Each installment of “The Friendship Files” features a conversation between The Atlantic’s Julie Beck and two or more friends, exploring the history and significance of their relationship.
This week she talks with a woman and her husband’s ex-wife, who are close friends. They call each other “wife-in-law” and happily share the joys and challenges of parenting and grandparenting together. They discuss the fun, tangled web of relationships that is their blended family, and the friendship they’ve built independent of it.
Robin Goldstein, 72, a psychologist who lives in Boca Raton, Florida
Michelle Lobovits, 69, a retired nonprofit executive who lives in Boynton Beach, Florida
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Julie Beck: What did you know about each other before you met?
Michelle Lobovits: I didn’t know much. I knew Joe [my ex-husband] had a girlfriend. We met for the first time at my son and daughter-in-law’s rehearsal dinner for their wedding, 15 years ago, which happened to be the night of Tropical Storm Barry. This was a beachfront location. With 40-mile-an-hour winds coming through, the whole place was soaked.
Joe and I were in the rehearsal [and Robin wasn’t]. So my husband, Dan, who did not know Robin, went to pick her up at Joe’s apartment to bring her.
Here’s my beautiful first impression of Robin, poor Robin: My husband had an umbrella and Robin had a shower cap, and Dan was trying to guide her along this dune to get into this restaurant. And the umbrella just flew away into the ocean. She’s in this beautiful Chanel suit, she’s going to meet the family for the first time, and every single person is completely soaked to the gills—so much so that the steel-drum guy we had hired refused to plug his thing in. He said, “There’s too much water here. We’re all going to get electrocuted.”
Beck: Robin, what did you know about Michelle before you met her?
Robin Goldstein: Well, I’m dating this man, so I obviously asked about what happened to his marriages. I don’t think he ever said anything disparaging about Michelle. I knew they were on friendly terms and that they’d done a good job with the kids.
Beck: How many kids are there?
Michelle: Three. Sort of. So Joe was my first husband, but he had a marriage before me, with a daughter. She has a lovely mother too, but our kids grew up together. I say three, but two were mine.
Beck: What were your first impressions of each other at that very wet rehearsal dinner?
Michelle: We were introduced, but there were 90 other people there, and it was soaking wet. I don’t think we sat down and had a conversation until after the wedding weekend.
Robin: The first time you had us over to the house would’ve been the first time you and I talked at a more personal level.
Michelle: It was probably around a holiday. Maybe Passover?
Robin: Or Rosh Hashanah.
Michelle: It’s not clear, the whole beginning.
Robin: We were around each other so much and it just evolved. I always enjoyed being in her company and was so appreciative that she threw all these family functions.
Beck: How did you go from having that family connection to considering each other friends?
Michelle: Robin got really friendly with my mother. She was always around. She was like my sister from another mother. Then she invited me to lunch at a nice restaurant. We became friends, I think, at that luncheon.
Robin: I was very fond of her parents. Joe had always stayed on very friendly terms with Michelle’s family.
As a psychologist, I’ve observed that most people make their connections through college, work, and their neighborhood. The more proximity you have with people, the more likely intimacy is developed—as opposed to just meeting someone you like and you have to go out of your way to make a date. When you’re always running into each other, it’s much easier to develop a sense of closeness.
I don’t think you and I got together one-on-one much until Dan was sick.
Michelle: I think Dan got sick in 2010. My husband was just a doll. He was the sweetest, kindest … Nobody could not like him.
Robin: They went through hell, so I did what I would do for any friend that I really cared about. I kept in touch with her, spent time with her, and gave her an outlet of someone to talk to.
After he died, I got to hear all her dating adventures. The year of a hundred cups of coffee.
Beck: When did you start calling each other “wife-in-law”?
Michelle: I think I coined that one early on.
Robin: Oh, I think I did.
Michelle: You did?
Beck: That’s the controversy: Who coined it?
Was it ever awkward for you, navigating your friendship and your relationships with Joe and with the kids?
Michelle: We have good boundaries. I think that’s part of what makes the relationship work.
Joe and I have been divorced since our kids were young. He and I both came from divorced families ourselves. It was really important to us, even though our marriage wasn’t going to make it, that we were going to be parents to the kids and remain a family. We weren’t going to allow them to play one against the other, or have one good guy and one bad guy. Commitment to the kids drove everything between me and Joe.
Beck: Did your other relationships enter into that seamlessly? When you got together with your husband, Dan, Michelle, and when Robin started dating Joe?
Robin: I don’t ever remember it feeling awkward at all. It was always really comfortable.
Michelle: Dan passed away in 2013, and in 2015 I met Mark. We had to then get him into the family groove. If the spouses aren’t into it, it’s really, really hard. There’s a high level of emotional intelligence here, and love, that really makes it work.
Robin: We’re all good people with good hearts. And Michelle and I don’t talk about Joe. I might complain about how much he works or something, but that’s the boundary.
Beck: What’s it like co-parenting and step-parenting and grandparenting together?
Michelle: It’s great. Robin wrote to you in an email that I’m the better grandmother, and it’s not true. I’m the grandmother who makes a cookie. But she’s equally great at what she does. The kids adore her. She’s overly generous to them and she’s much more observant than I am. She calls me if she sees something or she’s concerned about one of the kids.
It’s easy, it’s fun being in this family. We have three amazing kids. Our grandchildren are all healthy. We are so, so, so, so lucky, particularly since Joe and I have like 20 marriages between us.
Robin: You can never have too many mothers or fathers. There’s no protectiveness that I feel from Michelle. I never have to worry that she’s going to think I’m usurping her role with the kids.
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