For me, what marked the onset of the holiday season while growing up occurred the Friday after Thanksgiving when my mother maneuvered our family’s mid-century, two-tone Ford into a diagonal parking spot on the main drag of our hometown, and left me and my siblings in the backseat—motor running—while she ran into the Montgomery Ward storefront to pick up a copy of that year’s Christmas catalog.
She rolled down each car window approximately an inch to protect us against any potential asphyxiation, which also enabled us to hear the piped-in Christmas music that emerged from some magical source. The streets had been adorned with festive lights and greenery. Without a doubt, Christmas was upon us!
Returning to the car, my mother gently tossed the giant retailer’s bulky catalog into the backseat where we attacked it fiercely, like a den of wolves attacks its prey. Shoulder to shoulder, unhindered by seatbelts, we pored over the glossy pages, quickly selecting the toys that would appear on our wish lists and hopefully within weeks, under the Christmas tree. The catalog reminded us that indeed, Santa Claus was coming to town. It also reminded us that Santa had a list—and as the song goes—was “checking it twice,” just to find out who was “naughty or nice,” and worthy of the gifts we’d requested.
Since those childhood days, I’ve learned that the behavior of children is not the only behavior under check during the holidays. Many men and women in stressful marriages put their relationship under scrutiny, determined to make a decision about divorce by the New Year.
My siblings and I rarely noticed the frigid winter air that crept through the lowered windows of our Ford while parked on Main Street, and we certainly never experienced the chill that passes between some parents in many homes every January, when mothers and fathers gather their children together to announce one or both of their intentions to divorce.
According to MarketWatch, January is the most popular month to file for divorce. It punctuates a season that is naturally hectic and stressful. Relationship issues undoubtedly come into sharper focus as couples spend more time together, with holiday activities a perfect backdrop to assess both the best and the worst of times.
Dubbed “the divorce month,” January experiences a third more divorce filings than any other month, marking a jump in divorce activity that continues into March. Additionally, legal insiders and those that track website usage, report a spike in searches after the holidays related to divorce and peripheral topics. The Legal Services Commission also notes that the most divorce filings occur the first Monday after children return to school, as well as at the start of the first full work week of the new year.
Sometimes, it’s a tax consideration that drives the timing of a divorce, but more often than not, it’s the desire of parents to spare their children—after all, few parents want to disrupt the visions of sugarplums that dance in their children’s heads, by announcing their divorce at Christmastime. It’s just not the gift most kids want under the tree.
“My wife and I decided to celebrate one more Christmas as an intact family,” a father who attended one of my seminars on marriage told me, reflecting on his recent holidays. “We knew that was what the kids wanted—and it’s not that we didn’t want that, too, but our marriage had eroded to the point that divorce seemed inevitable. So we had a big Christmas celebration together...Then, when the kids went back to school, I was going to file for divorce—but I didn’t. We ended up having a good holiday together that caused me to reconsider. ”
What can stressed-out couples do—especially those on the verge of divorce—to make it through the holidays without adding to the emotionally-charged time by further scrutinizing a troubled relationship? Could they, like the couple referenced above, serve up holiday festivities as an opportunity to mend their marriage?
Here are a few thoughts for parents contemplating a 2017 divorce to consider along with children’s wish lists this Christmas.
First, ask yourself a few important questions. Have I exhausted every avenue possible to sustain my marriage? Has my spouse had the opportunity to work on our marriage, or have I kept him/her in the dark about our problems? Do I want to divorce my spouse, or do I want us to have a better relationship?
Have we sought quality help? There’s a big difference between “going through the motions” and being “all in” when assessing, understanding, and resolving relationship problems. Working on a marriage is, in fact, just that: work. Furthermore, not all professional help is equal. Seek a second opinion, understanding that progress takes time and effort. And walk away immediately from the professional that states a marriage is beyond help. The general consensus is that couples that truly want help getting their marriage back on track will be successful toward that goal.
Next, put your “marriage evaluation” on hold. Forget about the mental checklist that defines your spouse as “naughty or nice.” If anything, be determined to scrutinize for the nice in your spouse. It’s the holidays after all, a time to exercise goodwill toward all men (or women)—especially the one you married! There is no mandatory timeframe for evaluating a marriage or making a decision to divorce.
Couples that truly want help getting their marriage back on track will be successful toward that goal.
Instead, take time for introspection, which helps one see the whole picture more clearly. Do I have unrealistic expectations? What is my role in our marital dissatisfaction? Have I taken responsibility for it? What could I do differently to improve my marriage? Define it, then do it.
Devote the holiday season to “practicing the behaviors of love”—those everyday exchanges that include kindness, common courtesies, pleases and thank you’s—those things that each of us generously extend to friends and acquaintances, yet so often withhold at home. Controlling the ordinary moments can be a giant step toward marital improvement. Even a simple smile can alter the course of a downhill exchange. Go out of your way to support your spouse during this hectic time. Express appreciation and acceptance. Even for couples experiencing relationship distress, gratitude is known to promote healing and positive outcomes.
And lastly, know that love can and does return. It may not be easy to love a spouse when you don’t feel like loving, or when you don’t feel lovable. Loving a spouse, however, often depends on the choice one makes. In their book The Intimacy Factor, authors David and Jan Stoop write:
Usually, there is a point at which the decision to stop loving is made. We believe that decision can be reversed; it is where commitment comes in. The decision to keep on loving keeps couples practicing the behaviors of love, even when they don’t feel like it or believe a spouse deserves to be loved. When couples act in loving ways, the feelings and emotions of love can and do return.
After all, divorce isn’t the cure-all for all unhappy marriages. One study found that half of couples that divorce later express “regrets about their breakup” or have “second thoughts;” and roughly one in five couples reconnect down the road. And in another study, almost 80 percent of “unhappily married couples” that stayed married report “being happy” again within five years.
My point is two-fold: let’s not be so quick to end a marriage, and certainly, not so determined to make a decision about it over the holidays. What we as adults often lose sight of is this: most kids want to see mommy kissing Santa Claus at Christmas (when they know that Santa Claus is their Dad, and most of them do!). They want to gather around the hearth, share warm meals at a well-decked table, giggle in anticipation for the gift exchange, and yes, capture it all in a few well-timed photos they’ll later share on Instagram.
Most of us, as parents, would give our children just about anything. We’ll pore over their wish lists, yet often forget what they want and need most: their parents together. While it might not be spelled out explicitly, we should know that somewhere between the lines, harbored in our children’s heart of hearts, is what they want more than ever under the tree, and every day of the year—a happy, lasting marriage for mom and dad—especially if they have reason to suspect it’s missing.
At this holly jolly time of the year, let’s allow our children to experience just that—no marital check-lists, no scrutiny of "naughty or nice"—just an arbitrarily defined timeframe of yuletide goodwill that hints, and perhaps leads directly, to a New Year, calm and bright.