5 Tips for Surviving the Holidays Post Separation/Divorce, Without Losing Your Cool (or Your Mind)

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Depending on your point of view, we’re about to experience either the most “wonderful time of the year,” or the most stressful. A 2014 study conducted by Consumer Reports National Research Center showed that 90% of Americans stress out over at least one aspect of the Holiday season, whether it be gaining weight or going into debt. If on top of the usual Holiday demands–shopping, working, arranging childcare during school breaks, and figuring out who’s been naughty or nice–you’re also newly separated or divorced, your life can quickly degenerate from “Ho, Ho, Ho” to “Oh, No, No!”

Before you enter the witness protection program or lock yourself in the closet, take a deep breath and check out the following 5 tips for surviving the Holidays during a separation or divorce.

  1. Don’t go into debt trying to recreate the past. Remember the Beatles song “Money can’t buy me love.” If your economic situation has changed since your marital separation or divorce and you can’t afford the kind of presents you’ve purchased for your family in the past, don’t make things worse by spending money you don’t have. The American Psychiatric Association suggests: “Talk to your kids about expectations for gifts and Holiday activities. Be open with them if money is an issue. Depending on a child’s age, parents can use this as an opportunity to teach their kids about the value of money and responsible spending.” Obviously, especially with younger children, there is no need to go into too much detail; you don’t want them lying awake nights worrying about where their next meal is coming from. Instead, call a family meeting and ask kids to suggest fun, inexpensive ways to enjoy the Holidays together–baking cookies, inviting friends over for a night of board games and charades, going on a hike or scavenger hunt, or creating artwork and photographs to give as presents to family members. Necessity is the mother of invention: you may find that these simple, nonmaterialistic activities become your most treasured Holiday memories.
  2. Balance old and new traditions. Just like the adage about old vs. new friends (“one is silver and the other gold”), some aspects of the Holidays will remain constant–i.e., the love shared with children, grandparents, extended family, and friends–while others are going to change. If a divorcing couple has minor children, legal directives may determine who spends which Holiday where and with whom. If at all possible, especially for the first post-divorce Holiday season, parents should dedicate themselves to doing whatever it takes to create the happiest, most comforting experience for their children. This time of transition is challenging for parents and kids (whether they’re 4 or 24). But the greatest Holiday gift you and your ex-spouse can give your children is to put your differences on hold for a while and to put their happiness first.

    For example, my young adult son has spent every Thanksgiving and Christmas of his life at his paternal grandparents’ home, and although I will not be spending either Holiday with them, I think it’s important that he maintain that stability and continuity–at least for this first post-separation family Holiday season. One aspect of the tradition will change, however: in years gone by, we all stayed on at his grandparents’ house to celebrate his December 26 birthday together. This year (even though we are separated), his dad and I will take him out to a hip New York City restaurant to toast his special day. And you know what? We’re all going to have a terrific time, because our son’s happiness is more important to us than our differences. Old tradition, meet new tradition!

  3. Keep your chin up. This is easier said than done. It’s tough when those “perfect family” Holiday photo cards start arriving (let’s not even discuss the ones that include the dreaded Holiday letters). Then there’s social media: so many pictures of loving couples sharing beachy vacations and romantic dinners. Keep in mind, these public images are often just that–images. They may not tell the real story. So don’t assume that everyone except you is blissfully happy with perfect families!

    And although it’s not fair, there’s a chance you won’t be invited to some of the “couples” Holiday parties you attended during your marriage. Why not create your own Holiday cheer by hosting a small potluck at your place? It’s the perfect way to thank the people who’ve been there for you. You can also avoid the Holiday blues by staying healthy: physically, by maintaining your exercise regime and eating healthfully (except on those occasions when you do find yourself at a fabulous party), and mentally, by staying connected to your support network of friends and family.

  4. Don’t limit being thankful to Thanksgiving. In our family, before we dig into the turkey and all the trimmings, everyone at the table says what he or she is thankful for. (Over the years, these declarations have included everything from politically partisan rants to heartfelt gratitude for one’s health and the opportunity to be together). It’s a wonderful tradition, but gratitude shouldn’t be limited to one day a year. Ideally, we should greet every day with thanks–for life, for the roof over our heads, for the food on our plate–for whatever is meaningful to you. In the words of the Greek philosopher Epictetus, “He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has.”
  5. Take it one day at a time. Don’t become fixated on the way your family celebrated the Holidays in the past. Obviously, now that you’re separated or divorced, some things are going to change. Likewise, don’t get carried away worrying about all of the Holidays still to come. Who knows what the future will look like? Instead, keep the focus on this year. Promise yourself that you will find and savor every precious moment of Holiday joy. Take a cue from Buddha: “Do not dwell in the past. Do not dream of the future. Concentrate the mind on the present moment.”

One more thing: According to the American Psychological Association, there are differences between the Holiday blues and more serious conditions. If your symptoms last beyond the Holidays, seek professional advice.

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