Divorce lawyers around the country are preparing for the annual January surge in divorce filings. Although no formal study has ever been conducted confirming it, anecdotal evidence among lawyers claim that divorce is a seasonal phenomena, with January the most popular month to file for one. Why is this?
Mark Sichel is a New York City-based licensed clinical social worker and the author of Healing from Family Rifts. In his book, he describes in great detail the concept of the "Family Myth," which consists of "the well-rehearsed notions, wholly fictitious, about the nature of a family unit. This Myth dictates that surface appearance is more important than individual happiness, and that every family member is compatible, possesses the same goals, and loves all the others without question."
In reality, the Myth is not only typically an unsustainable illusion, but also an unhealthy one. Mark goes on to explain that embracing our and our loved ones' autonomy with a healthy form of unconditional love leads to a more satisfying family experience.
Similarly, during the holidays, we are inundated with forced feelings- everywhere we go we see over-idealized images of the "happy family" standard. Each of us is expected to feel an abundance of joy, encouraged by sparkly lights, holiday songs, excessive amounts of rich food and drink, and, of course, unfettered spending.
With these excesses comes one serious emotional, physical and financial hangover. Especially when, unlike a Rockwell portrait, your family probably has a more realistic construction, which may include a angry alcoholic, a teenager struggling in the throes of anorexia, a jailed brother, or an aunt who wrongly decided that she doesn't need to take her anti-depressants anymore.
Simply put, the holidays can be an enormous pressure-cooker that may expose real or perceived flaws in your family and in your spouse. Lawyers and social workers note that many clients express or exhibit the following negative post-holiday emotions and feelings that may spur the commencement of divorce actions:
When we are not otherwise occupied with a full work week and extracurricular activities, the enormous amount of extra time a couple spends together during the holidays may make them feel that they are not particularly connected or compatible, which may increase disputes and tension.
Many people wait until January because they do not want to interrupt the family unit until after the holidays when children return to school and a stable routine (which does not conflict with the often observed phenomena involving break-ups during the holiday season that culminate in filings in January).
Many people choose to acknowledge long-standing unhappiness due to physical and/or mental abuse and resolve to start fresh in a New Year.
During the holiday season, many people suffer from additional mental and physical stressors such as Seasonal Affective Disorder, exhaustion due to too much travel or over-scheduling, lack of sleep, and failure to eat properly by ingesting excessive sugar, fat and alcohol.
As described above, people who suffer from the Family Myth feel an exaggerated sense of disappointment during the holiday season when they are confronted with the realities of an imperfect family.
Many couples experience anger and frustration over family refusal to accept a spouse, which can, in turn, spill over into transferred disappointment in your partner.
Some people express dissatisfaction in gifts or, inversely, stress due to over-spending on gifts to please family members. Interestingly, despite the continued economic crisis, minimal job growth, and continued foreclosure calamity, retail spending increased 5.5 percent over last year in the 50 days before Christmas, exceeding all forecasts.*
The lesson? Let's face it. Some people should get divorced and are happier as such. But some report less happiness and satisfaction after a divorce. Perhaps the mixed results are in part a product of couples' inabilities to distinguish between whether they truly are incompatible and better off without each other as opposed to reacting to an unattainable fantasy.
My suggestion-- mental health professionals should conduct a study to interview couples and examine the alleged underlying grounds for divorce filings that occur in January to assess whether people are motivated to end a marriage based on true incompatibility or failure to live up to the Family Myth.
* New York Times, Retail Sales Rebound, Beating Forecasts.