We've all read by now about the benefits of gratitude, how stopping to give thanks for what is working in our lives can help us remember all we do have, and the stop the negative self-comparison that creeps up on even the more secure of us. It’s particularly easy in divorce to feel less-than during the holidays, which could also be called the “Season of Pressure to Have the Perfect Family.” All the music in the stores is romantic; the commercials on TV are filled with happy, intact families snuggling by the fire. For those of us newly single, it can be hard to take.
But as University of North Carolina psychologist Barbara Fredrickson writes, even small positive moments can spark an “upward spiral of positivity.” As she’s shown in studies, and in her uplifting book, Positivity, positive emotions broaden our awareness of the world around us and our ability to think creatively and productively about our role in it. Simple actions, such as bringing flowers to a friend who's hosting a holiday meal, making holiday cards for the homeless at a local church, or taking a break from cooking to go to a yoga class can contribute to what she calls an “upward spiral” of positivity. One uplifting or thankful moment can add on to the next, and the next. While the holidays look different after divorce, they remain ripe with opportunities to enjoy small positive breaks in our routine.
Last year, I picked up my eight-year-old son after school on a Friday, and we headed to the Montana Avenue Holiday Walk, an annual tradition in the part of Santa Monica where we live. The little boutiques lining the avenue stay open late and serve hot chocolate or cider, platters of cookies or cream puffs. We got a half block from our apartment, when we saw a neighborhood friend, a young rabbi named Chaim Teleshevsky, serving chicken-and-matzo-ball soup to passersby under a tent outside the Whole Foods. He had one helper, two huge vats of chicken stock, and an ever-growing line of people hunched up in their shawls against the cool Pacific air, craving soup. I wanted to do the holiday walk with everyone else, but he clearly needed help.
I stepped up and started ladling. My son, perhaps remembering the weeknights when we volunteered at the soup kitchen back in Hoboken, started handing over plastic spoons. My little boy is usually shy around strangers, and not—how shall I say it?—eager to follow every single rule he's ever encountered. But he enjoyed having a job that required concentration, and doing a task with his mommy. He didn’t see it as “behaving” well, despite the thanks he got.
After about thirty minutes of this, I wanted to stop helping and start shopping. But my son, feeling useful, productive, helpful—wanted to stay.
I took a step back and watched him. This break from our planned holiday indulgence reminded me of one of my Principles of Parting: Create Positive Moments. I’d been somewhat nervous about this neighborhood shop-along—just my son and me; his dad, my ex, home doing his own thing. I worried that I’d feel lonely, or he’d feel awkward being surrounded by happy families with both parents along.
We did finally leave the soup-serving behind and head down the street, toward the ocean. I sampled chocolate truffles at John Kelly, chatted with a neighbor, posed for a photo with my son in a purple jester’s hat. But the highlight of the evening for both of us was serving steaming soup in the cool night air.
Here are three tips for getting through the holidays, during divorce.
1. Skip the Old Traditions
The holidays are prime time for what researchers call “episodic loneliness,” that chafing sense of wrongness that arises when doing something alone that formerly involved someone else—such as taking an annual holiday walk. Or watching your children open presents on Christmas morning without their other parent. Or taking a winter vacation to the Bahamas, if that’s what you did while married. One of the easiest ways to minimize episodic loneliness is to avoid those situations the trigger it, at least in the beginning, rather than forcing yourself to “tough it out.”
This year, for Thanksgiving, I'll be home alone with my son and my mother, who flew out to be with us. Every other year, I've celebrated with my entire extended family, but I wasn't able to travel to Texas to do so this week. I decided to cook a big meal for my (small) family and friends the night before Thanksgiving—my friends did not have plans on Wednesday night, and so could come to my place. On Thanksgiving itself, we're heading to an outdoor restaurant on the beach that my son loves.
2. Create a New Routine
We can not only avoid those old traditions that feel haunting without our spouse, but also actively create new ones. We often feel like our holiday joy is rooted in one specific family tradition, but there are hundreds of ways to celebrate this season. While traditions link us to our past, divorce is a time to start shifting our focus to the future. The fact is, even new traditions have power. We create new traditions in our lives all the time. This is a great opportunity to rethink what you do, and come up with a way to celebrate that is more meaningful, and more appropriate to where you are in your life now.
3. Bring Holiday Cheer to Someone Else
We may feel lonely at various points during the next few weeks, but we’re not alone in being by ourselves, or in being uncomfortable with that state. One of the best ways to combat a feeling of gloomy isolation is to actively do something celebratory for someone else. Invite friends over for a cookie decorating night, and then bring those cookies to someone you know who could use cheering up—an elderly neighbor, a single friend living far from family, perhaps a new mother who’s feeling overwhelmed by the excessive fullness of her own life. Host a Leftover Fest at your place for the day after Thanksgiving. Arrange a movie night for single friends on Christmas Eve. Do a craft project with your children, and invite over a few of their friends.
The tradition of giving at this time of year means there are also many pre-arranged opportunities to easily jump in and join. If you don’t have a regular routine of volunteering, the novelty of it can make it that moment stand out far stronger, for you and for your children.
This month, which some might label the “Season of Seeing How Your Life is Falling Short,” also brings abundant reminders of all that we have.