Although most of us look forward to the holiday season, that’s not the case for everyone. Due to certain life circumstances, some people may view Christmas and the New Year with a sense of dread or anger. This may be especially true if you’ve experienced a hostile break-up or divorce. Unlike other times of the year, it’s difficult to avoid your ex-spouse (or ex-significant other) during the holidays—particularly when children are involved.
While it may be a challenge to encounter your ex during the holidays, it doesn’t have to be a heavy burden on your emotional health—and it definitely shouldn’t be a cause of anxiety for your children. If you’re concerned about the potential for awkward interactions this holiday season, here are a few things to help you mentally prepare beforehand.
Be proactive when communicating with your ex. Speaking with your ex may be the last thing you want to do, but a clear plan can help ward off miscommunication and emotional flare-ups. Even when kids aren’t in the picture, you’ll want to agree on some plans and boundaries, along with establishing a base level of politeness beforehand.
Doing this also sends a clear message to your kids that Mom and Dad aren’t going to embarrass them, and that their parents can act like adults. If you expect civility from them, you have to show them that the grownups can do it, too.
You can’t control others, but you can control how you respond. If maintaining civility with your ex proves to be impossible, don’t let the loss of control drag you down with it. As much as you might want to, you can’t ever fully control how others behave. Unfortunately, the feelings of frustration and inadequacy can be overwhelming.
If your ex can’t act civil when you’re around—especially when your kids are present—you can choose not to respond. If the situation gets out of hand, there’s nothing wrong with politely leaving. It may be the only way to de-escalate the situation.
The holidays are about your kids—not you. As uncomfortable as holiday encounters with your ex may be, it’s only worse for your children. Remember that they have little or no control over the situation or outcome. When you and your ex get caught up in your own emotional drama, it’s all too easy to forget that the holidays should be a time of joy for your kids—not a source of anxiety.
Above all, keep in mind that Christmas is not a competition between you and your ex. Time with your children is not a prize to fight over. Instead, encourage your children to enjoy the holidays not just with you, but also with their other parent. The ability to do this should be unquestioningly clear to them.
Ask your kids what they most want out of the holidays and then listen carefully to what they have to say. Establish traditions with your extended family—and with your ex—but don’t be afraid to start new traditions that include just you and your kids.
If you have children, maintaining a relationship with your ex probably isn’t something you can opt out of, particularly during the holidays. But if you take the time to be thoughtful and respectful of everyone involved, celebrating the holidays doesn’t have to be a disaster.
David Lowenstein, Ph.D. is a psychologist and the clinical director of Lowenstein & Associates, Inc. in Columbus, Ohio. In addition to providing therapeutic services to individuals and families, he offers training and consultation to numerous associations, schools and agencies around the country. Additionally, he is a frequent radio and TV guest and a resource and contributing writer for numerous newspapers and magazines nationwide. Contact Dr. David Lowenstein at 691 South Fifth Street Columbus, OH 43206 or by phone at 614.443.6155 or 614.444.0432.