Surviving the Holidays With Your Ex
The holidays are a stressful time even if all is perfect in your life, and your relationships are in harmony with the world. Congress’s grand move to designate the Thanksgiving holiday a month from Christmas has caused havoc among families for over a century. Instead of enjoying thanks and feeling blessed, we are rushed into a frenzied commercialized shopping season starting on the eve of the very day we are supposed to be pausing and reflecting on how blessed we are. Surviving the holidays is, at best, a challenge.
Now add a bitter, resentful ex-spouse in the mix and holidays become something to dread rather than cherish. In my experience, the holidays tend to bring out the worst in even the most civil ex-partners. And the cases that are considered “high conflict”, well, let’s just say, I’ve seen some real monsters. The reason being- parents become sentimental, territorial, protective, and less willing to let go of expectations they have of what they want their holidays to look like. The holidays also provide ample ammunition to fight. What about? Anything. If someone wants to fight and has built up anger, chances are they will pick a fight about anything and the holidays provide many excuses for that.
Here are some helpful tips to wage your way through the holidays without completely losing your mind and hopefully find the joy that the holidays are intended for:
Focus on Your Kids
A lot of times parents have expectations about how they perceive what a holiday should look like. There must be a decorated tree, we must go to Grandma’s house on Christmas Eve, we always run the Turkey Trot… Let me tell you, divorce gets in the way of those expectations. When you were together with your ex-spouse, things coincided or one of you won out. But now there are at least two sets of expectations, if not more depending on who else is involved (a new wife, boyfriend…). These expectations are felt heavily on your children. They want to please, as all children do, everyone. They may even think the new “traditions” sound fun. Of course, they don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. And now the holidays have turned into a to-do list for your children, mixed with how to please without upsetting the other parent.
Be flexible when planning your holiday schedule. Take your children’s age, maturity level, and needs into consideration. Listen to whom they would like to see during the holidays. If you have plans to see the new wife’s family whom your children have only met once, it is probably inappropriate to bring them to Christmas dinner. Your children won’t know anyone, they will feel uncomfortable, and it’s not an appropriate setting to introduce them properly to your wife’s extended family. In addition, your children are missing out on spending time with the family they grew up with and whom they probably do not get to spend much time with since the divorce. Think of your children.
With that said do not be surprised if your children act out or behave differently than normal. Children feel the stress of high expectations and of new places and will act accordingly. This is not your ex-spouse’s fault and blaming each other will only cause more stress for the children.
I have many clients that come into my office after a couple of years complaining that their visitation schedule just does not work in practical terms. The court likes to split holidays right down the middle, leaving everyone to have a half-holiday and not enjoy any holiday. The alternative to this is the even/odd split which leaves one parent without children one year and hopelessly depressed.
My solution to this- Why does Thanksgiving have to be on the fourth Thursday of November and Christmas be on December 25? To those historians out there, you know that Thanksgiving was not a set holiday until recently as President Roosevelt determined it to be because he thought it would boost US economy and many theologists believe that the real birth of Jesus was March 28. So if Congress can determine our calendar whenever they want to best serve their needs, why can’t you?
For years my ex-husband has always wanted Thanksgiving. It is the holiday that is deeply rooted in his religion and ethnicity and has become more important to his extended family than Christmas or any other holiday. During our divorce, I freely gave up the holiday knowing how important it was and knowing the children would benefit from the enriched history they would be a part of. That didn’t mean I would never celebrate Thanksgiving. Instead, my family moved it to the Tuesday before.
I admit there was some grumbling from the family at first but once it got going family members realized that it worked in their benefit too. They no longer had to fight with their significant others upon choosing which home to go to for the big day. My children ended up with two Thanksgivings and ten years later if you ask them they would say we always have Thanksgiving with mom and dad. They really don’t know the difference.
Likewise, Christmas can be moved in the same manner. And this I love! Talk about relieving some stress. Knowing you have a couple extra days is fantastic plus the grocery stores are open. My ex-husband does the same because all our driving is done on Christmas day. I will admit since our original custody agreement, as our kids have gotten older, our stipulation has mutated to meet the needs of our children. We no longer have to drive on Christmas, in fact, our oldest drives but we have still keep the tradition of moving Christmas to fit our needs. It just works.
