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Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Thanksgiving and Divorce

Now that our family law practice is expanding and the holidays are upon us (is that Christmas music I hear on the radio?), writing a blog about divorce on Thanksgiving seems fitting.  This is intended as some friendly advice, but feel free to respond or comment with your own feelings about the issue and let us know if your experience has led you to different conclusions.

Holidays Can Be Stressful, Especially During Divorce
We come to know Thanksgiving as a time of family togetherness steeped in deep traditions.  For those currently in the process of a divorce, have recently divorced, or divorced several years ago and remain single while everyone else has coupled up, Thanksgiving can be a very difficult and emotional time.    The good news is that you will be surrounded by people who love you and are supportive of you.  However, they also aren't mind readers.  If you're feeling anxious or sad about the holiday, try letting at least one family member or fellow Thanksgiving dinner attendee know about how your feeling.  You'll feel better for getting it off your chest (as opposed to keeping it in and possibly crying into your mashed potatos when someone asks how things are going in your life).  You'll also create an ally in the person you've confided in, and he/she will help deflect any comments or questions from others that could potentially rub salt in your wounds.

This is also a good time to connect with those family members who are also single, and have probably been enduring Thanksgiving meals that border on interrogations for years (i.e. "when are you going to settle down and find a good husband/wife?").  These folks know how to cope with Thanksgiving and typically have excellent strategies that you can pick up.  I once heard someone say that her Thanksgiving host's dinner table sat twelve people and there were 6 couples coming to Thanksgiving, and so the host seated all the couples at one table and put the others at the "kid's table."  However, this person relabeled the "kids table" as the "freedom table" and had a wonderful time with the other single people and the kids, as they would hilariously quote Braveheart during the toasts.

If you're really dreading Thanksgiving with your family and you don't think there's any way to mitigate the stress, try having Thanksgiving with other relatives or with your friends.  Not everyone's Thanksgiving is the same and you may be pleasantly surprised at the different traditions other people have.  I once had Thanksgiving at a professor's house when I couldn't fly home from college and I had a great time with new people, different food, and good conversation.  It was a welcome distraction from the nostalgia.  Another thing you can try is treating yourself to a delicious Thanksgiving meal at a nice restaurant.  Most fancy restaurants have a special Thanksgiving dinner service with excellent food, and several people in similar situations will be in attendance.

As odd as it may seem, there could be potential upsides to coordinating Thanksgiving post divorce.  Often times, married couples have difficulty splitting up the holidays with their respective families.  Sometimes, spouses don't get along with their in-laws, and forced get-togethers during the holidays cause fighting and stress.  Going through a divorce is very emotional and very hard, but won't it be nice to not have to sit through another holiday dinner with your former in-laws who you've never liked anyway?  Small condolences, I know.  But worth appreciating, for some.

Custody During The Holidays
Now people going through divorce at Thanksgiving often also have the issue of child custody.  It's important to remember that divorce is not only hard on the parents, but it's also hard on the child.  Kids are often sad around the holidays because they aren't sharing it with both parents.  They family isn't what it used to be, the routine is broken, and the holidays will most likely not be the same.  It's natural that they'll be sad, so whatever each parent can do to minimize the sadness is a good idea.  Some things you should never do is talk negatively about the other parent in front of the child, or make the child feel guilty about spending the holiday with his/her other parent instead of you.  It's immature, and the child will resent you for it.  If the child is spending Thanksgiving with you this year and the co-parent calls during dinner to talk to the child for five minutes, let your child take the call.  Your ex is probably having a hard time dealing with the child's absence during the holiday, and you will probably want the same courtesy extended to you next year when the child spends Thanksgiving with your ex.  If you have your child for the holiday and your child misses a phone call from the co-parent, try to have your child return the phone call promptly.

That being said, the parent who does not have the child for Thanksgiving should respect the family time the other parent is having with the child and be mindful of the duration of any phone calls with the child.  In other words, don't talk to your child on the phone for an hour when the child is supposed to be having dinner with his/her other parent, and don't call incessantly.  It's rude to interrupt the dinner for that long and you wouldn't want the same treatment.  Try to limit the calls to 5 or 10 minutes.

In Florida, time sharing (custody) of the child during the holidays is almost always addressed in any parenting plan agreement filed with the court as a matter of process when a divorce is granted and their are children common to the marriage.  Make sure you think about what you want to do during the holidays before you sign any agreement.  If the agreement calls for alternating Thanksgiving with each parent every year, does it address whether the child will spend the day before, or after, the holiday with the other parent?  Many agreements call for Parent X to have Thanksgiving with the child on even calendar years, with Parent Y to have the child for the next day (Black Friday), and the reverse to occur on odd calendar years.  This may seem like a good idea, but it could also limit travel plans on Thanksgiving.  If it's your turn to have the child on Thanksgiving, but you want to spend Thanksgiving at your mother's house and she lives 200 miles away, then having the child back to your co-parent's arms the next day will be very difficult.  I'm not suggesting someone not sign an agreement that calls for alternating Thanksgiving with the other parent getting Black Friday.  After all, your child's right to see both parents should come before your travel plans.  I'm simply urging co-parents to think about these things through and through before signing an agreement.  If you never travel far on Thanksgiving, or you always host the holiday dinner, then it's a non-issue.

Hopefully, there will be the day when both parents feel welcome to share Thanksgiving together with the child.  But that is rarely the case, for various reasons.  Divorce is complicated, time sharing is complicated, and the resulting holidays can be as well.  Maturity, understanding, and a good attitude can improve the situation.  Hopefully, the company you share during the holiday is supportive, and loving, and will help you get through what can be a difficult time.  That's what family is for.  And that's ultimately what the holiday is about: sharing love, in all its forms.  You may not have it romantically, but it is there nonetheless, within your support system.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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