Handling the Stress of the Holidays
If we believe the movies that always seem to come out this time of year, the holidays are a time to relax, recharge, and reflect on all the good things that happened over the previous 12 months. We get together with family and friends to exchange gifts, admire our beautifully decorated homes, and enjoy meals that took hours to prepare.
We all know that it isn’t always true. A recent study revealed that 88% of us find the holidays to be the most nerve-wracking time of the year. All of those things that are supposed to give us so much joy — the shopping, the decorating, the cooking — are stressing us out. So does the expense. The pressure to make the holidays perfect is too much for most of us to handle.
But we can’t actually admit that we feel this way to anyone, can we? So we manage as best we can, looking forward to the 11 months of the year when we aren’t required to always be in the holiday spirit.
But what if we go into the holidays already feeling under enormous pressure? What if, for example, we’ve been unhappy in our marriage for some time? What if we have been contemplating divorce? Maybe our spouse doesn’t know how we feel, and we’ve been waiting for the right time to bring it up. Or maybe we’ve already been discussing the possibility of divorce together, but are trying to keep it together in front of the kids and extended family.
If you’re in this situation during the holidays, your first impulse might be to put everything on hold, to stop talking about or even thinking about divorce until after the new year. This is especially true if there are kids involved. You want things to seem as normal as possible, for their sake. You don’t want them to remember this as the year when their family started splintering apart.
On the other hand, extended family gatherings might seem like too much for you to bear at this point. You wonder whether your presence might put a damper on festive celebrations. The last thing you want is for people to see you feeling sad or angry or resentful at what should be a joyous occasion.
So what should you do?
As I’ve written about many times, divorce is a grieving process. Aside from the death of a close family member, nothing causes a sense of loss so profound. The trouble is that unlike a death, we as a society have no positive rituals to help us through the hard times. A funeral brings people together to share the loss. People bring you food. There’s nothing even close to this for a divorce, which is also a huge loss, on so many different levels.
You have to find a way to deal with the grief. Otherwise it will overwhelm you. You won’t be able to talk with your spouse openly and honestly about how you are feeling. You won’t be prepared to answer questions from your children when they realize something is wrong — and believe me, they will figure it out long before you think they will. And you certainly won’t be in the right frame of mind to respond to family members when they take you aside at a holiday gathering and ask why you seem out of sorts.
So have some compassion for yourself. Take care of yourself first. I’m a lawyer who has years of experience helping people through the divorce process, but I don’t think your first call should be to me. Find the number of a mental health professional with training in family system dynamics and divorce. Talk to them about how you’re feeling, that the rug has been pulled out from under you or the world is spinning out of control. Bring up your sense of anger, sadness, jealousy, fear, anxiety, loneliness, betrayal, or rage. There’s no way around these feelings, only through them.
Then, if you haven’t already talked with your spouse, it’s time. Don’t put it off until after the holidays unless there is no other option. You’ve needed time to work through these feelings, and so will they. It might not seem possible, but your eventual goal will most likely be to be good co-parents, or even friends, after all this is over. Treat them with the same care you’ve shown for yourself.
After you’ve both had a chance to process your feelings, then it’s time to reach out to a lawyer. The good news is that it doesn’t have to be a bitter, contentious struggle. The Collaborative Divorce model is one that many people choose because it allows you to work alongside your partner to figure out how to bring your relationship to a close in a civil, respectful and dignified manner. You move forward at your own pace, on your own terms.
My practice is all about helping people through what is probably one of the worst times of their lives. We can’t choose when we come to the realization that we want to end our marriage, but we can decide to do it with thoughtfulness, care, and compassion. That could be the best gift you can give yourself, your spouse, and your family-a healthy, mindful divorce.
P.S. Let’s keep the conversation going on social media!