9 Ways to Build a Better Relationship With Your Ex In-Laws

Follow these nine essential guidelines for the best ex in-laws etiquette.
By:
Chelsea Williams
November 19, 2021
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s a divorced parent, you've heard lots of advice about how to get along with your former spouse. But it's less common to talk about the continued relationship you'll have with their family while you're co-parenting. Difficult as this relationship can be, there are some principles of ex in-laws etiquette you can follow to make things easier on everyone.

We'll cover some specific techniques for:

  • Setting the stage with honesty, positive communication, and respect for your divorce agreement
  • Interacting with your ex in-laws at family events, limiting extended family involvement, and putting the kids' relationship with their grandparents first
  • Holding steady boundaries and realistic expectations as you build your new blended family

1. Be Open, and Ask Questions

The divorce itself and the period following can be a difficult time for everyone, including your former spouse's parents. Although they weren't in the relationship themselves, they may be grieving and processing some heavy emotions. Understand that your ex in-laws are experiencing this in their own way, and that their feelings are valid. Note their struggle and offer compassion.

Honesty can go a long way in initiating a new kind of post-divorce relationship with them. Instead of making assumptions about what they're thinking, directly address any concerns you have — in a kind and neutral tone.

Framing things as a question can help. You could ask things like: "Is it OK if I call you?" or "Would you mind telling me why you're upset?" Often, people need to feel heard, and this technique can break the ice.

2. Decide How You Will Communicate

ex in laws etiquette: women and man communicating

Sometimes the toughest parts of going through a divorce come down to the small stuff. Having to send or reply to frequent texts or emails, decide if you should answer a phone call, or remember to maintain your boundaries in the moment are all small things that can feel big.

You can alleviate much of that stress with some planning and compromise. Perhaps it's worth having a conversation with your co-parent about how they'd like you to reach out to their parents (if at all). Maybe you can mutually decide to use a co-parenting app to make logistical communication easier on everyone. If your former in-laws would like to contribute to a certain expense for your children, using Onward can make it much simpler for you and your co-parent to keep track of what they’ve paid.

At the end of the day, the decisions about how (and how much) you'll be in touch with your ex's family are yours. If, for example, your ex mother-in-law texts you several times a week to check in on the kids, you may choose to respond with an offer to schedule a regular time to let her speak to them when they're with you. Be considerate, but firm.

3. Adhere to Mutual Ground Rules

Some of the factors involved in ex in-laws etiquette, including extended family, will be a bit more nuanced and may even be out of your control.

When it comes to children spending time with their grandparents, there may be some court-mandated procedures you have to follow, believe it or not. Some states are lenient about children being with extended family members on either parent's time, and others are a bit more strict about the other parent's rights — specifically, the right of first refusal.

If the right of first refusal applies, you may have to check with your co-parent before dropping your kids off with your parents or your ex’s parents on your time. The other parent would always have the right to spend time with the children instead of someone else, if they’re available and choose to exercise that right. Before setting any plans with your ex in-laws and risking their disappointment, be sure to ask your attorney or brush up on family law as it pertains to your case.

Non-legal family boundaries matter too. Maybe you and your co-parent have informally agreed to check with each other first before asking any favors of the other's parents, or to have separate birthday parties for each side of the family. Take these arrangements seriously, as upsetting your co-parent could cause unnecessary strife between you and their parents, too.

4. Invite Them to Special Occasions

ex in laws etiquette: invite family to important events

Once you're clear on how you need and want to communicate, you can move forward with continuing to include your former in-laws in your children's lives.

You don’t want obligation to be the motive for inviting them to holidays, graduations, or school performances. You may be able to leave the decision up to your former spouse. But if it's up to you, think about:

  • The importance of the occasion
  • The capacity (i.e., are there enough tickets?)
  • Whether everyone in attendance will be comfortable

Sometimes, you'll conclude that it's best not to invite grandparents, and they may not understand that decision. Good ex in-laws etiquette isn't about doing what they want, but about being fair and straightforward. If you need to, refresh your understanding of how best to set and maintain boundaries with both your parents and your ex in-laws.

