It is pretty safe to say, most couples do not enter a marriage with the expectation of later divorcing. However, when divorce or separation occurs within the family, the holidays can be an especially challenging time of year. Many former spouses find themselves dreading the holidays as they now have to focus on how they should engage with each other post-divorce, how their children will respond to the change of their parents being divorced, should they follow established traditions or create new ones, and choosing appropriate language that represents that although being divorced they remain a family.
One of the most important things divorced couples should do is not pretend things are the same, hence, they should not continue to act as a couple. Acting as a couple when you are divorced creates confusion, especially for young children. Most young children hold onto hope that their parents will someday get back together. Unfortunately, many children view themselves as the reason for their parent’s divorce or that they have played a large part in the breakdown of their parent’s relationship. Parents are encouraged to create a specific plan regarding how they will spend the holidays so there is little to no opportunity for children to become confused and avoid conflict. Parents should discuss holidays well in advance to determine if they will be sharing the holidays together, alternating holidays, splitting the holidays, or introducing new people to the children during the holidays.
Holidays can be viewed as a mixed bag. For many, holidays can be viewed as a joyous occasion, an opportunity create additional memories by to spending time with friends and family. However, for others, holidays can be filled with intense emotions, uncertainty, and the realization that the family you once remembered no longer exists, a new family has emerged, one that doesn’t have a set script. Change in family structure becomes more evident when parents decide to spit the holiday or alternate the celebration of the holiday with the other parent. Splitting a holiday or alternating when there are children involved signifies a break in tradition, a deviation from established norms that can lead children to grieving the loss of the “family unit” they once knew.
As a divorced parent you want to keep things as normal as possible while acknowledging the differences that come along with being divorced. If at all possible, parents should retain some of the old traditions while incorporating new one’s to reflect the change in the marital system. However, during the first year following a divorce, parents should work hard to ensure some of the family traditions that were established pre-divorce are maintained. Immediately following a divorce, children experience the greatest degree of uncertainty and fear about the state of their family. Therefore, the first year following a divorce should be used to reinforce the understanding to children a family still exists, just in a different form.
Things former Spouses Should Avoid Saying and Doing During the Holidays:
• Parents need to resist the urge to buy the love or forgiveness of their children
• Complaining about the other parent must be avoided in front of children
• Pretending that nothing has changed
• Planning how the children will spend the holidays without consulting the other parent
• Don’t argue with your former spouse in front of your children
• Don’t dwell on the end of your marriage, rather, focus on the needs of the children
• Don’t get caught up in the emotions of when you were married by being overly touchy feely with your ex, it leads to confusion for children
• Don’t take out your frustration with your ex against the children
• Don’t jump into another relationship and expect kids to be accepting of that person.
• Don’t try to have deep, meaningful conversations with your kids about the divorce. They may act “parentified,” but they are not little adults.
• Don’t share all your fear, anxiety, anger resentment or grief with your children.
• Don’t strive for a “perfect” holiday experience (it doesn’t exist)
When a marriage ends, it doesn’t just affect the immediate family — the two people who are divorcing and their children. Divorce affects everyone that is a part of that network, e.g., the spouse’s parents, the former couple’s best friends that may have served as surrogate parents in the couple’s absence, aunts, uncles, and anyone else who are part of a larger network of their relationship pre-divorce. As the divorced couple begins new relationships separate from each other, the relationships become yet more complicated, especially for the children.
Keep expectations small and flexible. Focus on things that matters most to you during the holidays, such as the children. Recognize that in addition to previously held traditions, with change comes the expectation of building new experiences and traditions. Your holiday time will not be the same, but it will be different, and different does not have to mean bad.