What I’m saying is think outside the box. The holidays are about memories and spending stress-free time with family and however you need to protect that, do it. Even if it’s a little unconventional.
Do Not Engage
As previously noted, stress brings out the worst in people. For some reason, all those stupid reasons you chose to get a divorce in the first place appear front and center. DO NOT START A FIGHT! I know it’s easy, especially in front of a computer or through texts because it’s a little machine your talking to and not an actual person but it’s really not worth it. And if you are on the receiving end of the obnoxious comments, just ignore. I know it’s hard. When you engage you give the bully the power they need to continue, so do not give the bully the power. There is a reason that divorces spike in January along with post-judgment conflicts and custody fights. It really is not worth the consequences. Again, think of the kids.
There is an exception if you are being abused or your children are being abused. If you feel you are in danger, then you must take action. I know it is scary. I know personally that it is the hardest thing you will ever do. But there is no other option, they will not stop and your children will not be safe. Go now and get help. NOMORE.org will help you find a local place in your area.
Ignore What Others are Saying
Yes, the holidays bring all the in-laws that you couldn’t stand out of the woodwork and of course they have lots to say to your children. There is nothing you can do about this. Undoubtedly, your child is going to come home and repeat something horrific that Grandma Judy said about you and you are going to be infuriated. You are going to want to defend yourself and say that Grandma Judy has always been crazy and your ex-spouse is going to end up just like her. However, unfortunately, this implies that your daughter might end up like her too and now you have criticized the only mother your daughter has ever loved.
TAKE A BREATH. We can’t control what others are going to say around our children. We can only show our children how much we love them and how to react to name calling. A better approach is to calmly hug your daughter, tell her you love her, and ask her if the comment hurt her feelings and ask how she was affected by it. Explain that grown-ups say hurtful things without thinking and teach her to voice her opinion such as, “Please do not talk about my father that way when I’m here because I love him and it hurts my feelings.” It always okay to give your child empowerment over what they feel and teach them to stick up for themselves.
Make sure not to add any digs, criticism or put-downs toward the other person or parent. This will not only confuse the child but strip you of your legitimacy. If you need to step away first and scream, do so. Call your best friend or brother to vent about your ex and her family but never in front of your child. Children hear and see everything and are not fools. I have learned this through my experiences and not being genuine will bite you in the ass, come preteen years.
For some reason, the holidays bring out the kid in all of us. Sometimes not in a good way. Please remember your children during this season. I could tell you the countless stories of grown-ups reverting back to junior high and literally torturing their own children to get back at their ex-spouses. Example, sending a picture of a favorite cousin when their child is with the other parent and stating “look who really misses you”, or Aunt Judy was going to give you a hundred dollars but you weren’t here so…., your dad’s not going to let you have this toy it’s okay with me but since your dad said no…. and a hundred just as cruel.
For some reason, adults forget that they brought these children into the world and by using them hurts them and they will not forget. They build resentment and animosity. When the holidays are over, and the adults have waived a truce, the children still hold on to these incidents and act accordingly. Adults -act like adults. Act like loving responsible parents that brought these children into the world. They are not weapons for you to use at your will. Think before you act for someday they will become adults too.
So the message is clear. Children need to be protected during the holidays from animosity, childish resentment, and hatred towards your ex-spouse. If you refuse to participate in the war then the war goes on without you and you are left to truly enjoy the true spirit of the holidays. Kids are only kids once so don’t be fooled into giving that up to someone who can’t let go of anger or the past.
About the Author
Candice Brenner is a certified family law mediator and child advocate with CMB Mediation. She has worked in the family law field for over 10 years. Her main focus is helping self-representing individuals navigate their way through the family law court system. She also has a passion and detailed focus on the security and well-being of children. Candice graduated from Chapman Law School with honors. She received 3 degrees at University of California, Los Angeles. She holds her teaching credentials with a specialization in writing and reading with title V participants. Additional credentials include a specialization in family law high conflict arbitration.
On a personal note, Candice lives in North County San Diego. She has raised 3 beautiful children as a single mom. Candice is a published author and sits on the board of the UCLA Parent/Alumni Council.
To contact Candice for speaking engagements or other inquiries email at: firstname.lastname@example.org