Christmas is the most wonderful time of year. But… not for everybody. Many people are lonely. Many people are struggling with mental illness. Many people are experience family and domestic violence.
And many people are struggling through separation and divorce, making Christmas the most heartwrenchingly painful time of the year.
In Australia approximately 30% of first marriages end in divorce, and about 60% percent of second marriages do as well. And statistically the likelihood of divorce or separation increases with each subsequent marriage or relationship. This highlights that separated families are part of the fabric of Australian life.
Families who have experienced separation and divorce often find Christmas Day a struggle. For many of these families Christmas Day arrives laden with sorrow, anger, or loneliness. In certain situations, Christmas presents become a source of competition, festive lunches are riddled with passive aggressive commentary, and family time is overshadowed by angry words. Many parents are sad and angry, and too many children feel heartbreak.
But even when family circumstances are not ideal, there are some things we do to make Christmas Day a time of joy for our children and, yes, even the ex. Here are some ways to navigate Christmas day as a divorced parent.
If you can’t say something nice…
You’re divorced. There’s probably a reason. Chances are there was conflict while you were married, and chances are some of that conflict remains. Broken relationships can create BIG feelings. And Christmas can sometimes magnify the sense of pain, loss, regret, or bitterness.
At least for Christmas Day, keep it down. There aren’t too many things more damaging for children than parents who are constantly at each other. Speak positively and kindly about your ex. Don’t bicker or nit-pick. If something makes you angry, walk away. Keep the emotions down, swallow your pride, and keep it nice – if only for the day (but hopefully forever).
Treat your ex like a client or colleague
If you really can’t be nice to your ex on Christmas Day, keep it professional. Think of your ex like a business client. If you wouldn’t text a valuable client with a string of accusations and name-calling, don’t do it to your ex.
When you keep it professional you massage the relationship so that everyone wins. This is the best way to approach a tricky relationship with an ex, particularly on a sensitive day like Christmas.
Keep it Even
It many situations, living standards between homes become unequal after divorce. This is often on full display at Christmas time. If one parent is able to buy bigger, better gifts than another, or can take the children on expensive holidays, it can leave the other feeling like they can’t compete.
As much as possible, it’s best to make sure that both parents provide for their children in similar ways. This is especially true at Christmas. Talk about what the children are receiving and who is buying what. Communicate about what types of gifts are OK and what aren’t. If you don’t manage this, one parent’s home, and one parent’s Christmas, might become more appealing than the other’s.
Keep it About the Children
Your marriage may be over, but when you have children together, your relationship continues on, in some form or another. Your lives are going to be intertwined for a long time and that means a lot of shared Christmases.
Keep it about the children. Never make them feel guilty for wanting to be with the other parent (or for not wanting to) or make them worry about you when you aren’t there. Talk to your ex about how to keep things even and fair, and how to keep the joy in Christmas for your children.
Put your children’s needs first, always, but especially on Christmas Day.
Keep it in Perspective
When all else fails, remember that it’s just one day. Of course, you’d love to be able to spend the whole day with your children. But relationships break down, circumstances change, and family holidays take on different nuances. Keep it in perspective.
It doesn’t happen often, but from time to time I meet a family who have made Christmas a time of unity and love in spite of their painful past. Both exe’s show up (often with their new spouse or partner – and new kids), and they have a joint family Christmas celebration. It’s not for everyone, and many families are unable to do something like this. But… for some, this is a healing, uplifting, positive experience that builds love, respect, and connection. Maybe, just maybe, it might work for you.
Christmas is a time of peace and goodwill to others. It’s a time of joy for the world. If it has not been, I believe (and have seen how) it can be again, even post-separation or divorce. Families can and do adapt to divorce and healing will happen. Family traditions can change and one day you may find that you enjoy the new Christmas traditions even more than the old.
So be open, communicate with your ex, find ways to get along and remember, it’s about the children. With this mindset, you might just find the magic of Christmas in your hearts and homes this year.