Holiday Horrors for Adult Children of Divorce – A Toolkit of Options

There should be no shame in divorce. After all, it is a challenge to sustain a marriage through a lifetime. And the circumstances of each uncoupling is unique to the coupling pair. Yet the wake of pain can follow the players throughout a lifetime, with a residue that impacts children, grandchildren, new marriages and families to come. “Get over it…” may be the advice of well-meaning friends but, guess what, that just doesn’t compute.

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Though the divorce rate is shrinking, 50% of children of the 70’s and the following two plus decades are now adult children of divorced homes. This is a large percentage of our adult population. And a significant piece of the history that emerges in my couples sessions.

In a recent session with a couple in their mid-fifties, a reference was made to the holiday stresses the couple experienced surrounding the divorced parents of one of them and the need to keep the divorced parents apart decades after the courts affirmed their legal right to do so. The toll on the children of divorce is equal to the amount of strain their parents’ rupture places on those children for the rest of their parents’ lives. And these days with life expectancy into the nineties, that can be a long, long time.

The sheer logistics of sharing the holidays with divorced parents, adding the in-laws who themselves could be divorced into factions that can’t be assembled together, is staggering and can be deeply disturbing. Thrust again into the no-win position of seeming to choose one parent over the other – triangulation at its worst – or splitting the holidays into fragmented hours of friction and travel – when the weather outside is challenging and the weather inside a slippery slope at best – triggers anxiety and often dread in the adult children. This dread can also impact their marriages as well as swallow up the glory days of celebration with what feels like a blood-letting. Blood will flow. But must it?

Can divorced parents move out of alienation into cooperation? Bury their hatchets long enough to allow their adult children to navigate the holidays? Can the divorced parents use restraint, understanding, and even give permission to their children to choose the path best geared for schedules and other commitments? Can exes be trusted to be in a room together, especially one where alcohol is served or perhaps with a new spouse present who historically has been blamed for the break-up? Even in less-fragmented family configurations, holiday choices involve multiple variables to reconcile: the ages of the grandchildren; travel time; in-law families; cost; time off from work. Holidays thrust family dysfunction into a harsh, unforgiving light, inflaming old scars and creating new ones. Unwelcomed negative modeling is passed down to the next generation. Who needs that?

What are the options here? What can adult children do when faced with the as yet insoluble and yet inevitable holiday challenge? Magical thinking that ” this year” will be different, is folly. Santa is more likely to slide down the chimney before that wish comes true. First and key, the couple must work to support each other on selecting the best course to take. Family of origin dysfunction creates a rich and poisonous opportunity to split the couple into alienated factions – the adult child of the still warring, divorced parents might be chided by his/her spouse that they are “overreacting” or to “screw them all” and go to the Bahamas for the holiday (not a bad option by the way, but it has to feel right). Make sure that your Coupledom doesn’t fall into that trap.

A patient of mine recently described, with much deserved pride, how she and her siblings brought their parents together to share stories of the years prior to their breakup. Remarkably, through the art of storytelling their histories, the parents were able to reduce the tension and feel again some of the bond that had drawn them together decades earlier. This created a climate of cooperation that heretofore had been absent.

If the image of parents being in the same room leads to heart palpitations and shortened breath, here is a step before that scenario: sit down with each parent separately and share some of the pressure and fear that the holidays have carried over the years following the breakup which only accelerated with the addition of children and in-laws. Be concrete – spell out in words the worry that one parent or the other will not be satisfied by any plan; the anticipation that ultimately, whatever the chosen path, someone will be hurting or angry. If the parent is puzzled or offended by this conversation – tap into their experience as adult parents – how were the holidays for them while their parents were alive? Hear them out. This conversation may be the first step to take, since learning about a parent’s family of origin holiday history can provide somewhat of a guide to sharing your own experience.

After the clear articulation of how the holidays have come to feel post parental divorce, the question posed implicitly or explicitly to the parent is, can he/she put themselves in their children’s shoes; can they recognize how much worry is triggered in anticipation of what should be a joyous event? And then, can they collaborate with their adult child to figure out how to solve this seeming insurmountable and deeply distressing dilemma? Parents can be invited to suggest ways of reducing the tensions and encouraged to offer some practical suggestions based on their own experiences. Even “difficult parents” have tools and smarts and even a heart. If they feel respected and recognized for what they can offer, then doors may open that have seemingly been shut for decades.

At its foundation, this is a request for empathy. Possible? Can the parent “let their children go” to make the choices that work best for them – without adverse consequences: emotional punishment; threats of abandonment; or the icky pus of guilt? Remind everyone that holidays happen each year (good news/bad news) so alternating years is always possible and that regrouping at the end of the season to see how it all worked out should be a guide for next year. Having the divorced parents be a part of the solution is empowering to them and a reminder that they are important and loved.

Another significant reminder: triangulating children of any age (asking them to choose which parent to gratify or take their “side”) is toxic and can be passed down over the generations in lethal dosages that contaminate future families. Kids learn bad modeling as fast as they do good modeling. Some of those “kids,” when grown up, are able to unlearn and prevent damaging their offspring. But others just can’t break the destructive model to create a new one. So damage continues to spread across the generations. Remind the parents of their legacy; that their grandkids are learning from these models. That the greatest holiday gift any family can give each other is kindness and understanding.

Happy Holidays.

©Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W., 2018

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