If you’re going through a divorce or separation, you probably haven’t even thought about the holidays. But experts stress that it’s important for people who are in transition to develop coping strategies well in advance of the major calendar events. Holidays like Thanksgiving, Passover, Hanukkah, Christmas, and New Year’s Eve can intensify feelings of sadness, loss, and failure. For newly separated and divorced people, the holidays can really emphasize how much their lives have changed.
If you’ve spent every significant holiday with your children, being apart from them for the first time can be devastating. Ted, a Chicago-based architect, remembers his first Thanksgiving away from the kids. “I went to see a movie alone and all I could think of was my kids around the table without me,” he says. “It was pretty well the lowest point in my life.”
Adjusting to the holidays as a single person without children can be just as stressful. After her divorce, Anne spent the first few Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays with her parents at their home in upstate New York. The 37-year-old legal secretary felt like she had regressed into a second childhood. “I love my parents,” says Anne, “but the whole me, Mom, and Dad thing was just too much.” Roberta, a separated PR consultant from San Diego, tried to escape her loneliness and depression with shopping trips to local department stores. “I couldn’t believe my credit-card bill in January,” she says. “But the worst part was that I kept seeing happy families everywhere. I couldn’t help but wonder, ‘why can’t that be me?’”
Even if your life isn’t exactly where you’d like it to be right now, the good news is that we all have choices about how and where we spend our holidays. Look at it as an opportunity: by being proactive and exercising these choices, you can create new and meaningful traditions for you and your family. Here are seven strategies and tips for enjoying – rather than avoiding – the upcoming holiday season.
1. Take a Positive Approach
No More Holiday Blues by the late Dr. Wayne Dyer is an inspirational little book that offers positive suggestions in a quick-read format. He maintains that as adults, “we’ve come to believe that the holiday season is really only for children… thus only children can enjoy the holidays; adults must suffer through them.” To illustrate his point, Dyer has included a chart that compares childlike attitudes (“I can’t believe it’s over already, it seems like it just started”) to “neurotic” adult attitudes (“Thank God it’s over. If it lasted one more day I’d have a nervous breakdown”). Sound familiar? This year, try to recapture some of the joy you experienced as a child during the holidays.
2. Start Planning Now
Don’t wait until the week before the holiday to decide who gets the kids or to blow the dust off your address book. If you have children, it’s important to get some sort of communication happening with your former spouse well in advance; if they’re old enough, get the kids involved in the decision-making process as well. Be fair in deciding where the children will spend their time, and remember that generosity breeds generosity.
There are many non-confrontational strategies you can use to navigate scheduling issues for the holidays. You can avoid stress by planning well in advance and being flexible: you can plan a fun Christmas celebration with your kids a day before or after December 25 if they’ll be with your ex on the actual day.
It will be very difficult at first not to have your children on a particular day, so you should plan ways to avoid falling into a blue funk. If your ex has the kids on a particular day, you can feel lonely or seize the opportunity to have lunch with an old friend, book a day at the spa, or lounge in a bubblebath with a glass of wine – whatever makes you feel happy.
If you don’t have children, or if your ex has them for this holiday, gather up your courage and reach out to your friends and family. Let them know that you’re going to be on your own. You can’t always count on them to approach you first. People can be intimidated by divorce. They may not know how to deal with your situation, or they may be afraid to take sides. You’ll be surprised how receptive they’ll be once you break the ice.
Even though you may be apart, there are so many ways to communicate with your children and other loved ones over the holidays. Get technology on your side: send a warm text or email, call, or arrange to Skype with them. Be mindful of not infringing too much on their other parent’s holiday time with the kids – especially if you’ll be seeing them soon. Also, make sure your text message, emails, tweets, videos, Facebook posts etc. reinforce your reputation as a great co-parent. This means no criticizing the other parent, and no pictures of you doing tequila shots at a swim-up bar! (For more information about this, read “Managing your Reputation during Divorce”)
3. Change your Expectations
Give yourself permission to enjoy this holiday any way that you choose. You don’t have to be lonely, even if you happen to be alone. “Loneliness is an attitude that can be changed, and aloneness is nothing more than a temporary absence of other people,” says Dr. Dyer. “If you allow yourself to indulge in self-pity or fantasies of how your holidays ought to (or used to) be and then permit yourself to become depressed, you’ll be defeating yourself and bringing on the holiday letdown.” If you think you’re going to be alone over the holidays, seize the opportunity to do something you’ve always wanted to do.
