Handling Divorce and Separation Stress this Holiday Season

If we believe the hype, the holidays are supposed to be a time to relax, regenerate and reflect on all the good things that happened over the previous 12 months. We get together with family and friends to exchange gifts and enjoy meals that took hours to prepare. But sometimes, some of us aren’t feeling quite so jovial, especially when our primary relationship feels like it is about to end, or it is in the process of unraveling.

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 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. Remember: there really is no “right” time to bring up a divorce, although some forethought and planning can certainly help. Maybe we’ve already been discussing the possibility of divorce, 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 divorce 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 to have a difficult conversation. 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. You can check out my new book, recently published by Roman & Littlefield, Untangling Your Marriage:  A Guide to Collaborative Divorce.

My practice is all about helping people through what can be the worst times of their lives. It can also be the impetus for starting fresh next year, with your eye toward building back your self-esteem and finding your authentic self with the help of a skillful team of collaborative professionals. 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.


Written by Nanci A. Smith

Nanci A. Smith, Esq., is an attorney licensed to practice in Vermont and New York. She is the chair of the Collaborative Divorce section of the Vermont Bar Association, a leader in her collaborative divorce practice group, and a member of the International Academy of Collaborative Professionals. She frequently writes and talks about divorce, family law, ethics, and collaborative divorce practices. She believes that a good divorce is possible when you show up for it with humility, compassion, and the correct support. Smith is the author of Untangling Your Marriage: A Guide to Collaborative Divorce (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Oct 11, 2022). Learn more at nancismithlaw.com.

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