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Ask Dr. Zoe – Setting Boundaries When In-Laws Divorce

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‘Stuck in the Middle’ Asked:

How do my husband and I practically set boundaries with our parents who are each going through a separation/divorce? Both sets of parents are going through a break in their marriage and all four of them come to us to talk. It’s affecting our mood, emotional eating, fitness level, family life with our kids, and work. It’s constant. Holidays have been the absolute worst. How do we love them even when we’re angry with their decisions? How do we protect our family unit from the effects of the drama? I’ve resorted to literally miming the action of putting on sunglasses to block the drama when I feel overwhelmed!

Stuck in the Middle

Dr. Zoe Answered:

Dear ‘Stuck in the Middle,’

That’s great that you’re miming the action of blocking out the drama, but guess what? This is real life and you can’t mime it. You have to actually do it. Block out that drama!

Many parents of adults make the mistake of thinking that because their children are adults, they don’t have to adhere to the rule of not badmouthing the other parent or using their kids as a sounding board during a divorce, but that rule goes for all ages for all time. It is inappropriate for them to come to you with their divorce drama. That’s what their friends and their therapists are for.

The reality is that you can’t control their behaviors or what comes out of their mouth. As their child, you should support them if they need your help, but that doesn’t mean that you are obligated to expose yourself and your family to their emotional mess. They are not thinking straight right now and probably don’t realize the emotional upheaval they are causing, which means it’s your turn to be the grown up.

I get the feeling that you know this to some extent, but the hard part is how do you take the action to erect healthy boundaries without hurting their feelings, right?

First, you have your own issues and anger you are dealing with because your parents are divorcing. This is painful at any age and makes it worse when your spouse is going through the exact same thing. It may make it hard for you to support each other. Each person grieves in their own way. And please understand that your ideas about marriage in general can take a hit when your parents divorce, so it makes sense that this is putting a strain on your marriage.

It’s time to take your marriage and family back. You do love your parents and you can keep all of your relationships by sitting down with your husband first and having a discussion. You two need to decide on your boundaries with your parents, which should include:

1. Asking them not to talk about their divorce when your kids are around.
2. Asking them not to badmouth the other parent… Ever.
3. Agreeing that family time is not to be interrupted or canceled because of parents’ drama.
4. Setting up a regular date night for you and your spouse where discussion of your parents is off limits.
5. Making it known that whenever you have family events that you will always invite all parties and they can decide if they want to come or not and they can deal with it when they arrive. If anyone is inappropriate or can’t respect your boundaries, they must leave.
6. Creating a rotation for holidays (if you are the one that visits), notifying your parents of the rotation and sticking to it.

After you two have come up with boundaries, it’s time to sit all of your parents down, tell them that you love them and want to support them, but because you love and care for them all, their divorce is having a detrimental effect on your family and you have to protect your family first. Lay out your boundaries with them, letting them know that you also know that they love you and want the best for your family and their grandchildren.

Notice that I never included your children on any of these discussions. This is not their parents’ divorce and they should be kept out of this to the greatest extent that you can. Ultimately they will need to know the factual reality of the divorce, but other than that, they should be shielded from any details or drama.

You mentioned your feelings of anger and judgment about their choices. Just as they need to take their issues somewhere else, this is not the time to speak to your parents about your disappointment with their decisions. They are adults making decisions for their reasons. You are an adult and need to process all of your feelings with someone else too. When this is all over, there may be space for that discussion in the relationship, but now is not the time.

Remember, loving relationships included healthy boundaries. This is a difficult time in your relationships with your parents. You can all get through it if you’re willing to have the difficult conversations, demand respect and also respect everyone through this process.

You’ve got this! It just takes a little grit and grace!

Dr. Zoe


Listen to a recent episode from the podcast, This Grit and Grace Life: Miss Independent: Can You Be Healthy, Strong and Dependent? – 047.

Take a look at what some of our writers have to say about related topics: Divorce Was Not in the PlanEstablishing Healthy Boundaries in the Grit and Grace LifeTired? Overwhelmed? 4 Guilt-Free Reasons to Say “No”The Best Way to Co-Parent During the Holidays, and Remarriage—5 Tips for How to Make it Work.
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Dr. Zoe is a licensed psychotherapist and relationship expert who recently jumped out of a perfectly good plane just for the experience.

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