Former sister-in-law's friendship is independent of marital ties
Q: My husband says that since my two brothers divorced, their exes are out of our family. I am nice to my brothers' new girlfriends, but they were both married for 20 years and I think of the exes as my sisters.
Also I've known my husband's brother's ex-wife since junior high school — longer than I've known my brother-in-law. We still hang out and I consider her a good friend. My husband says my loyalty should be with the new women and none of the exes.
I don't want to be thought of as disloyal but I have a very hard time with this situation. I don't want to have to pick one side.
A: I don't want to take sides, either, so I'm going to have to figure out a nonpartisan way to point out that your husband is being a complete tool.
The responsibility of adults to behave like adults isn't situational; we all bear it every day, under pressures big and small. However, the more complicated the situation, the more urgent it becomes that people resist the temptation to behave like miffed adolescents.
You don't just discard people because they're in a new place on the org chart. Explaining decency is about as self-defeating as explaining a joke, but I'll do it anyway: Excommunicating these exes now would send the message that you were nice to them only because you had to be.
Certainly with some relatives that will be true; you put on a civil face with Aunt Toad only because your uncle married her, and because recoiling with horror and screaming at the Thanksgiving table aren't polite ways to react. If your uncle were to divorce her, then you would be under no obligation to stay in touch.
But where the affection is genuine and independent of the family tie, then it's only natural for your loyalties to reflect that independence. In fact, integrity demands it. Memo to your husband: Where one spouse shows integrity, it's on the other spouse to show some respect.
Integrity also demands, of course, that you be judicious in maintaining ties to exes, as well as be kind to any newcomers. You don't want to blather on about the ex in front of the new squeeze, or invite the ex just to spite others, or otherwise exploit your friendship with the ex to advance your own agenda. And while you don't need to explain yourself to anyone, you should be clear on your own reasoning so that your behavior remains principled and consistent.
Conveniently, by making sure any against-the-spousal-grain decision is also a thoughtful one, you inoculate yourself against behavior that would be legitimately disloyal: fraternizing with an ex who did something inexcusable. If one of these exes abused your brother, for example, or mistreated him without showing any indication or remorse, then your husband, alas, would be right: You would be obligated to pick a side.
I would conclude by saying it's not about family, it's about justice, but even that would be off the mark; in deciding the right thing to do, the only absolute that applies is that there are no absolutes. The "right thing" is unique to each situation — and so the right thing for your husband to do is let you decide for yourself.