Divorcing Your In-Laws

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Dear Sugar Radio is a weekly podcast from member station WBUR. Hosts Steve Almond and Cheryl Strayed offer "radical empathy" and advice on everything from relationships and parenthood to dealing with drug problems or anxiety.

Today the Sugars consider the consequences of reaching out to the family of a former spouse, and answer the question of whether it's OK for a student to date a professor after the class has ended.

Dear Sugars,

In two weeks, I will be officially divorced. We met at our university — he was in undergrad, I was in graduate school — and got married less than a month after graduation. While the relationship had been a happy one during college, it became clear early on that we simply weren't ready for marriage. The most difficult aspect of my divorce has been in dealing with the hurt I caused his family. This is especially true when it came to his grandmother. In fact, the only time I cried during the divorce process was when I thought of how much it hurt her. I loved her and the rest of his family with the very core of my being, and for a long time, stuck out the marriage just because I didn't want to cause them any grief.

Lately, I've been thinking about writing letters to both his grandmother and my former in-laws to apologize. I don't want to try to explain myself or justify the divorce, but I do want them to know that my decision to leave was not only for my best interest, but for their son and grandson as well. I want them to know that I love them and appreciate how they opened their family to me. I want them to know how sorry I am for bringing heartache into their family, and how I never intended our marriage would play out this way.

I haven't spoken to them since my ex-husband and I decided to divorce, but I don't want to leave my relationship with them without acknowledging how much it meant to me.

Should I write to them, Sugars? Or would it only hurt them further?

With love,

The Ex-Daughter-in-Law

Cheryl Strayed: Absolutely, Ex-Daughter-In-Law, you should write to them. It wouldn't hurt them further. You're writing to them to acknowledge the true bond that you shared and the love you have for them, and really, the best wishes you have for their family, including your ex-husband. I think that's a beautiful sentiment, and you should do it. I've been in this situation before and it's a very painful part of divorce — you divorce your spouse's family, as well. There was a reckoning we had about a year or two after my ex-husband and I broke up. I called my ex-mother-in-law and we had a really loving conversation. I think that's a really healing thing to do, so I strongly encourage you to do it.

Steve Almond: I think part of the problem in this relationship, Ex-Daughter-In-Law, is that you were as in love with his family, and maybe even more in love with them, than you were with your husband. The allegiance that they feel is to their son who, rightly or wrongly, they see as hurt or wronged, because it sounds like you called an end to the marriage. You can absolutely write to them and express these beautiful sentiments, but you can't do it with the expectation that they will initiate a dialogue and come back into your life. Because the truth is, at a certain point in relationships, you become something bad that happened to somebody they love. And that's a tough part of divorce or breaking up.

Cheryl: I think the piece of it that she should ponder is, what is it that she hopes to get if she writes to them? My read of her letter is that she isn't looking for a response. She's really wanting closure and to simply acknowledge that they did share this bond and that she does care for them, even though she has now moved on.

Steve: This is not a solvable problem. I think she does need to write that letter, but she also needs to recognize that there is a risk that all of her good, warm feelings will be painful for her ex-in-laws to absorb because it's a reminder of a loss.

Cheryl: Perhaps, but so is her silence and her absence. I think that that has a larger effect than somebody speaking into that void and saying, "Listen, this is hard and I care for you."

Dear Sugars,

I've become a stereotype! I am insanely attracted to one of my professors. He's smart (obviously goes with the territory, but as professors go, he's GREAT), funny, interesting, talented and cute. I really want to ask him out after the semester is over. It seems like we have so much in common. But I wonder if pining after him until then is a silly waste of my time. It's extremely rare for me to be as attracted to someone as I am to him. And there's only a small age gap — I'm 23, he's 27 — so I feel like I'm letting myself hope something could happen maybe more than I should. It sounds so silly and trivial, but honestly, do you think it's a bad idea? Should I cut my losses and talk myself out of my attraction to him? And if I were to ask him out after final grades are in, what would be an appropriate way to do it?


Nervous but Hopeful

Cheryl: Nervous but Hopeful, I'm going to make an unpopular call. I don't think you should ask your professor out. There's a long-standing ethical groundwork that has been laid around this dynamic of students and teachers dating each other. I believe that you're attracted to him. He may very well be attracted to you. But I think you need to back off and think of yourself not in an individual way, but as a category. You are a student and he is a professor. And for him to cross this ethical divide and date you, even after you specifically are no longer his student, still puts him in dangerous waters. I have friends who have married each other and how they met was one of them was the teacher and one of them was the student. So I'm not saying this is a terribly evil thing to do, but it gives me great pause because the consequences of asking this guy out can be pretty big.

Steve: The age gap isn't the issue here, Nervous but Hopeful. It's a power thing. Professors are especially dynamic — they know things, they're the idealizers, faux parents, they're compassionate and wise. But that professor is not who he is when he's teaching you all the time. He's somebody else, and I think you need to move far enough away from the teacher-student relationship that you can start to figure out who he is. If you want to ask this guy out, wait another year or two until you're not worrying about what the appropriate way to ask him out is.

You can get more advice from the Sugars each week on Dear Sugar Radio from WBUR. Listen to the whole episode to also hear from a woman wondering how to come out as a lesbian to her homophobic friends.

Have a question for the Sugars? Email dearsugarradio@gmail.com and it may be answered on a future episode.

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