Holidays and the End of a Relationship

Riding the waves of change

Posted Dec 22, 2017

Thanksgiving is behind us, and the holiday season is here. This time of year can be difficult for those of us who are divorced.    

Late life divorce is increasing—ending a long marriage, especially one that produced children. Untangling lives at any age can bring freedom and second chances, but this is mixed with both happiness and grief.

This is what I’ve observed and experienced: the nuclear family becomes two families. Each parent spends less time with the children now. Communication between parents and children changes. Communication between the parents changes, too.  In many instances, divorce creates a wall of silence.

Even if we’re friendly with a former spouse, the exchange of information is often altered.  My ex-husband sometimes sends an email with the subject: “sad news”, alerting me that someone has died.  Email allows the efficient, unemotional dissemination of information. 

For most of us, after a relationship ends, holiday celebrations are different from what they once had been.   

Recently, I went to dinner with a group of women. One woman had been divorced for four years after twenty-two years of marriage. I told her I had been divorced after a long marriage, too.

“Do you have to split up the holidays?" she asked me, “One year the children are with you, and the next year they're with your ex-husband?”

I said yes.  

“I do, too,” she said.  “That’s the worst.”  

The end of a relationship is a loss, and we keep losing things after it’s over.  

Ronna Wineberg
Source: Ronna Wineberg

Friends of mine are happily married to each other. When adult children from their first marriages and the grandchildren are with the ex-spouses for a holiday, the couple hosts a dinner at their apartment for friends. “But the holidays are never the same again,” the couple told me. “I have different feelings about my divorce,” the wife said, “but one thing is certain: it changed the constellation of the family forever.”  

Divorce offers a chance to shape new traditions. One way to creatively manage divorce and feelings of dislocation is to celebrate in as festive a manner as we did in the past. There are many ways to mark a holiday. We have to find the solution that works best for us, whether we’re celebrating Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, New Year’s, Easter, Passover, or other occasions during the year.

A friend who is married for the second time invites her ex-husband to holiday dinners now. She didn’t speak to him for years after a difficult divorce, but she and her former husband have become friendly. “We share children, grandchildren, and he’s alone now,” she said.  Her current husband is comfortable with the arrangement. 

Another couple goes out to dinner on Thanksgiving, just the two of them. “We have a lovely evening at a restaurant, and no one has to cook or clean up,” the husband said. Children from their first marriages live out of state.

My ex-husband and I have three young adult children. We alternate spending holidays with them. 

This year they were with him on Thanksgiving.  At first, I missed my children and even my ex-husband’s family. We used to get together with his family on holidays.  I thought of my relatives, too. Most live out state. And my extended family is smaller now because of the passage of time. But I spent the holiday with old friends and their family at a dinner in their apartment. The evening was warm and celebratory.

I began to experience the newness and possibilities of my present life.

When writers finish a draft of a book, they often find they’ve written a different book than they envisioned when they began.  Living is a like that. We begin at one point, with a vision of how our future will unfold, but as years pass we may find ourselves in a place we didn’t imagine we’d be.  

I heard a rabbi speak about what happened to the Jewish people after they left Egypt. They wandered in the wilderness and longed to go back to Egypt. They were anxious and didn’t know what awaited them in the future. They were in transition.

We all live in the wilderness at various times.

If we’ve shared life with a spouse or partner, the residue of that life survives. The past may be behind us, but it doesn’t disappear. Occasions such as holidays can trigger memories and sometimes spark a longing to go back.

There’s a Zen concept in mindfulness meditation: “beginner’s mind”, approaching a situation with openness, without making negative judgments or imagining how things should be. It’s a useful concept to consider during holidays.

We are all beginners.  Especially during times of change and transition. Especially after a relationship has ended. We can’t go back. We have to forge new traditions—traditions that are comfortable for us and our unique situation.  We have to experience the possibilities of our present life and ride the waves of change with an open mind and open heart.