Dear Emotional Hardbody,
I’m going through a tough divorce that was prompted by my husband Tom’s affair. The whole thing came as a shock, and it has been hard on my kids (6 and 8 years old) and me.
I was always friendly with Tom’s family, but since the divorce bomb dropped they’ve been AWOL, which has only compounded the pain. I was particularly hurt that my mother-in-law, Jean, would vanish, because we have always been close.
Recently, I emailed Jean to tell her that I was surprised by her sudden disappearance. I explained that even though Tom and I were getting a divorce, I didn’t realize that would also mean that I would lose contact with that entire side of the family.
Jean sent me a reply that I found troubling. She said that she was deeply saddened by the divorce she really wanted to be supportive of me during this challenging time. She said she wanted to keep in touch, but she could only do so if I agreed to keep our communications secret from Tom. She explained that she was worried that Tom wouldn’t approve of her talking to me and she was afraid that he would react by not letting her see the grandkids on his watch.
I understand that Tom is her son and that puts Jean in a tough position, but her request still strikes me as wrong. Should I suck it up and accept her terms or should I consider my relationship with her over?
Not Sure I Want an Undercover Mother-in-law
Dear Not Sure,
So, Jean wants to have a relationship with you but keep it secret from Tom? With a mom like that, it’s not hard to see why Tom was comfortable with sneaking around behind your back.
Jean’s proposal is wrong for a lot of reasons. First and foremost, it’s unfair to you. Jean is offering you a dysfunctional, duplicitous relationship. You already had one of those with Tom, and the entire point of your divorce is to rid your life of that. The last thing you want to do is go through the pain, hassle and work of getting divorced, only to replace one dishonest relationship with another.
Another reason her proposal is wrong is because it is unfair to Tom. And while I’m not suggesting you care about being fair to Tom for Tom’s sake, you should care about it for your sake. The fact that Jean’s proposal troubles you tells me you’re not the kind of person who double-crosses people and engages in shady behavior. And that’s exactly what Jean is asking you to do.
Although Jean may say she wants to be supportive, her proposal makes clear that she does not mean it. When you support someone, you are there for them when they need you. You’re not there for them only in secret or when no one else is looking — unless you’re helping them hide from the law.
It’s also worth mentioning that Jean’s apparent comfort with operating behind people’s backs should make you question how much access you really want to give her to your personal life. If she’s readily willing to betray her son, can you really trust her not to betray you? When you are going through something as difficult as a divorce — especially one that was precipitated by a betrayal — you need real support, not someone who is only willing to talk to you in secret. Surround yourself with genuine friends whom you can count on and trust both in public and in private.
Email Jean back and tell her that although you appreciate that she wants to be supportive, you cannot agree to keep your relationship secret from Tom, because that is dishonest. Further explain that her request for secrecy makes clear that you have a different understanding of what being supportive actually involves. You might also let her know that should she reach a point in the future when she is comfortable having a real relationship with you — one that does not have to be kept underground — you would love to hear from her. But if she does reach out to you in the future, please remember what this episode has taught you about Jean’s trustworthiness and reliability, and proceed with caution.
Stay strong and good luck!