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How to Navigate the Holidays After Divorce

By Leah Spellman

Getting through your first holidays after a divorce may be difficult for a number of reasons—trust me, I’ve been there. It might be that your holiday traditions have been turned upside down, that it’s painful to see family photos taken without your former partner, or simply that you feel pressure to embrace holiday cheer when you’re facing grief head-on. But there are ways to navigate this new chapter and minimize the holiday blues; keep reading for advice from the experts.

Be prepared and have a plan

You’re at a holiday gathering when an aunt corners you. She hasn’t heard the news of your breakup and brings up your ex. What do you do? Your children are nervous about spending the holidays somewhere new. How do you help them through it? To help prepare for these situations, and to help ease your mind pre-holidays, therapist and author Krystal Smith says to plan ahead. 

“Have tools in your toolbox and know yourself and your triggers,” says Smith. For me, my holiday plan after I got divorced included having my mom call relatives before our holiday get-together to share my news so that I didn’t have to. But preparation will look different for everyone. For example, if you’re worried about unwanted conversations about your change in marital status, you can create a cue word you can say to call for backup. Or if you have kids, you can map out a schedule and share it with them in advance to set expectations. Knowing what’s coming will help you feel in control during a time when there are many unknowns.

Create new traditions

One way to help yourself look to the future rather than replaying the past is by making room for new rituals, and the holidays can be a great time to do just that. Kristin Little, therapist and author of No More Us, suggests a something-old-something-new approach. “The ‘something old’ grounds you in predictability, which is very helpful to build resilience, while the ‘something new’ awakens the possibility of hope for what you can create in your future,” Little says. For instance, if you love your annual gift exchange, make it better than ever, but if it’s too difficult to spend New Year’s Eve solo with the mutual friends you share with your ex, consider taking a trip somewhere new instead.

A great thing about being single again means there’s room for risks, growth, and change, even when it comes to creating new holiday traditions. “New may feel scary, but it doesn’t have to mean something bad is going to happen,” Little says. “Remember, divorce may be a crisis, but it doesn’t have to be a tragedy.”

Embrace grief when it hits

Waves of sadness can be unpredictable. One came crashing down on me the first Thanksgiving after my divorce while I was in the grocery store, and I started crying in the checkout line. Embarrassing? Yes. But allowing myself to feel those feelings may have helped me heal in the long-term, says Dr. Nadine Kaslow, a professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Emory University School of Medicine.

“Just like when we lose a loved one, divorced people talk about the first birthday, first Christmas, first Hanukkah, first Kwanzaa being a particularly difficult time,” says Dr. Kaslow. “You don’t want to stay in that sadness, grief, or anger, but allowing yourself to feel it can actually be helpful.” You can even set time aside during the holidays to grieve the loss. For me that meant taking the time to drive to my favorite park so I could sit in my car alone and sing along to Adele’s breakup ballads.

Make time for self-care

In addition to creating space for the emotions that may arise during the holidays, it can be helpful to take intentional steps toward self-care, says Dr. Kaslow. “Oftentimes, because of the stress, people will turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms—drinking too much, spending too much money, isolating themselves,” she says. Of course, it can be especially easy to rely on these coping mechanisms during the holiday season. But instead of over-indulging, “try to be mindful and intentional in caring for yourself,” suggests Dr. Kaslow. “Eat well, exercise, and sleep.” It can make the holidays much more manageable for you.

Surround yourself with support

Another way to make the holidays manageable during this transition is to ask for help when you need it and accept support when it’s offered. This isn’t the time to fake it or go it alone. Be attentive to your needs, reach out to friends, and surround yourself with positive people who you feel at peace with, says Little. When I was overwhelmed by the thought of getting a Christmas tree and decorating it alone for the first time, I said yes when friends offered to go with me. They helped me keep one of my favorite traditions intact and stood by me as I sorted through ornaments that sparked difficult memories. Make a list of your go-to friends you can turn to when you need someone to listen, make you laugh, or help entertain the kids, and don’t shy away from reaching out. Often family and friends want to help but aren’t sure how to.

Wanted or unwanted, your new relationship status might feel raw during the holidays and can bring unexpected emotions to the surface. Navigate it the best you can, go easy on yourself, and get help if you need it. And remember, a new year is just around the corner.