For people in unhealthy or unfulfilling marriages, the holidays can be difficult. Amidst images of happiness and contentment, finding yourself in a marriage that feels empty, disconnected or in conflict can be especially painful. So, how do you survive the holidays in a bad marriage?
Assessing Where You Are—and Where You Want to Be:
Many people use the holidays as a checkpoint to assess their lives and relationships. The holidays shine a spotlight on happy families. Even if this spotlight is manufactured for advertising, movies or Facebook, it can be painful to compare these relationships to yours. It can also be helpful to get you to figure out where you are, where you want to be and how to get from one place to the other.
While some internal focus may be helpful, keep yourself open to seeking external help. Individual therapy can help you better understand your life. Couples therapy can help participants learn new ways to communicate and connect to see if a relationship can be returned to health. Similarly, discernment counseling can help you understand what you want for the future of your relationship: continued status quo, separation/divorce or an all-out effort at couples therapy.
Surviving the Holidays in a Bad Marriage
There are couples who have determined that their marriage is over but want to wait until after the holidays to tell their kids. There is definite wisdom in not telling the kids about a divorce close to any holiday, as that holiday could be associated with that announcement and taint it in the future. If you are in this situation, consider the following:
1. Make a plan with your spouse:
Ideally, you and your spouse will be able to create a plan to get through the holidays without conflict. It might mean altering traditions or doing more one-on-one things with the kids while reducing the things you do as a family. The starting point should be: How do we want our kids to experience the holiday? Holidays are usually a time for family connection and making memories, so how can we do that when we are also sad/angry/mourning the loss of the marriage?
2. Be realistic:
This may not be a Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving, but be gentle with yourself and remember that most intact families are also not having a Norman Rockwell holiday either (even if it looks that way on Facebook). Give yourselves permission to alter traditions if it means it will be a better experience overall.
3. Take care of yourself:
Whenever we experience high levels of stress (and an impending divorce qualifies), we need to be more mindful of self-care. Self-care is both physical (getting enough sleep, exercise, and healthy food), and social/emotional (getting enough support and interactions with the people you love). Create ways to take breaks and take care of yourself during this time that can be overloaded with extra events and obligations.
4. Minimize conflict:
If your marriage has been high conflict, working with a divorce coach or therapist to find new ways to communicate will benefit you throughout the divorce process and when you co-parent post-divorce. If the main reason you aren’t telling the kids until after the holidays is so that the holidays aren’t ruined, be mindful to not ruin the holidays with screaming matches. This is easier said than done, so pull in professional help if needed.
Bad marriages can either be ended or fixed. Both processes are difficult in different ways. If you are going to try to fix it, enlisting professional help and surrounding yourself with supportive friends and family will be very beneficial. If you have decided it is time to end the marriage, the holidays can be your first experience of engaging differently with your spouse so that you can both move forward to healthy, happy lives. Finding ways to decrease the conflict, connect with your kids and make memories is a bigger holiday gift than any Christmas present.