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Woman-to-woman divorce etiquette for the holidays

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“What’s love got to do with it? Sings Tina Turner famously. A lot it turns out. The divorce rate in modern society is between 40 and 50 percent in the United States, according to the American Psychological Association, affecting many families. The rate is even higher for second marriages. A recent separation and divorce can making coping difficult in the first few months, as you adjust, both in your own mind and in your parenting. Add in the winter holiday season and you might have a tough time coming through with the gold medal.

But you can. Take it from one single mother, woman-to-woman, here are a few tips to consider, in order to make the holidays happier.

  1. Keep it classy. When you are angry, it may seem like a good idea to throw a wrench in long-planned family holiday gatherings, particularly if newly separated, but it is not a good idea. Taking the high road always makes a person feel good in the long run. Not to mention that it is true, the one who acts still all caught up in, enjoying the drama of what is indeed, a painful change in everyone’s lives, that person will look small. So if you have the option of making it simple for the kids to enjoy the holidays with your co-parent (and perhaps his family), do so gracefully.
  2. Be kind to yourself, Mom. Researchers have found that people who are kind and compassionate to themselves have an easier time managing the day-to-day difficulties of divorce. In addition to breathing deeply, it might help to sit somewhere quietly every day (for at last three minutes) to meditate and/or remember a time during the holidays of your childhood when you felt loved and safe.
  3. Keep communications open with your co-parent, yes, but email works best. Try to avoid the phone and do not text with your ex. Phone is difficult for most co-parents, unless you have an exceptionally amicable relationship as co-parents. It’s hard to keep one’s tone of voice neutral and there’s little time to listen to the other person and, if they say something charged, to ponder what you would like your response to be ideally. You’re more apt to say something you may regret. Email gives co-parents the chance to read, exit your inbox and come back later, after you’ve had some time to process what is being discussed, calmly. As it relates to the holidays, remember this can be an emotional time of the year for everyone. Make plans in advance and stick to them if possible.
  4. Here is additional sound advice from Liz Wyze, reporter for the Huffington Post, “Defuse fallout amongst family and friends by being relentlessly polite and civilized: Send Christmas cards and birthday cards to in-laws, keep them informed of your children's progress. No one will be able to fault your good manners. Don't try to curry favor with your children: Showering your kids with material goods and lavish holiday presents will antagonize your ex-partner and unsettle your children, making them dissatisfied with their old home. Don't cross-examine your children about your ex: They have to redefine their relationship with both parents and will resent your attempts to invade that territory. Protect your children: Recriminations should never be aired in front of them and you should never confide in them. They lack the maturity and objectivity to understand and will find your distress frightening.”

Holiday family gatherings

Family members often ask, “Do I invite members of a divorced or separated couple to a holiday gathering?”

According to Brian Dakss of CBS News is his article, “Holiday Do’s and Don'ts,”

“…try to be fair. Maybe this year, you can be with one set, and next year, go with the other set. People who are divorced should try to work it out so that it's as joyous as possible for the kids. One parent shouldn't say that the kids would have more fun with that parents than with the other one -- make it fair. Communicate clearly and plan ahead to decide who's going to host that meal and make sure that everyone understands. It's supposed to be fun.”

More on holidays and family etiquette

“It's fine to say no: If you are invited to family occasions (e.g. your ex-partner's remarriage or the christening of a child with a new partner), remember you are under no social imperative to attend and should only do so after forensically examining your own feelings. Only go if you think you can cope without lapsing into animosity and bitterness, but ensure that you have a friend who can monitor your behavior, alcohol intake and emotions,” writes Liz Wyze of the Huffington Post.

Woman-to-woman, I have one last thing to share. All of this reminds me of those disclaimers when you watch a race car driver nimbly fly down a mountain road -- with steep cliffs that spell danger at every hairpin turn. You know the ones, the warning that tells you not to attempt this stunt on your own. Presented here is all wise advice but it’s easier said than done. It is important to congratulate yourself for small victories along this journey and to acknowledge that doing the smart thing will indeed become more straightforward as the years go by. Lean on your support network if your kids are with your ex during this upcoming winter holiday season. It’s important not to isolate yourself. If it is too hard to be with close friends, because they are in two-parent families and you are not currently, join a community or neighborhood group doing fun activities you may have missed out on when you were part of a couple, such as live music, yoga, treat yourself to a spa day, ice skating or even group ski trips.

Not only will the initial sting of the divorce pass, you may realize it is best that you and your ex went your separate ways. You’ll cool off. And most impactful of all, the children will grow older, more independent and more concerned with their own circles and less concerned with their parents’ lives.

What children want most is harmony in their home during the holidays. (Well, children want harmony any time of the year.) If that means that they have harmony with one parent for one part of the holidays, and harmony with the other parent for the other part of the holidays, then you will have succeeded.

(Sources:, American Psychological Association, “Healthy divorce: how to make your split as smooth as possible,” Sbarra, D. A., Smith, H. L., and Matthias, R. M. (2012). When leaving your ex, love yourself: Observational ratings of self-compassion predict the course of emotional recovery following marital separation. Psychological Science, 23(3): 261-269.)



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