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The Divorced And The Holidays: A Guide For Married People

The divorced are, at worst, in grief, and at best, in transition. Both altered states can make for some odd company.
12/13/2011 10:19pm ET | Updated February 12, 2012
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I was sitting among a circle of the earnest, at an Omega Institute retreat weekend. It was the first of a total of 4 nights (non consecutive) that I had taken for myself, away from home, during a 12-year marriage (Not that I hadn't been away overnight on other occasions, but it seems reasonable not to count the weekends at cancer hospitals and rehabs with my Dad -- though that rare, quiet breakfast at the Cincinnati airport did feel like a guilty indulgence).

Participants discussed their feelings of alienation at holiday gatherings. The vegan loathed the feasting on dead animal flesh; the still-closeted gay only son dreaded the inquiries about his relationship status; the troubled poet felt she would grind her teeth to splinters suppressing an outburst; the long-married husband yearned for a different life... All in turn expressed their personalized version of the same theme: a silent scream of alienation.

By the time it was my turn, I had overcome my fear of seeming dull, and mustered the courage to express something counter to the growing consensus of "anti-traditional" proclamations: "Well, as the person who probably would have spent the week prior to the holiday cleaning, shopping, decorating and cooking, I am starting to get the same feeling sitting here in this circle!"

Same sense of being an outsider. Different scenario. And the lesson that often feelings of otherness are our own creation, not something that those around us are imposing.

Divorce has become so commonplace and accepted, there's no reason to feel like an outsider. However, try telling that to odd Uncle H. who opted out of three invitations because he would prefer solitude over a pitying glance or well-intentioned advisory speech. And tell the same to kooky Aunt F. who was two chardonnays into the evening and three feet from the kids table when she blurted that she hit the dating lotto on her post-divorce lover, landing a guy who was hung like a cannon after enduring years of sexual famine.

The divorced are, at worst, in grief, and at best, in transition. Both altered states can make for some odd company. We may drink too much, talk too much, not want to talk, not want to eat, not do our share of the dishes, not remember peoples' names or presents. We may break from tradition, possibly spend holidays visiting new places rather than facing lifelong family.

We may dread being set up on a blind date or resent being passed up for one. If we are without our own kids, we may have a hard time enjoying yours. We may have a new relationship, and feel extra-weird about it, or may seem too comfortable or entitled to our new freedom for your own liking.

It's all about perspective, and more than that, it's about compassion. Forget empathy for the moment; it's unattainable for all but very few human beings. We seek one another's company (or we don't) at holiday time, and the perfect gift we could give to everybody is some slack. It's free, after all. And it is the most appropriate choice, especially when you do not relate to the recipient's point of view.

Of course holidays can be treacherous for anybody, including the married's. Heck, I remember in-laws too; it wasn't that long ago. But the occasional tensions among extended family can look like child's play compared with the post divorce potential for drama. Who knew that the infamous chopped liver incident of `99 would eventually pale in comparison with this year's invitation sabotage?

If the holidays can be an emotional minefield, then the holidays plus divorce can be that same minefield being spritzed with napalm.

So, let's declare a truce. We accept your smugness or intolerance, you accept our grandiosity or mopiness. A generosity of the heart may bring us to unconventional outcomes that are in fact most true to the spirit of the season.

Last year marked the first time since their birth that I spent Thanksgiving without my daughters. I felt abundant gratitude toward my sister who, though a keeper of great traditions, was understanding about my declining to spend the day in her crowded, happy home. She offered alternatively the private use of her beautiful mountain lake house, where I could instead create a new way of enjoying a quiet holiday.

A good policy: Have mercy, even when it seems unwarranted. We know that marriage can be a drag (in fact, who knows better than us?). But divorce is a death, even if sometimes akin to euthanasia. And deaths, like births, mean upheaval. So, a recently divorced person is no more assured of "normal" behavior than are the bereaved who have just pulled the plug on a loved one, or a woman who has just given birth.

It's understandable that if your marriage is less than blissful, you may have scant patience for divorcees who can't keep a lid on their annoying exhilaration or depressing drama. They may seem deserving of destitution in their personal or financial lives. However, when in doubt, let's give the benefit of same. Because as is often the case among human beings, we are more alike than we are different.

Peace on Earth, and at the punch bowl.