Conventional wisdom estimates that half of all marriages end in divorce. I am not sure how accurate these statistics are as far as actual numbers, since these estimates are based on many factors, including age at marriage, whether it’s a first, second, or third marriage (second and third marriages are more likely to end in divorce), and various other data that can muddy the waters. In addition, some people don’t legally marry but live together in domestic partnerships, have children, and otherwise live as a family, and when they split up it does not count as a “divorce.” However no one can argue that in such a situation the breakup is far more disruptive than if someone is ending a relationship after a year of dating with no cohabitation, children, or comingling of money.
As the holidays approach, divorced families can face more stress than the rest of us and have to navigate specific issues regarding custody, visitation, family celebrations, and the like. Suddenly a couple who celebrated with certain branches of the family is going to different Christmas dinners and negotiating what the children will do and with whom. With some families it is easier than others. If one parent is Jewish and the other is Christian, for example, there should be no arguing over who gets Passover and who gets Christmas, although Thanksgiving dinner and trick-or-treating can still be an issue. Some families have historically traveled over holiday breaks to visit family—how can this work out if the other parent is no longer comfortable or welcome visiting in-laws, but doesn’t want to get in the way of the children’s enjoyment, but, then, on the other hand, doesn’t want to miss seeing the kids for the entire holiday break? Who gets to see the kids open their gifts on Christmas morning? Even without children, if you always went to your wife’s family for holidays, where do you go now, especially if your own family lives out of town or in a place that makes visiting inconvenient?
When a couple decides to divorce, amongst all the emotional turmoil and grief are also these practical issues to be worked through. Generally, over time new traditions evolve, but during the initial phase it can feel like everything that was comfortable and familiar is disappearing all at once. Nieces and nephews that you have known since their birth may find it awkward to stay in touch out of solidarity with your spouse. A sister-in-law you bonded with now sees you in a different light. The brother-in-law who sent you business now feels uncomfortable being your colleague.
For adults as well, but certainly for children in particular, keeping things as stable as possible during the divorce process and adjustment is important. This is often impossible, particularly if there is tremendous pain and animosity between the parties, as there often is, especially in the initial stages. While children do have to learn that things will change and that they can have positive holiday experiences even if they are different from what they knew before, it is important to try to minimize disruption.
For the adult going through such a change, it can feel like everyone else is having a great holiday season while you suffer. This is a common misconception anyway—“everyone is having their Norman Rockwell Christmas except me” kind of thing. This feeling can be especially strong if you are going through a divorce, death in the family, or other stress that is causing the holidays to be less than happy. In addition, in a divorce situation where you have to split the holidays, people can feel extra lonely when they are celebrating with family and friends but not with their children. When your children are with your ex and that side of the family, your holiday celebration can feel very quiet and empty. It is important to find new experiences, such as celebrating with friends or volunteering on a holiday, so that the sting of the loneliness is less sharp.
For the child going through the process, it is a little different. His parents are most likely his two favorite people in the world and he wants to share the good times with both of them together. I often hear from children, “I miss Mommy when I’m at Daddy’s and I miss Daddy when I’m at Mommy’s.” While most kids get used to the split time and learn to make the best of the new situation, during the first few holidays and changes in tradition, it can cause a lot of stress and sadness. Children may show this in crying, acting out with bad behaviors, being clingy with either or both parents, getting upset over what seems like nothing, or other behaviors that might seem out of the ordinary or regressive.
Children may also feel guilty celebrating with one parent if they know the other parent has nothing to do or is feeling sad as well. While I don’t advocate outright lying about feelings and pretending that all is fine (as it can teach children to mistrust what they see, feel, and hear when there is that disconnect), I do suggest that parents try to present things with a positive spin as much as possible. Admitting, “Yes, I will miss you when you go with Mommy’s family on Thanksgiving, but I was invited to celebrate with some friends and will still have a good time. You just have fun with Mommy.” Both identifies and describes the sad feelings the whole family may have while also modeling coping strategies such as finding something new to do to celebrate the day. I can’t stress enough how damaging and confusing it can be when a parent gets angry, sad, or upset every time the children go with the other parent. When I have to deal with, “I don’t like visiting Daddy because Mommy cries when I leave,” it makes not only my work harder but interferes with the children’s ability to form relationships with each parent and that parent’s family of origin independently. With a divorce the dynamics of the parent-child relationship will change, and the children have to be given the space to figure out what they want those new relationships to look like.
The bottom line is that all families and all celebrations are evolving. Plans change, older generations who used to host festivities may be unable to do that as they age, siblings move to other states, or even countries, and things change. With a divorce it’s easy to blame the other parent for the disruption or your sad holiday, but traditions change with or without a divorce. The most we can do sometimes is hold on and roll with the changes.
[blockquote class=blue]Barbara Kapetanakes, Psy.D. practices child, adult, and family psychotherapy in Sleepy Hollow. Visit her blog at http://www.bksleepyhollowtherapist.com/Blog.html [/blockquote]