Not the Most Wonderful Time of the Year?

Facing the holidays after a separation or divorce

During the holiday season, you look around and see families happily shopping for gifts, couples holding hands through the mall, and people humming along to holiday songs. But if you’re going through a separation or divorce, the holiday sparkle has dimmed and holiday cheer may be a painful memory.

  “It was hard to see families around Christmastime,” said Monica. “It magnified the fact that I was alone.”

 “Every time I turned around, I saw families together,” said Bill. “It’s just like somebody’s punching your heart.”

Even though you may have some tough emotional times this season, you can still not only survive but also enjoy the holidays this year. The key is to be prepared.


Hard-hitting emotions

The difficult emotions you experienced when you first separated or divorced can return full-force during the holiday season, even if your breakup happened months or years ago. The sights, sounds, and smells of the season trigger unexpected emotions. Christmas cards arrive addressed to both you and your former spouse; holiday tunes bring back memories of laughter and good times before the breakup; Christmas tree ornaments hold special meanings that can bring a flood of tears. “The holidays pulled out every emotion that I felt like I had gotten under control,” said Susan.

Knowing what emotions are normal and to be expected for a person in separation or divorce can help you face these emotions when they come. You won’t be as surprised, and you’ll be better able to function, even while experiencing the tough emotion. Two of the most hard-hitting emotions are loneliness and sadness. You may also be experiencing anxiety, feelings of worthlessness, bitterness, anger, and depression. If you are dealing with any of those feelings, you are not alone. Those are typical emotions when a marriage has come apart, and you can face them and still move forward to find moments of joy during the heartache.

“With the upcoming holidays, you’re going to go into a period of time when you’re probably going to experience the loss from your separation or divorce more powerfully than you’ve already experienced it,” said psychologist Dr. Paul David Tripp. “But if you’ve taken time to think about what may be coming in the days ahead, you can be prepared for it.”


Be with people who help, not hinder

You need the support of family and friends this holiday season, but you will have to be wise in choosing which of those people are going to be supportive and will help you move through this season in a healthy manner. Unfortunately, some friends or family members will offer wrong advice in an attempt to help you or cheer you up.  They may encourage you to “get over it” and “have some fun,” pushing you to stuff your emotions and to enter into a social scene that you aren’t ready for. Or they may offer their own negative opinion of your former mate and fan the flames of bitterness and anger when that’s not what will help you this season.

 “You want friends who are going to build you up, who are going to listen to you and nurture you and take you to places that are good, safe places. Protect yourself above all,” advised marriage and family counselor H. Norman Wright.

A safe place to find people who understand is through a divorce recovery support group. Such a group can provide you with friends who understand what you are going through and who can be a mutual support through this holiday season. “The friends that I’ve met in DivorceCare [a divorce support group] really helped,” shared Lesia, “because we kept connected over the holidays. Having people going through the same thing I’m going through takes away the aloneness, and I feel like, ‘Someone else is doing this and is making it work, so I can too.’”


Have a plan

You may wonder whether to try and keep the holidays the same as much as possible or whether to make a complete change. “I went into Thanksgiving without being prepared,” said Lesia. “For Christmas, I decided to do things differently so it would be something new to look forward to instead of dread.”

Recognize from the start that this Thanksgiving and Christmas will be different. You cannot recreate past years, and forcing things to be the same will only magnify the differences. Once you understand this, then it’s time to start creating a plan. Your plan should be flexible, but thorough. If you have children, involve them and other family members in helping you build your holiday plan. This can be fun for everyone.

Make a list of everything you typically do in preparation for the holidays. Take a look at that list. Then decide which of those items are too much to handle this year. Your energy level is likely lower as a result of the emotional toll of marital breakup, and your finances may be lower too. You might not have the energy to bake six dozen cookies this year; perhaps you can’t afford to buy gifts for the nieces and nephews; and you don’t need to hang all those holiday lights. Create a new, simplified list of things you’d like to do in preparation for the holidays.

Next, list parties and family get-togethers. Write down times you typically get together with family, friends, coworkers, church friends, neighbors, etc. Decide ahead of time which of these gatherings you will attend, which you’ll decline and what to do about get-togethers that are no longer possible without your ex-spouse. If you spent past Thanksgivings at your in-laws’ house, make a plan as to what you’ll do instead this year. Think about the office Christmas party: maybe it isn’t a good scene if you are feeling vulnerable this year. And if you have children who will be splitting the time between both parents, make sure you are prepared for the times you will be without the kids. Focus on things that you like to do, and plan to do those things.

The third part of your plan involves traditions: when and how you open presents, what you eat at holiday meals, songs that you play in the house, decorations, and anything you’ve done year after year that included your former spouse. You will want to maintain some traditions, but it’s also important to create new traditions. This can be fun, and it is a healthy practice for you. “Creating new traditions was really helpful,” said Monica, “because it gave me a way to celebrate what I do have instead of what I don’t have.”

So, in order to be prepared for the coming holidays, where can you go to learn what emotions to expect? And where can you find safe people who will encourage you in a way that’s healthy? Where do you learn to create a plan that suits your situation?


“Surviving the Holidays” seminar on November 8, 2017 at 6:30pm.

DivorceCare Surviving the Holidays is a $15, two-hour event where you can learn practical, effective strategies to help you make it through the holidays. Held 11/8/17 at Meadowlark Community Church, 1918 Redwing Street, San Marcos, CA from 6:30pm – 8:30pm, this seminar begins with a video featuring interview clips from respected Christian counselors, psychologists, and authors speaking on topics pertinent to people in separation or divorce. The videos also include practical advice from people who’ve experienced a marital breakup and have faced at least one holiday season since then.

At Surviving the Holidays, you’ll receive a Holiday Survival Guide that includes practical strategies, encouraging words, helpful exercises, Q/As, and more to help you construct a healthy approach to the days ahead. You’ll also spend time with other people in separation or divorce who have an idea of what you’re going through and who will accept you as you are without expectations or judgment. “With the people at DivorceCare I don’t have to have it together,” said Monica. “I don’t have to be a certain way. I come as I am, and they know what I mean.”

This holiday season can be a wonderful time of personal growth and peace as you learn to discover joy amidst the heartache. To register or find out more about DivorceCare Surviving the Holidays, call 760-591-3636 or email