Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

5 Reasons Why People Break Up Over the Holidays

... as if one trauma is not enough.

Most couples avoid ending a relationship in proximity to holidays such as Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Eve; this is well documented. Some wish to simply enjoy themselves; others prefer to spare themselves and their families consecutive traumas. Rarely do parents want to pass on such a legacy to their children. In contrast, there are couples that choose to terminate their unions during these times, regardless of the consequences. Referencing my clinical practice, I have found 5 predominant reasons for such timely or untimely actions, depending on your perspective. I do realize that couples break up on wedding anniversaries, birthdays, and, unfortunately, when a partner is sick or hospitalized, but these do not represent the focus of this post. Here I will center on those major holidays that are family-oriented and thus hold a significance wider than that of the couple themselves.

  1. The Last Straw. Some individuals do not specifically plan to end a relationship on a major holiday, but a last-minute fight might serve as a final trigger. Janie warned her husband Tim numerous times over the years to stop drinking. Because Tim traditionally drank more over the holidays, Janie was on high alert. When Tim knocked the family Christmas tree over, Janie lost her legendary tolerance and left him that night. In an interview, she said, “I began the night with no intention of ending my marriage. It just hit me like a hammer, and I was done. I could not take one more incident.”
  2. A Twist of the Knife. Unfortunately, some partners wish to make a statement. And there is no better way to express one’s rage than to end a relationship at a time when family intimacy is supposed to be at an all-time high. Most of these individuals claim to be unaware of their need to accent the pain they are inflicting, but they seem to have little remorse when it's pointed out. Sally knew how important Christmas was to her husband Joe: He was even born on Christmas day. He was always in the best of spirits during the weeks leading up to and following Christmas. Sally, on the contrary, believed that she and Joe had a child-centered marriage and was quite unhappy. She chose Christmas Eve to end her relationship, sending Joe into a psychological tailspin.
  3. The End of an Era. Some people prefer to maintain a relationship through Christmas but end it just before New Year’s Eve. The logic here is to spare the family pain on such a potentially joyous occasion but end the relationship before the new year begins. This maneuver is symbolic of the start of a new life. Anthony claimed to be deeply in love with another woman. But he also said that he loved his children too much to ruin their Christmas. “No way I’m going to give them something that will depress them every Christmas for the rest of their lives. But I just can’t start off the new year with my wife. I can wait a couple more weeks, but it’s time for a change."
  4. This Thing of Ours. Some people have told me that when they watch their partners interact (or fail to do so) with their families on holidays it serves as a reminder that they just don’t fit in. As a result, some choose to terminate their partner’s family membership. This is especially easy to do if the terminator’s family feels the same way. Kristin claimed that her parents never really thought that her husband Jake was “one of them.” This was particularly evident when Jake chose to isolate himself and play the piano rather than join Kristin’s father and brothers in the den taking in consecutive football games. “If I think about it,” said Jake, “I guess I was never fully accepted.”
  5. Paying Off a Debt. If your parents disapproved of your mate, you may end your relationship as a way of alleviating guilt for choosing them in the first place. It’s as if to say: “Gee mom and dad, I’m sorry I disrespected your wishes, but I will make it up to you; and I will do so in spades by ending my relationship on a holiday." I call this paying back with interest. Keep in mind that the parent who is owed may be long gone, making the payment of the debt even more guilt-driven. Nicole said, “My parents hated Christopher, but I was stubborn and married him anyway, putting a lifelong rift between me and my family. Now that my dad is gone, and I’ve had so many problems with Chris, I’m going to obey my father’s wishes. I only hope he is watching this from above.”

No doubt there are several more reasons people end relationships on family-oriented holidays, but I will leave those to my readers. I do want to make it clear that I do not take a stand on when a couple should or should not end a relationship. Some couples need to separate, and this event could well be the best thing that has ever happened to them. I do, however, think that ending a relationship, especially a long-term or significant one, tends to traumatize both parties. Adding this trauma against the backdrop of a family-oriented holiday might prove to be a double trauma that may produce severe symptoms. I recommend one trauma at a time.

More from Psychology Today

More from Stephen J. Betchen D.S.W.

More from Psychology Today