child with mittens for blog by DC widow writer Marjorie Brimley
Ask A Widow

Ask a Widow: What About the In-Laws?

Ok, I’m now going to answer a hot-button topic that widows write me about ALL THE TIME – yes, it’s the subject of in-laws! At least once a month, someone contacts me and asks what to do about their late spouse’s family. Sometimes, they want to know how to make sure they will still get invited to family gatherings, and that’s an easy answer for me – just tell them! (Sample wording: “I know it might seem strange to still have me over for Thanksgiving, but it would mean a lot for me to join you. I’d be happy to bring dessert!”) But some stuff is….trickier. Here’s an example taken from a letter I got recently from a young widow (edited for privacy):

My husband died two years ago. I started talking with a man early this year and we have gotten very close since then. Thing are going very well. I am struggling dealing with my late husband’s family though. I was very open and honest at the start of this year that I was open to dating and the conversations that I had with my late husband’s family were all very good. But now there is a name and a face to my love life, I am getting the cold shoulder from some of them. Its hard! They never ask about my boyfriend, and a few of them have made it clear that they do not want him around. Consequently, I don’t bring up my boyfriend around my late husband’s family, and they haven’t invited us over as a couple. My new boyfriend has been very patient and kind in handling things and I expect him to be around for a very long time. But the bottom line is this – I feel torn! I’m ready to move forward and I feel held back by my late husband’s family. I’m just not sure how to approach this…should I say something to them or continue to remain silent and let things settle in? Help!

Ugh. That’s so hard. First, it’s hard to be a widow, period. Then, it’s really hard to start dating again. And then, new relationships can be hard too! Still, if you’re in love, that’s all surmountable. But the family situation – that’s harder.

There are, of course, a number of different paths you can take. First, you could take the “fuck it” approach and simply let your late husband’s family go. Hey, if they don’t like that you might have a new man in your life, that’s not your problem, right? While this response works, it’s only a good choice if you hated your in-laws before and also don’t have children or other ties with that family. Also, it’s likely to be really hurtful to you, your in-laws, and maybe even your new partner. So, basically, I do not recommend it.

Another approach is the “remain silent” approach. You can hope that things will eventually get better if you just stay quiet for as long as possible, and don’t make a big deal out of it. While this one could work, it’s enormously stressful on both you and your new partner! In addition, the best possible outcome is one of basic acceptance, but unlikely ever real inclusion. Is that what you actually want? Also, this is impossible if you have kids, as kids have big mouths and will always bring up things you wish they wouldn’t!

So that leaves us with the only possible approach: talk about it. Yes, this is hard, but it’s the best way to go about it. First, find the most understanding in-law and get a quiet time to talk to that person. Maybe it’s your sister-in-law or your father-in-law or a cousin who has always been close to the family and/or to your late spouse (for this example, we’ll call your late spouse “Joe”). Whomever you choose to speak with, ask them to sit down with you and then you can say something like this: “I know it’s been hard on Joe’s family to accept my new boyfriend. I’m not asking for them to forget about my late husband – I haven’t forgotten about him! In fact, I miss him every day. But I also know that he would want me to be happy. I don’t want to start over with a whole new life – on the contrary, I want to continue to live a life that incorporates both Joe’s memory and the happiness I have with my new boyfriend. It’s hurtful to me that Joe’s family doesn’t ask about my new boyfriend or allow him to come to family events. Can you help me work out how I might best approach this?”

Hopefully, this receptive family member gives you specific ways to talk to your late husband’s family. If they just need to meet your new boyfriend, maybe you can throw a barbecue at your house, where everyone can come and chat with him in a casual setting. Or maybe they need time to get to know your new boyfriend better, and thus it could be best to do an activity – bowling or Zoom trivia or whatever – where they can see you together as a couple. Or maybe you could find acceptance by writing an email or a letter to those who are reticent about your new boyfriend, explaining how happy you are and how much you hope for their blessing. There’s not a one-sized-fits-all approach, as all families are different. But getting some advice from within the family is usually the best way to start. Who knows – they might not think they’re being exclusionary at all. They might just be trying to respect your privacy! (Yes, they might also be super unsupportive and it might never work. In that case you may want to try seeking out a therapist who can help you affirm your new identity and figure out how to assertively but compassionately communicate your wishes to your in-laws. If all that fails? Well, then it’s back to option 1. But let’s try talking first.)

Might some of your in-laws always have mixed feelings about your moving forward in a new relationship? I’m sure they will! I’m sure I would if I was in the same place. But that’s okay – in fact, I think it’s totally human. You aren’t asking for them to call your new boyfriend “son” or “brother” or whatever. You are asking for a bit of grace as you move forward.

I talk very little about my in-laws, as they are a private family and I respect that. (I have written one piece about my mother-in-law that she really loved that you can read here.) But I’ll say this – they are truly happy for me and Chris. Because of the pandemic and an international border, they haven’t been able to meet him. But they’re all really excited about our wedding this fall.

I don’t think you have to start a blog and write hundreds of blog posts about how much you miss your late spouse (and the complicated and wonderful emotions surrounding falling in love again) in order for your late spouse’s family to understand the process that you’ve gone through. I think you can just put things out in the open and ask for some understanding to live a life that is meaningful and happy.

**This column is merely my point of view and is for informational purposes only. I am not a therapist or medical professional, and thus my thoughts should not be a substitute for advice from these professionals. Please get immediate help if you feel like harming yourself. The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-8255.

2 Comments

  • Yonatan Doron

    I think this is generally very good advice. My late wife passed away over two years ago, and unfortunately, what was a deeply close loving relationship with her family after she passed away has turned into an extremely fraught one today – aside from a couple of individuals, they most don’t talk to me. Of course, a significant part of that surrounded my new marriage. But I also know that relationships are always more complicated than they appear and other factors (including inheritance, promised mementos, etc) factor in and even more complicated by the necessary physical distance that the pandemic created. This recent article was helpful for me to realize the deleterious impact that shunning can create: https://www.theatlantic.com/family/archive/2021/03/psychology-of-silent-treatment-abuse/618411/

    Most importantly, I think it’s important for windows/widowers to remember that oftentimes in-laws also experience trauma and grief, and the ways that they play out are different for every Individual.

    • M Brimley

      Yes, that’s a really good point. Everyone is grieving and in trauma….and that can take a lot of forms. Hang in there. Thanks so much for sharing.

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