By Michael McNulty, PhD, LCSW
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Q: I’ve been with my partner for a year now. He got divorced about 3 years ago and from time to time will keep in touch with his ex and her family, even to the point of going to important family functions. I’ve seen the toll it takes on him emotionally and on our relationship overall but he feels that he needs these people to stay in his life. Is it possible to maintain a healthy balance between a former spouse and their family as well as with your new partner? What should I know and do in this situation? —J. K.
A: The process of your partner, his former spouse, and her family all grieving the divorce and adapting to life as former spouses and in-laws is, at best, a work in progress that takes longer and is more complicated than you probably expect.
Your partner’s struggles with how, how much, and when to connect with his ex and former in-laws are not uncommon, even three years after a divorce and one year into your relationship.
You have valid concerns about the amount of time he spends with them, how it affects him, and the impact on you both. To move forward, you both need to understand the nature of ambiguous losses, and techniques that help people work with them in order to have a productive dialogue about your concerns.
According to Dr. Pauline Boss of the University of Minnesota, who developed Ambiguous Loss Theory, an ambiguous loss is a loss made more complicated because the person lost is both absent and present. Your partner and his ex and members of her family remain physically present. They are still living and able to connect even after the divorce. Simultaneously, he is no longer married to her. Therefore he is absent from his former roles as husband and in-law.
This changes who he is, psychologically, to her and her family, and who they are to him. The dichotomy of presence and absence can be confusing and make grieving the divorce and moving on with life more complicated. What is lost, how to grieve, and how to move forward become ambiguous, murky, and unclear for all involved.
Mourning more straightforward losses is much less complicated. The person is both physically and psychologically gone, due to events like an anticipated death or a move out of state. The loss is complete. Those who have lost feel sadness over time. Mourning occurs and life moves forward.
Mourning the loss of a partner due to divorce, which, again, is an ambiguous loss, is more complex because the partners are still alive with a need or desire to interact. While your partner desires to maintain contact with his ex and her family, you note that connecting in the ways he and they do at this time takes its toll on him emotionally. Contact between them may be stirring up his emotional wounds related to the divorce, which is a sign of “frozen grief.”
With divorce, frozen grief occurs when those who attempt to mourn get into an alternating pattern of re-experiencing the divorce as if it is happening all over again and acting like the divorce no longer affects them. Frozen grief feels at least stressful and often traumatic. People are chronically stuck in a painful grieving process and have significant difficulty moving forward with life.
Frozen grief can occur when people have contact with former partners, and re-experience unresolved emotional wounds from their marriage or divorce. When your partner goes to events with his ex and her family, his wounds along these lines may be triggered. If this causes his grieving process to go back to square one, he is probably experiencing frozen grief.
An alternate explanation is he is making progress on his grief and moving forward. However, he has not yet found ways to remain connected to his ex and her family that feel comfortable and appropriate in his relatively new role as a former partner and in-law. The ways they are asking him to connect may not be in accord with how he envisions connecting with them as an ex-spouse.
After most divorces, who the former spouses and in-laws become to one another and whether and how they are a part of each others’ lives are works in progress that remain to be seen. How the former partners and their families adapt is influenced by the feelings, needs, wounds, and dreams of all involved. Divorcing partners can become stuck in “frozen grief” or they can develop new, healthy ways to move forward.
How to Manage Frozen Grief and Move Forward With Life
Dr. Boss makes these recommendations for how to manage frozen grief and move forward. They are potentially helpful to anyone affected, including new partners. They are designed to help partners and their families live well as they deal with life after an ambiguous loss like a divorce.
Label divorce as an ambiguous loss
All involved do better if they realize that the divorce is an ambiguous loss. Such recognition helps them understand that grieving and moving forward will be challenging and complicated. It’s not them. There are no templates for how to grieve move forward in this unique context.
Former partners, family members, and current partners all do better if they can share their perspectives with one another. Perspectives include: thoughts, feelings, needs, opinions, reactions, and interpretations about the divorce and how to grieve and move forward. As the new partner, you will need to share your perspective on this situation, at least with your partner, as the ambiguity affects you and your relationship. Everyone should be respectful and accepting of one another’s other’s diverse points. No two persons will have the exact same view.
Be flexible and creative
The more everyone can try to understand and respect each other’s perspectives, the more likely that the various parties in the family system will enter into constructive dialogues. Appreciating diverse points of view will help all affected be flexible and creative as they attempt, together, to grieve and move forward with life.
It’s normal for people to be ambivalent about facing grief and change. Even when partners wholeheartedly believe it is necessary, a divorce is a loss. Divorcing partners and their families lose not only the parts of their marriage they valued, but also the hopes and dreams that never came to fruition. New partners wish they did not have to deal with these complications. Acknowledging sadness or any other negative feelings, and resulting ambivalence, ironically, helps people face grief and change, because they feel better understood.
Reconstruct roles and rituals
Former spouses and members of their family can create new roles and rituals, which are in accord with how they would like to be present in one another’s lives post-divorce. They will most likely discover if and how they would like to connect over time. Constructing roles and rituals helps people express how they want to connect. It also helps them develop meaningful, regular routines to ensure they connect. Roles and rituals will likely be revised over time as people grow and change.
The need to create roles and rituals can vary dependent on how divorced partners feel about one another in the aftermath of the emotional wounds and scars that occurred during the marriage and divorce process. What’s most important is that the desire to have roles and rituals with former partners and relatives is mutual and entails connecting in ways all involved feel are
appropriate and worthwhile.