It is not uncommon for relationship issues to surface around the festive period. When couples are experiencing difficulties and strains on their relationship, they may start to ask themselves: ‘Will this be our last Christmas together? How do I get through the Christmas holidays? What will happen in the New Year?’ Putting on a brave face for the kids is often the default position but the inner turmoil can be too much for many to bear.
So what can couples do ahead of the holiday season to ease relationship issues?
In this blog, Family Law in Partnership associate Carla Ditz considers the impact of the holiday season on couples who are going through relationship break down and considers how to ease some of the pressure.
Family lawyers will tell their clients time and time again that no family is the same. When children are young (and unaware of their parents’ marital problems), the Christmas period is a time of togetherness and the notion of a separated family is inconceivable. When children are older, there will be an element of understanding but reassurance will still be necessary.
Every couple’s circumstances will be different and how they choose to manage the holiday period will differ depending on their experience of divorce or separation and indeed what stage they are at in the process. In most cases during family breakdown, relations will be strained. Inevitably, there will have to be a conversation about how the children will spend the Christmas holidays going forward (unless of course there have been proceedings concerning the children which have specifically addressed contact and living arrangements). But arrangements will need to be fluid and parents will often need to be flexible to accommodate the children primarily but also each other.
For some, although admittedly a small number of cases, where the process has been managed well and where the parenting relationship is strong and indeed amicable, they may feel that one final family holiday is the best way to cement the ties and commitment (i) as between the parents and (ii) as between the parents and children; to demonstrate that whilst the family unit is changing, there is still strong support for one another. This may also involve celebrating Christmas together. This sends a powerful message, most importantly to the children. For obvious reasons, however, this scenario is likely to happen in the minority of cases.
Where the children are to alternate spending Christmas with each parent, the other parent will always need to manage how they will spend Christmas Day, for example. Having a support network close by will be essential to avoid the parent without the children that year left to dwell on the more negative aspects of the situation. It may of course be that, for religious reasons, one parent may not celebrate Christmas and instead other religious holidays may be more relevant. In this situation, plans can be made to accommodate the various religious holidays throughout the year.
However, which way the holiday season is managed, there may be some element of tradition that could be introduced with the intention of creating positive experiences for the children. These traditions need not be limited to Christmas and New Year but this is certainly a good place to start. Of course, there may also be traditions that took place whilst the family were together such as the opening of presents at a certain time. Parents may need to consider how to keep these traditions going whilst being sensitive to the fact that it may highlight that such traditions are no longer experienced as they once were, in the family unit as a whole. Both parents should also be encouraged to create their own new traditions. Encouraging the children to be a part of the creation of these new traditions also sends a strong message.
Much has been written about how to ‘co-parent’ well but the ultimate test will be putting it in to practice and seeing what works in each case. Whilst the festive period in itself can be testing, the following tips apply equally to contact arrangements in general:
- Your children should be the priority – give children the opportunity to be heard and to tell you how they feel. Involve them in discussions where appropriate and focus on their needs but be careful not to burden them with the responsibility of making hefty decisions.
- Talk and listen – maintain good communication with your former partner – respect each other as parents and recognise that this parenting relationship will have a huge impact on the children going forward. Support the other parent’s relationship with the children and show encouragement of this relationship to your children. Also, recognise that the usual routines may slide during the holidays because of the excitement of the festive season. Not policing or being critical of how the children spend time with the other parent is important.
- Stick to the rules – respect arrangements which are already in place to allow for an element of certainty and to allow the other parent to make plans.
- But be flexible – show generosity, kindness and sensitivity, particularly over the holiday season. Sometimes things don’t go quite to plan – demonstrating a willingness to be flexible and accommodate the other parent will pay dividends in most cases, crucially for the children, to ensure they don’t miss out. Be careful not to show frustration in the presence of the children even when the other parent disrupts your time with them.
- Be considerate of the other parent when the children are not with them – on Christmas Day, for example, make sure there is an agreed time that the other parent will speak to the children to avoid them perhaps feeling too isolated.
- Plan the holidays well – make sure there is a well-defined plan as to what will happen when during the holidays as dates and timings can be crucial, particularly if travel is involved. Also, make sure both parents know which holidays are particularly important to them.
How to lessen the blow during the holiday season
So what can couples do before the festive season hits to try and contain the pressure that may build up over this period?
Any couple experiencing family breakdown will need a strong support network around them. Some parties will engage in counselling sessions or some other form of therapy. The benefits of counselling are underestimated and to some, unknown. Counselling can help couples to face and understand the challenges of relationship breakdown and the divorce process as well as putting many issues in perspective. More information on our counselling and family support services can be found here.
- Mediation and Arbitration
If the divorce process is underway, couples will need to address the financial matters and ultimately reach a financial settlement. Many will wish to avoid a litigious process. Lawyers will frequently encourage their clients to try to resolve matters using out of court processes such as mediation and arbitration. Where financial matters are coming to a head, just before the festive period, it is worth considering whether mediation or arbitration can assist. The parties may find that much progress can be made in a matter of weeks, which can help to ease pressures towards the end of the year and take a weight off their minds and they approach the New Year with renewed hope.
A more efficient and positive process of resolving disputes can enable the couple to focus more attention on children for example, something which will undoubtedly require more time and energy.
Please visit our Process options page for our full range of services offered.
- Parenting plans
As a general guide, parents may wish to write a parenting plan laying down some ground rules and setting out how they will work together as parents to provide support for each other and for their children going forwards. It can be as detailed as you wish but importantly it can assist with the more practical arrangements such as communication, living arrangements, money, religion, education, health care, and emotional well-being. More information on parenting plans and how to create one can be found here.
For a couple going through relationship breakdown, the holiday season can seem particularly daunting. It can however be used as an opportunity to open up dialogue, make mutually beneficial plans and cement relations for the benefit of the children.