Holiday Survival Guide for Divorce

Wednesday, December 13th, 2017

Moving Forward

This is a longer article that is worth the time.  We want to share these thoughts to help people going through tough times during the holidays.  There is also a great piece of information at the end of this blog that connects with a powerful Ted Talk on happiness that you will want to see.

No one discounts the feelings people have at this time of year; especially when something hard, like separation, is facing you.  Family and traditions weigh heavy when couples are struggling through change.

In our eBook, FACCT, the first principle of separation and divorce is Family Re-Formation.  The holidays are a perfect time for that to start.  Making family the focus of holidays is hard since couples typically view the separation as the end of their family life as they knew it.  Part of that is true – the “as they knew it” part.  The rest is not necessarily true.

Remember the first time you left your parent’s home for college or some other life event?  You were not always around for the holidays, especially if you were far away.  As life went on you developed new traditions and new ways to celebrate.  But you probably kept the memory of your core family in those activities in some form.

When a couple is first married it may have been painful dealing with two families wanting you to be totally committed to their separate holiday traditions.  It tears people apart and makes the holidays painful.

Similar events are happening to you and your children.

You have the option of holding fast to old celebrations or you can help the kids, and yourself, to remember the past in proper context, and then build new traditions.

How do you do all this?  It starts with understanding yourself and the pressures you are imposing on you.  In the holidays there is the stress of seasonal demands.  There are events, schedules, financial demands, parties, business events, friends, extended family, the new relationship (your co-parent partner) and so much more.  For kids, there may be school events and other forms of celebration that are part of their extended communities.

To disrupt the lives of children based on your separation may promote them feeling like this may be their fault.  They have to deal with consequences that were not of their making.  As a result, if managed poorly, children are hit hard in the holidays.

Here are some ideas from families and professionals that may help as you navigate this new terrain.

Manage the Stress

Stress comes in two forms: external and internal.  The external form are deadlines and obligations that are fixed and outside of your control.  Christmas day, the eight days of Hanukkah and more are not in your control.  Dates and times of school activities or business events are also not in your control.

The internal stress involves the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and our obligations in the world.  There are internal dialogues that may start, “I am X if I don’t do Y.”  These can become complex equivalents: highly held beliefs about yourself.  Meaning gets attached to what we can and cannot do.  On the other hand, if we are talking to a friend about a similar issue, your counsel may be that, “…it’s not such a big issue …”  You would go on to tell them that they need to cut themselves some slack.

It is interesting how we offer others the space we are unwilling to give to ourselves.

So, start with a page, Post Its on a wall, a spreadsheet – whatever you are most comfortable with.  Make a list of your stresses.  Then note if these are internal or external.  With that list you can begin to see what you have control over and what is not in your control.

Controlled items require a choice on your part.  Are you going to let that be an obligation in your life, or will you make it something that is optional?

For those things that are out of your control, there is a simple question focused on scheduling.  Does it fit.  If not, what are the options.  It is not uncommon, whether married, divorced, or separated, that events collide.  When married, maybe you spit the duties with one person going to event A and the other going to event B.  If your separation is negotiated and relatively peaceful, you may still want to do the same thing – one parent goes to one child’s event with the other going to another’s activity.

The big difference here is that you do not make your divided attention a result of your marital issues – it is scheduling just as it was when you were married.  It should be clear to everyone that time is the issue and not the separation itself.

Manage the Money

Living in two households will strain resources.  Sometimes it lends itself to a financial competition for a child’s attention.  Mental health professionals generally agree that this is not healthy for a child.  They remind parents that it is the time they spend with a child that will be remembered most; not the toys.  When there is a special toy, it is surprising that most are the simplest of things because they carry meaning.

We all give mental acknowledgement to the commercialization of the holidays.  How about finally doing something about it?  Simplicity and service are two ways to make holiday’s more special.  Visiting children in a local hospital that are shut inside for the holidays.  Participate in community events such as plays or choirs.  If Church is important in your life, how can you make that part of your holiday focus.

Holidays are also good times for giving.  Going to help at shelters, making cookies to package up and send to troops overseas.  Making cards for family rather than buying them.  Many adults remember looking through the things of a deceased parent only to find small mementos of their childhood preserved (like a hand-made card).

When it comes to gifts, what makes sense for the needs of those around you.  An attitude of giving versus getting is infectious, even for kids.  Use the season to help them reach outside of themselves.  In this spirit, one parent took her daughter to a local shopping center.  As people went to their cars, mom and daughter, with the owner’s permission, would help them load the car and take the cart back to the collection area.  They also gave the people they helped a candy cane and a happy holiday wish.  Mom reported that they both felt so good even though it was a small act of kindness.