5. Don't Gossip With Other Family Members

You may still see or talk to other people on your ex's side of the family, in addition to their parents. It's possible to get caught up in conversations that could be misinterpreted, even unintentionally.

For example, you're good friends with your ex sister-in-law. She texts you something her mother said about the way you dress your three-year-old. Even though she may think she's being loyal by letting you know, you have a choice about how to respond. Once you cool off, you can set your boundaries with a casual reply like: "Thanks, but it's a bit stressful for me to hear about things like this, given that I'm still in touch with your parents. Do you think we could agree not to talk about them going forward?"

This could take courage, but it does get easier over time to tell hard truths. Better than having to deal with the awkwardness, see if you can limit interactions with your former spouse's extended family to those in which you can conduct yourself conscientiously.

6. Honor the Grandparents' Role

Complications of adult life can become easier when we remember to prioritize our kids. If you're overwhelmed with trying to maintain a great relationship with your ex in-laws, or just not getting the responses you'd like, look at them as grandparents instead.

There's a significant difference between viewing them as your mother-in-law or father-in-law versus choosing to see them as your child's grandparent. If you have the opportunity, sit back and observe your child playing with their grandma or grandpa at the park, laughing with them on FaceTime, or hugging them after a sporting event. Practicing gratitude for their presence and love for your children can bring things back into focus.

Sweet moments with kids can break all kinds of tension between adults. Sharing them might just be just the thing you need to move your post-divorce relationship forward.

7. Create Space for Your Blended Family

If you're at the stage where you're co-parenting while in a relationship and perhaps blending families, your in-laws could be hesitant about the changes they hear are happening in your household, and how those will affect their grandchildren. There's no trick to this one; have confidence in your choices and know that time will iron out a lot of their uncertainty.

While it’s best to resist the urge to explain yourself or justify your desire to move on from your previous marriage, it may be worth setting up a casual conversation with your ex in-laws. Reassure them that things won’t change between them and your children because of your new family structure.

8. Keep Your New Partner in the Loop

ex in laws etiquette: communicating with your partner

Despite your ex's parents' opinions about your new life or family, your current relationship will only remain strong if you're open with your new partner — and vice versa.

It's common to feel like a burden when you're bringing children and a co-parenting arrangement to a new relationship. But consistent communication can help you release that guilt. Here are a few suggestions for talking with your partner about your ex in-laws’ role in your and your kids’ lives:

  • Give your partner the ability to remove themselves from contact with your ex's family that makes them uncomfortable.
  • Inform them about communication you have with your former spouse's parents or breaking news from that side of the family that affects you and your children. This minimizes the chances they'll be confused by conversations at an event or special occasion.
  • Allow your partner to support you. If they're committed, they'll be happy to do so, despite any ongoing relationships they may not understand.

9. Expect Your Relationship With Your Ex In-Laws to Change

You may have a vision of what your relationship with your former in-laws could be, but it's not your fault if it doesn't pan out that way.

Divorce has a way of churning up everything you thought you knew, and this relationship is no exception. Over time, your relationship with your ex’s parents is bound to change.

That doesn’t mean it has to change for the worse. In fact, you may find you develop a different, but stronger, connection with them as time passes. Still, it can be devastating to have your hopes dashed. Give yourself time to grieve the loss of a certain rapport with these parental figures in your life if that applies to you.

All of the above advice comes down to focusing on what you can control and letting go of the rest. It's exhausting and unnecessary to try to predict misunderstandings or miscommunications.

Instead, take some time to thoughtfully consider the path you personally want to follow with your ex in-laws. Hold on to your healthy boundaries, and you may find that things will go much better than you ever expected.

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Chelsea Williams

Chelsea is a twice-divorced mom of two boys. She is happily single parenting and doing her best to balance two simultaneous co-parenting relationships. Despite the complications, Chelsea can see the beauty in her story and believes healing is possible for the whole family.