The New Normal: Divorce, the Holidays, and the COVID Pandemic

Faith Miller Managing Partner at Miller Zeiderman LLP, authors the latest article for her blog. Read the full article below.

There has been a lot of talk about “the new normal” when discussing the COVID pandemic this year — especially for divorced or divorcing couples.

Adapting to life with COVID-19 in divorce

People everywhere have had to adapt their work, education, and home life to cope with the ongoing COVID crisis.

But what about those who are divorced or contemplating divorce? Getting to the other side of your divorce to find your own “new normal” can feel stressful enough without the added pressure of an ongoing pandemic and worries about your personal health and that of your children.

This year has seen epic increases in stress levels from the pandemic alone. According to the American Psychological Association’s 2020 Stress in America survey, nearly 8 in 10 adults say the pandemic is a significant source of stress in their lives. Nearly 1 in 5 adults say their mental health is worse than it was at this time last fall.

But now that we’re upon the holidays, the season seems to promise hope and joy–the narrative climax of 2020 never sounded so good. Vaccination starting at the end of the month looms like a gift to the weary and frightened.

Divorced or divorcing couples can struggle during the holidays — but especially in a pandemic

Finding a way to manage through the holidays while still adhering to CDC guidelines for the health and safety of your family remains a major sticking point for many divorced or divorcing couples.  Following are some insights and strategies from the experts on how to manage through the 2020 season:

Co-Parenting Communication. Even though we’re getting closer to the finish line—and perhaps because of it—co-parents can have ongoing difficulty in communicating with each other. This is especially true if your marriage was conflict-ridden, full of contempt or criticism, low on listening, or if your spouse was controlling, a risk taker or a non-COVID believer. Research shows the prolonged stress of the pandemic has made aggressive people more aggressive and it’s led to higher drug and alcohol abuse as well, which contributes to poor judgment and risk taking.

In addition, health officials are warning against complacency as we struggle with the third wave of coronavirus. Super spreader events loom with the approach of the holidays, kids can develop serious cases of COVID, masks and social bubbles aren’t everything, shopping can be distracting, and exes can be careless and not own up to it. If you suspect your spouse is straying from the safety protocols, or your co-parenting communication is worsening, consider consulting Faith Miller. The health of you, your children and other loved ones is at stake. While you likely can avoid the courts, “I can help you modify your access schedule with a stipulation that incorporates current CDC and state guidelines and provides strong protection for the children’s health and best interests,” she says. This stipulation applies to parents currently divorcing as well as those already divorced who have an access schedule in place.

Togetherness Challenge. Much of this year has been defined by social distancing—extended families not being together, even the family unit upended by quarantine. As a result, divorced families are not alone in experiencing a reconfigured holiday. Some divorced families report that the longer school breaks and online schooling have helped to buffer feeling “deprived” when their children split time between homes over the holidays.

The country’s clarion call that “we’re all in this together” has also helped people to feel less alone. Pushing through pandemic stress has meant hitching ourselves to the greater good. According to the Mayo Clinic, this sense of higher purpose subconsciously connects people and brings inner peace. It also eases that distorted sense of feeling responsible for everything, which can plague many divorced couples. The greater good helps us to get out of our own heads; and the season’s spirit of giving can amplify that thrust right now.

This is not to say you won’t feel stress around the holidays. The pandemic has been one long crisis to many families and has taken a toll on almost everyone. People have lost jobs; friends and relatives have perished due to COVID; people have reached their breaking point. But with the pandemic’s end in sight, according to Dr. Anthony Fauci, and families everywhere wrestling with the “new normal,” divorced families can have hope that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and with that, the ability to enjoy the season’s peace.

Susan Pease Gadoua, L.C.S.W., author of Contemplating Divorce and Clinical Social Worker, sees divorced people in her practice who do thrive at this time of year. One big way they achieve this is by “creating a new community of people in a similar position or transition,” she says. Divorced people who are unhappy during the holidays are typically the ones who “make it worse for themselves,” she says, by connecting with couples and feeling like the odd person out or by staying alone when they need company, however socially distanced.