4. Create New Traditions
The holiday season is steeped in sentiment and tradition, which is why people who are in transition sometimes choose to ignore the holidays altogether. “I just couldn’t face unpacking the ornaments from our first Christmas together, from our fifth anniversary, or from our trip to Germany,” says Roberta. “I may never be able to bring them out again.” Fortunately, there’s no rule that says you have to keep any of the trappings or traditions from the past. Decide what works for you and what doesn’t – and edit accordingly.
Jamie, a divorced mother of two from Toronto, suggests that families of divorce be adventurous and design new rituals and traditions for their families. She turned to her Celtic heritage and developed an elaborate holiday ritual centered around the “cloutie dumpling,” a traditional Scottish cake that she used to make with her ex-husband’s great-grandmother. “Jean and I used to get together and make this dumpling in November,” remembers Jamie. “We’d sit up until two in the morning and she’d tell me stories of Scotland.” Your cultural background is a good place to start when creating new traditions. “Nothing fascinates kids more than stories of your background,” says Jamie. “Through your heritage, children experience a sense of continuity, a sense of who they are as human beings.”
There are many opportunities for newly-single people without children, or parents without custodial access, to create their own traditions. Just remember that it’s important to know your limits. If you can’t bring yourself to join a dinner party where you know the other guests will be couples, invite your friends and family to celebrate with you at your home. You can also create a new “constellation” of family or friends for the holidays. Judy, a mother of three from Chicago, created a “friend family” by making Christmas dinner at her house for five of her closest friends.
If you belong to a support group, get to know one another socially. If you find yourself in a situation where you’re going to be alone over the holidays, you can get together with people who understand what you’re going through, even if it’s just for a walk or a cup of coffee.
5. Make Gift-Giving more Pleasurable
Gifts are an integral part of the holiday season. Unfortunately, the gift-giving experience is too often accompanied by high prices, commercialism, and heavy crowds – factors that can cause great stress for separated or divorced people.
Try giving gifts from the heart rather than the mall: for instance, consider giving a family heirloom to your child as a gift this year. Write a card or note about the heirloom, explaining that it has been in the family for several generations, and what it means to you. A gift of a personal belonging can have great significance, too. Bob, an artist who lives in New York City, gave his daughter his leather backpack, a worn and cherished possession that she had admired for many years; she was thrilled with the gift.
You might also consider supporting your favorite charities and arts organizations, or ordering gifts from mail-order or museum catalogues. Visit local merchants, buy gift certificates from a favorite restaurant or from a greenhouse, rent an indoor skating rink for an afternoon, give concert or theater tickets – the options are limitless, so just use your imagination!
One of the best non-monetary gifts you can give your children is the gift of good will towards your former spouse. Agree to a ceasefire, at least during the holidays.
If you must venture into the shopping mall this holiday season, try to enjoy the experience of being out in the world – the decorations, the lights, the music.
6. Relieve Stress with Diet and Exercise
In her book Anxiety and Stress, Dr. Susan Clark suggests that individuals who are under major life stress gradually eliminate (or at least limit) foods that intensify anxiety symptoms. These foods include caffeine, sugar, alcohol, food additives, dairy products, red meat and poultry, and wheat and gluten-containing grains. Foods that are believed to have a calming effect include vegetables, fruits, starches, legumes, whole grains, seeds and nuts, and fish. (For more about nutrition to help you think more clearly and be calmer during divorce, see “Nourishing your Stressed-Out Brain”.) Be realistic about your diet during the holiday season. Face the fact that you’re going to have that eggnog, but try to exercise regularly; it really helps with your emotional state.
7. Be Proactive
If your family or friends are not around this holiday season, you might want to consider helping out with the festivities at your church, synagogue, or community organization. Reaching out to a neighbor, a shut-in, or someone less fortunate than yourself this holiday season will take courage, but it can give you back your sense of place in the world.
Remember that there is nothing inherently depressing about the holidays. “If you anticipate that things will be depressing, you will rarely disappoint yourself,” says Dr. Dyer. “You must look within yourself and resolve to have a positive attitude, regardless of the tasks that lie ahead of you, or the fullness of your holiday schedule.” This year, look beyond the ghost of Christmas Past. Live in the present and plan for the future, and you’re sure to discover the true meaning of the holiday season.
Jane Zatylny is the former Editorial Director of Divorce Magazine. She has first-hand experience dealing with holidays post-divorce – including negotiating their son’s holiday schedule with her ex.