Adapted from a recent online discussion.
You can stay friends with your ex-sister-in-law, but be wary
Q: My husband's brother is in the middle of a very nasty divorce, and my husband and I are grieving the loss of a wonderful friendship with our ex-sister-in-law.
The brother has been adamant about our cutting ties with her. We are not so sure we can do this and have been thinking of including her in our holiday plans. Would you agree that it's okay to make an exception at holidays, especially for someone who doesn't really have other family in the area?
Carolyn: This is wholly dependent on context. The simplistic answer is to say your brother-in-law doesn't have the right to make you cut ties. He doesn't.
But he might have the right to ask. Who wronged whom in the marriage? I've read too many accounts of abuse victims whose families insist on staying in touch with the abusers. That's a huge betrayal by family.
On the other hand, if your brother-in-law mistreated his ex, then his family has standing to say, "You want nothing to do with her, and that's your right, but she was good to us and we grew to love her over these 7/17/27 years." You can even ask him to back up his request: "If she mistreated you, then please say so because we don't want to harbor someone who harmed you. But if you just don't love her anymore, then I feel I have a right to continue my own relationship with her."
Just make sure you're confident in your facts and prepared for any consequences before you act, since any choice is likely to alienate someone. If you're not willing to risk your relationship with the brother or if your husband isn't, then that decides it. Otherwise you maintain ties as you deem appropriate and let others decide how to respond.
Anonymous 2: The way I read the question it appeared that she wanted to include her sis-in-law in a family celebration that already included the brother. It's one thing to maintain ties, but another to purposefully create an awkward situation.
Carolyn: The letter is unclear on this, but, yes, putting the two together without their mutual consent wouldn't be fair.
There's also no need to add extra voltage to an already charged situation by centering this on holidays. Anonymous, you can keep in touch with Sis-in-Law at other times of the year. The ex is a grownup, and can handle a holiday without your family's embrace.
Anonymous 3: I think the ex absolutely should be included in the holidays. My brother's ex-wife is a great person, and I simply told my brother, "I am inviting your ex-wife for Christmas dinner, and if you can't be civil to her please don't come." He did come, and that Christmas turned out to be a good first step toward my brother learning to at least be cordial when she was around. You think I was wrong to do that?
Carolyn: Not if the context supported it. But this is so fraught. What if the ex had wronged your brother, and he decided not to tell you that because he didn't want to bad-mouth her? Then your "She's coming and you're sucking it up" approach would have been insensitive to him.