This article is from Syd Sharples, LCSW, the current president of The Collaborative Law Institute of Texas and an Austin-based psychotherapist and collaborative divorce facilitator.
You’ve just gotten divorced and darn if it isn’t holiday time. As with many post-divorce experiences, you’re faced with another first: how to spend holidays now that you’re a family living under two roofs. On the one hand, you sense it would be nice for the kids to be able to spend Christmas with both parents and not get shuttled back and forth. On the other hand, your ex-spouse may be the last person you want to see across from you at the Thanksgiving table.
Ex-spouses choosing to spend holidays together is surely more common today than it has been. Divorce – at least in some cases – is shedding its cutthroat reputation, as more and more couples are opting to divorce as amicably as possible. The biggest winners in this trend are surely the children, though the husband and wife are close seconds. As a result, post-divorce boundaries are changing, often for the better. Divorced couples, when emerging from the process of divorce without a wake of scorched earth, resentment and hurt, are better positioned to establish a new and respectful way of being a family, albeit a divorced family. Sharing family experiences, celebrating the children together, and being able to spend time in the same space when the occasion calls for it, all add up to a real plus for uncoupled families.
The holidays offer yet another opportunity to develop your relationship with your ex-spouse. The children will be able to spend time with both parents at an occasion that’s traditionally been family-oriented, and they won’t have to schlep back and forth between households. You might take pride in the fact that you and your ex are able to do this. You may enjoy the kind of relationship with your ex-spouse that makes this sort of experience downright pleasant.
But there are things to consider as you make your plans. In particular, if this is the first holiday season since your divorce, tread cautiously. Feelings are usually at their most raw in the early stages of post-divorce life. Interactions with your ex-spouse might be very difficult to engage in without incident; at the very least, it may create deep discomfort for everyone involved. Ask yourself: how much will I be faking it? Faking it rarely feels good, and you probably won’t fool anyone, so make sure that if you commit to spending a holiday with your ex-spouse, you can do it, truly, in the spirit of the holiday.
Getting together for family holiday time can also be confusing for the children – who will most likely always secretly long for Mom and Dad to reconcile. This is also not a time to try and wean the children from married family to divorced family; a clean break is highly recommended. “Cauterizing the wound” can be a useful exercise with long-term benefits; exes usually need some solid time apart after they divorce. In any case, some thought – and discussion time – should be given to how to frame this to the children: this is not a glimmer of hope for reconciliation, but an evolution of how your family celebrates the holidays.
Another question to ask yourself (or, ideally, to talk about with your ex) is what the implications could be for the kids if you do this once or twice, and then never again? Make sure the children have reasonable expectations of this occurrence. You might choose to do it a couple of times, and then decide to stop because it’s not quite enjoyable enough. Or – perhaps more likely – new partners (who often come with their own families and attendant complications) enter into the mix and shared holidays become much less tenable. In any case, preparing for that possibility of new relationships is important.
Choosing to spend holidays with your ex-spouse can be a wonderful experience. Make sure you and your children are ready for that (remember: there’s always next year, and the year after, and the year after that), make sure everyone’s expectations are set appropriately, know that there’s nothing wrong with declining the invitation, and above all, find peace.