Divorce and the Holidays: Why it’s OK When Traditions Change

Divorce and the Holidays: Why it’s OK When Traditions Change

Divorce changes everything, including how we spend our favorite holidays with our kids and extended families. Especially in the first year post-split, you may worry that disruption to long-held, beloved traditions will cause further pain to your already reeling family. Facing the first Christmas morning in 15 years when you won’t see your kids open their presents? That’s a jagged pill to swallow. Missing your in-laws’ annual family ski trip for the first winter in decades? That smarts.

 

But the truth is that, especially in divorce when so much is already in flux, we tend to idealize holidays. It’s no wonder these celebrations often become conflictual hot buttons in custody negotiations. Because, now more then ever, we crave “ordinariness and “sameness,” we imbue these (albeit special) days with  intense significance. We worry that any break in the old way of doing things will be a slippery slope into chaos (“If we don’t go to midnight mass ‘as a family’ like we always have, we’ll lose our co-parenting good will and our divorce will become acrimonious. That will ruin our kids’ lives!”). In reality, holidays are days. The sun rises, it sets; they come and go pretty quickly. If the first round of winter holidays is lousy, don’t take it as a sign that Hanukkah has permanently shifted from holy miracle to holy hell. Lick your wounds, get on with life. By this time next year you’ll have experienced lots of tough “firsts.” You’ll have come a long way toward adjusting to your new normal. You’ll have more perspective and less worry. You’ll be ready to start reviving and reworking your holiday traditions.

 

In the meantime, remember: Tradition is continuity, not stasis. Here’s a lovely short article that reminds us why everything will be ok: Because you, not your house or apartment or ski chalet, are your kids’ emotional home. Forever, unalterably. And really, that is all the tradition they need.

 

Washington Post: “Teaching my sons this Christmas that home isn’t just a place you visit. It’s a feeling.”

Corporal Punishment for Children of Divorce

Corporal Punishment for Children of Divorce

Although I discourage all forms of corporal punishment, I know plenty of thoughtful parents who still believe  it can be a useful form of discipline. But here’s something to consider: When we are stressed and emotionally overwhelmed, we are at increased risk of lashing out at those we love (including our kids) in ways that are atypically hurtful and out of control. If your child is coping with divorce, they’re already feeling scared and unsafe. I’m not suggesting your child should get a free pass for bad behavior, ever. But even if you have found spanking to be effective in the past, perhaps now is a time to consider alternatives.

Here’s a thoughtful article on the potential harmful effects of physical discipline on kids. Give it a read. See what you think.

From the NYT and the American Academy of Pediatrics: “Spanking is Ineffective and Harmful to Children”

Easing the Pain When a Parent Moves Out

Easing the Pain When a Parent Moves Out

It’s right up there with telling your children about the split — another anxiety-producing, watershed moment in your life as a divorcing parent. The day one of you moves out.

Whether you’re staying or going, you’re worried about your kids. Even if you know lots of divorced families, it’s hard to imagine how your children will cope with the transition to living in two homes.

You’re looking for ways to ease the pain. Here are some tips:

(Note: Tips 2-9 are geared to the moving-out parent, but are relevant for both of you as you co-parent through this phase)

1. Minimize surprises

Your kids’ first questions will be basic: They’ll want to know who’ll live where, when they’ll see you, and if they’ll have to give up anything important — friends, school, activities. Offer them a roadmap of what to expect — including a move out date. Give enough advance warning that your kids will feel prepared, but not so much that they’ll be tortured by anticipation. There’s no magic number — two weeks is usually about right.

2. Real estate is for adults

Many well-intentioned parents think that by including them in the search for new digs they can give their kids a sense of agency and replace sadness with excitement. Actually, divorce-related house shopping scares children (“What if I make a bad choice?”), confuses them (“Am the other grown-up now?”), and sets them up for disappointment (“What do you mean we lost the apartment?”). Make this decision on your own. Later you’ll all have fun making kid-appropriate choices, like bedroom décor and video game consoles.

