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Carolyn Hax: In-laws who shunned transgender child now want to end estrangement

(Nick Galifianakis/For The Washington Post)

Adapted from an online discussion.

Dear Carolyn: My spouse’s parents essentially disowned our entire family after we supported our transgender child. They are extremely devoted Catholics, and my father-in-law was very clear in his apoplectic emails that we were making the wrong decision for our child. My mother-in-law went along with it because that is “what wives do.”

Five years later, our trans child is a thriving ninth-grader, and our two younger children, 9 and 11, barely remember their grandparents. My parents have been 100 percent supportive since Day 1, fortunately.

Recently, we heard through extended family that my mother-in-law has been having some minor health problems and my father-in-law reached out to my spouse, “Dan,” with some initial feelers for reconciliation. Dan is cautious but misses his family. His brother has multiple health issues and told Dan that he couldn't go against my father-in-law's wishes because brother relies on their help.

I am much more cynical; I think my father-in-law is worried about who will take care of them. Dan and I are financially secure in a way his brother is not. Also, I am unwilling to expose my kids to my father-in-law's toxic views and am still very hurt by some things he said while we were still in contact: for example, that we were committing child abuse.

I am wondering how to navigate this. Dan is willing to continue to avoid contact if I am adamant, but I know he wishes things were different with his parents. Any advice would be welcome.

— Wondering

Wondering: Would you be able to stomach it if Dan spoke to his family but you and your kids stayed away?

No judgment if that’s too ethically fraught for you, given his family’s actions and your absolutely appropriate decision to support and protect your child. Children, really: Their well-being must remain your and Dan’s primary responsibility. Plus, it is appropriate regardless to prioritize your marriage over Dan’s connection to a family of origin that undermines him.

There is also a risk his seeing them without you could drive a wedge between you and Dan, if they haven’t softened but he softens to them.

And you both have to weigh the effect it will have on your child emotionally, to welcome someone back in who so completely condemned their identity.

Still, I propose it because Dan’s, “I’m willing to decline their request if you ask me to,” stance tells me two things: 1. He does prioritize your immediate family; 2. But he wants to give his parents a chance to show him they’ve changed (though grounds for that could be in his imagination only). As long as Dan maintains your child’s well-being, not his dad’s or even his own, as his primary responsibility, he could conceivably explore whether there’s any merit to this “reconciliation” without exposing the kids to much risk.

If you can grant Dan that trust, then that might be better for your marriage long-term than if you said “no” out of hand. Please also consider running this by a therapist who has experience guiding families through such profound family rifts.