Divorced people who make a point of including other divorced folks in their new community, and center it with new rituals, can experience what social scientists call “collective effervescence.” It’s the feeling of a heightened sense of belonging, a profound emotional experience in a purpose-driven gathering. Zoom might not deliver the full effect of “collective effervescence.” But once we can gather safely on the other side of the pandemic, people can build these community events again and keep it an annual holiday tradition. Keep in mind that a ritual in such a gathering can be as simple as having an outdoor potluck on the back patio while everyone sings Christmas carols or Hanukkah songs and processes the year together.

The Aaah! Of Imperfection. We’re all off the hook, thankfully, now that the pandemic has whittled down the holiday list. Seeing the Nutcracker is now doable from your couch! (You can stream the New York City’s Nutcracker on Marquee TV from December 11, 2020 through January 3, 2021.)

Still, people succumb to perfectionism during the holidays, and it’s a top source of stress, says Neda Gould, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and director of the Johns Hopkins Mindfulness Program at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. We “set the bar impossibly high and then feel upset when our celebrations don’t live up to expectations,” she says. Divorced people may be especially susceptible to perfectionism; a combination of misplaced guilt and romanticism of the past can lead people to go off the rails with holiday “magic.” One way Gadoua gauges evidence of concerning perfectionism (year-round) is by assessing whether her divorced clients have a realistic picture of other people’s marriages—do they fall for Facebook images or do they recognize that “no relationship is without some problems, even when a couple seems perfectly matched,” she says.

 “Imperfection is healthy and normal,” emphasizes Dr. Gould. The sooner you embrace that standard, the happier you’ll be. “Let yourself practice imperfection” to get the hang of it, she adds. Let things go and fill in the gaps with extra downtime with your kids where you chill and watch movies back-to-back. That feels great to kids—a moviefest is all about the thrill of letting go. Plus, who doesn’t love seeing the poster boy of perfectionsim run amok–Clark Griswold in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation yelling “we’re on the threshold of hell!” as the squirrel jumps out of the Christmas tree and blows up his family gathering.

Remember to catch up on sleep during the holidays, too. Sleep is now considered a top tool of stress management. “It’s so crucial that even slight sleep deprivation or poor sleep can affect memory, judgment, and mood,” according to the American Psychological Association. Because adults and teens are significantly sleep-deprived, studies show, they’re officially stressed-out. Making naps a priority ought to be on the new holiday list.

Gratitude. It bears repeating, especially at this time of year, that gratitude is key to happiness. According to Harvard experts, acknowledging goodness in your life—goodness that lies at least partially outside of yourself– is strongly and consistently associated with greater happiness, improved health, better coping skills, stronger relationships, and an enhanced ability to relish good experiences. Gratitude can be cultivated, they say, and just thinking about what you’re grateful for starts to change your brain through feel-good brain chemicals, says neuroscientist Alex Korb, Ph.D., author of Upward Spiral

Laurie Santos, Ph.D., of Yale University’s Happiness Lab also highlights the power of expressed gratitude. Create a gratitude list–the simple act of writing down things you’re grateful for can boost your happiness in a matter of a few weeks. For further rewards, arrange “a gratitude visit” where you reach out to someone you’ve been meaning to thank. That increases your happiness along with the recipient’s. “The circle of gratitude,” where remembered kindness sparks kindness on your part, also makes you a better friend to your future self,” says Dr. Santos. You learn how to be kinder to yourself and you learn how to look through a positive lens. “Gratitude is part of our psychological immune system,” says Robert Emmons, Ph.D., another happiness expert at UC Davis. It can help you to bounce back from the difficulty of divorce. And it can help you to avoid social comparisons–the compare-despair trap that leaves people fixated on other families, or their past, or what they might have done differently. Therapists call this the “woulda shoulda couda” rabbit hole of regret. Don’t live life in the subjunctive; live in the now.