By Tonya Graser Smith
The holidays are tough on even the most stable relationships. For those who are thinking of divorce, the season can bring clarity and a desire for a fresh start come New Year’s. That’s why for divorce attorneys like myself, January and February are the busiest months of the year when it comes to hearing from clients seeking to end their marriages.
Often times, couples know going into the holidays that these will be their last as a married couple. But if they’re parents, too, they often wait until after the gifts have been unwrapped and the decorations taken down before they tell the kids.
It’s an opportunity to spare their children’s feelings and to give them one last holiday as a family as they know it. But I think it’s also a chance for divorcing parents to get a handle on how future holidays will look and to model for the children that everything really is going to be all right. If I could talk with soon-to-be-splitting couples ahead of Christmas, Hanukkah and New Year’s, here’s the advice I’d give them.
Just because you are separating and divorcing doesn’t mean you won’t have shared holiday events in the future. You share children you both love, after all. It will be important for your children to hear this message, too.
Going forward your family is going to have to do things differently around the holidays. For example, some years the kids will be with Dad for Christmas Day and other years with Mom. It’s about spending time together, not the day on the calendar.
This year would be a good time to loosen up on some traditions or try out new ways of celebrating. For example, if cooking the big Christmas eve dinner this year is going to spark tension or resentment anyhow, why not order take-out? Who says you have to do things a certain way? Rather than think about what you are losing, think of the chance to form new traditions. You could even daydream (the kids will never know) about how you, when freed up from certain family obligations, would like to spend some time over the holidays in years to come.
Do whatever you need to do to not fight with your spouse over the holidays. After you tell your kids you’re getting divorced, they will scrutinize recent times spent together. Keep the holidays light. Discuss with your spouse what you can do to achieve this. Maybe one of you gets some free time with friends or some quiet time to read so it’s not so much togetherness at a time when it’s really hard to be together all the time.
Don’t go crazy on presents. Don’t decide to take a big holiday trip if that’s not what you normally do. Not only may this not be in your collective financial best interest, but you’re sending the wrong message to the kids. If your holidays haven’t always been about big price tags, now is not the time to start spending with abandon. This is the one area in which it’s acceptable to do as you have always done.
Bottom line: This is your test run for future holidays. It’s not necessarily how it will be when you are living in separate households. But if you can start to let go of having to have the holidays be a certain way for your sake, you and your new modern family will be happier for it. Remember this next year and every year when you want the holidays your way.