years we have opened our hearts to each other often, sharing our hurts as well as our joys. She loves Christmas as much as I do, and each year their large home is decorated like something out of a Hallmark movie. I will never forget the Christmas we lived in San Francisco and weren’t able to travel home for the holidays. I cried the entire holiday, wanting nothing more than to be there with them.

When I married I gained not only a second set of parents, but also close and loving relationships with my ex’s brother and three sisters as well as numerous nieces and nephews. Over the years it became a joke within his family that if anything ever happened between my ex and me, they would keep me. No one could have predicted a truer truth. About 20 years into our marriage, we started having serious problems, and I was torn. I wanted to respect his relationship with his parents, but our marriage had become an ongoing battle of he said/she said. Knowing divorce is inherently divisive and drives people to their own families for support, I chose to keep my side of the story quiet, hoping in the end my character would speak for itself.

During our separation and divorce his family stayed as neutral as possible. They continued to love and support us both. And while they supported our decision to divorce, they made it clear to me from the start: “We will never stop loving you.”

Multiple friends and acquaintances could not understand my relationship with Nana and Papa. My ex was especially infuriated, and on multiple occasions exploded in frustration that his parents and I remained close. Gradually over time he came to accept the fact that, as his mother told me she had said to him, “You divorced each other, we didn’t divorce her.”

Shortly after our separation my own father died. Nana and Papa did not hesitate to drive the four hours to his memorial service and stay the weekend. Their presence meant more to me than anything in the world, and so, when Papa passed away unexpectedly last July, I made the trip home, staying with Nana for most of the summer. I cooked, cleaned and helped put together his memorial service. We talked for hours laughing and crying. At night after she went to bed, I would sit, listening to the house, hearing Papa’s voice, and feeling him in every room, every nook, every cranny.

Being there meant being around my ex and his new wife when they came for the memorial service. While our interactions have been fairly civil over the years, she on the other hand …  well, that’s for another time. So, I thought long and hard about what my being there meant and what my intentions were. I knew that to some people my being there might seem strange. But I came to the realization that it didn’t matter what others thought. The people who mattered knew why I was there: I was honoring this man and woman who had been parents to me for over 34 years.

Divorce is hard. Sides are sometimes taken. But it doesn’t always have to happen that way. There are no rules. There is only what you feel is right for you and your family. And for those who question whether it’s possible to continue healthy relationships even after a marriage is over, the answer is yes. I’m living proof of that.