When you do shop for family, can it be simple?  What about starting early and making a gift such as blankets.  Shop all year long looking for the sales in summer and fall.  Be on the lookout for those special items well ahead of time.  Maybe it is too late for this year, but you can start out in January making this your pattern.  It is also a way to keep a holiday spirit alive through the year.

Do What Needs to Be Done

Schedules are more complicated when separation has occurred.  By thinking ahead about the practical side of schedules, children have the opportunity to look forward to the season – they have something that the parents are committed to and that kids can anticipate.

In this same process of scheduling, it may be a time to put any hostility on hold.  We remind people in mediation, if it cannot be put into a box or if you cannot do a math problem with it, it does not belong in the conversation.  That goes for scheduling communications.  No blaming, criticism, contempt, or stalling.  This is a time for learning that your marital separation is what caused this new situation.  Now you must manage the complexities or two households and two schedules.  You are now two individuals that deserve respectful interactions and consideration – you are still the parents and the children have the right to spend time with each of you.

Have A Reality Check

Things are different, and children need to know that life is changing.  What is not changing is how you each feel about them.  They also need to know that their needs are being taken into consideration.  They will feel sad and tears will be shed.  Acknowledging that and helping them experience that sadness in a healthy way can encourage them in moving forward.

It is a very different picture to help a child mourn the reality of losing a one-home family unit and moving to a dynamic unit of two or more households (grandparents or other family may be more involved in the lives of the children).  But the fact that they, as individuals, are important, is critical for their emotional health.  Let them know that they count by asking for their ideas and input.  But remember that you are the parent and the adult.  It is your decision and your opportunity to explain “how” something in the schedule works, not “why.”  The “why” response leads to a defensive posture.  The “how” response simply shows the mechanics of what works and what does not.  It also avoids the possibility of placing blame at a time when emotions may be high.

What About You

Yes, you are important too.  Finding a few anchoring traditions that mean something to you can help in the holidays.  Finding some downtime to listen to music you love, reading a story or finding some other way to engage in that spirit of the season that is meaningful to you.  You may find yourself bumping up against things that bring in memories of the past.  That sadness is part of moving forward.  You are mourning a loss as well.  But in that sadness, just as when you left home, there may be something that can pull you forward with hope.  You are headed into a new phase of your life-experience.

Where Does the Family Go from Here?

If there are past traditions that are meaningful to children, you may still want to embrace those.  These are experiences they carry forward.  These are important for them.

Some of those traditions may carry difficult and confusing feelings for all family members.  This is where new traditions come into play.  Here is the place for creativity and connection with people.  Others have been down this road before you.  Connection with support groups can generate new ideas for brand new sets of family traditions.

To help illustrate this, one idea focuses on holiday meals.  As people and society change, we find that people who use to stay home and “cook for the family” now enjoy going to a special restaurant.  This breaks the old habits in a dynamic way.  It becomes that once-a-year new tradition of spending a holiday with a different cook in a neutral festive setting.  As a side benefit – no dishes and more time together to take a walk, enjoy some decorations, visit someplace special that you normally do not go to.

There are also simple fun holiday games such as driving around to those houses that are “over the top” with decorations.  Then you get to rate them like being movie critics.  Perhaps the winner gets a plate of cookies that you and the kids prepared.

The point is to move out of the old “comfort zone.”  It is not so comfortable in there anymore.  Find a new place of joy with a stretch beyond yourself.  Yes, you need to take care of yourself, and you are still a family.

There may also be another place for some healing, depending on your situation.  Working with the kids to create something for the other parent may build a bridge as the family heals and rebuilds into a new family structure.

Understanding Happiness

Ultimately finding a new happiness is the outcome everyone seeks.  Perhaps some information on what happiness really is about may help.  Dan Gilbert and his associates studied it and found some profound information.  Check out Dan’s Ted Talk on Happiness.

May this season be a time of healing, exploration, and discovery.  A good friend reminded me many years ago of a misunderstood saying.  She cited: “Anything worth doing is worth doing well.”  She then commented that, “Anything worth doing is worth doing poorly at first.”  She remined me that we all will stumble, life is not perfect, mistakes are made, and nothing works perfectly the first time through.  The difference is if we are willing to pick ourselves up and keep going.

May the holidays bring peace to you and your family now and into the New Year.


Armand & Robbin D’Alo