3. Be thoughtful about “stuff”

Children are sensitive to change and develop quirky attachments to objects. So give your kids a heads up before removing visible items from the marital home. If you take something big (a couch, a coffee table), work with your spouse to replace or rearrange things so the house doesn’t look decimated.

Especially if you’re moving into temporary space, you may not want to divide your belongings right away. But do take enough meaningful things (some family photos, a few toys) to create a sense of familiarity.

If a child has an emotional tie to an important item (a security blanket, a stuffed animal), encourage them to carry it back and forth. But don’t expect them to track it during transitions — that’s your job.

Do not pack boxes or move things out of the house while the kids are there, even if they’re asleep!

4. Set the scene

Before you bring your kids to your new place, procure the basics. If time or money is tight, focus on one comfortable hangout space (a couch, a t.v.), an eating area (table, chairs), and the bedrooms (beds, dressers). Stock the fridge and lay in bathroom supplies, some clothing staples, and a few favorite playtime activities.

5. Plan a gradual transition

Your kids will fare best if you don’t push for too much too fast. Consider a few daytime stints before graduating to overnights. There’s no set formula for the ramp-up. Factor in your children’s ages and temperaments, and remain open to slowing down or speeding up if they seem to need it. If you and your ex disagree on pacing, get input from a mental health professional with the right expertise.

6. Let them show off

If tensions aren’t too high, encourage your kids to give their other parent a tour of the new place. Feeling they have both of your blessings will help them settle in.

7. Be patient

It’ll take a while for your kids to feel they have two equally important residences, so resist the urge to correct them when they reflexively refer to the marital house as “home.” A comment like “Hey, this is your home too,” may shame or irritate. Instead, lead by example. Replace “I’m gonna take you home now” with “It’s time to go back to Brentwood Street.” Give it time: Your kids’ language will naturally shift as they adjust to their new normal.

8. Maintain continuity

School age kids will resist time with you if it disrupts their social lives. Regardless of the schlep, make sure they get to soccer practice, playdates, birthday parties. And extend invitations — nothing says “home” like a sleepover pizza party.

9. You can’t have too many friends

Helping your kids to sustain old relationships shouldn’t stop you from helping them to form new ones in your neck of the woods.

10. Maintain consistency

You won’t get perfect symmetry, but aim to coordinate with your ex on fundamentals like mealtimes, bedtimes, and (if your kids are older) homework, chores, and discipline. Even if they grumble, your children will feel safer if their parents are in synch.

11. Be compassionate

It’s natural for your kids to have moments of missing their other parent. Try not to get angry (“You saw Dad two hours ago!”), defensive (“What am I, chopped liver?”), or reactionary (“Fine, get your coat!”). Calm statements like “I know you miss Mommy. It stinks that you can’t be with both of us at the same time,” or “You’ve had to deal with lots of changes; it’ll take time for this to feel like home” will reassure your kids that you understand and accept their feelings.

12. Soft-pedal “goodbye”

Separations needn’t be agonizing. Let your kids know that you’ll have them in mind but won’t pine away in their absence. A tearful “I’ll miss you, call me whenever you want,” will heighten anxiety. A breezy “Have fun this weekend, I’ll see you Monday” will give your kids a solid launch.

Finally…

13. It’s not a contest

If you’re moving out, you might worry that your ex has the home field advantage. If you’re staying, you might worry that the new place has more allure. Relax: Condo or mansion — if yours is a warm, nurturing environment in which their practical and emotional needs are met, your kids will want to be there.

After all, your house is not your children’s emotional home. You are.

How the New Tax Plan will Affect Divorcing Families

How the New Tax Plan will Affect Divorcing Families

Whatever your politics, you’d have a tough time arguing that the recent tax overhaul is good for divorcing families. Rather, it adds insult to injury for folks facing the financial challenges that come with having to stretch an already tight budget to cover a second household…

Here’s the issue…

Up to now, alimony (also called spousal support) has been taxable to the person receiving the money, not the person writing the check.  At first blush, that might seem unfair. After all, isn’t the purpose of alimony to redress substantial discrepancies in earning power and standards of living between the two households? Why further punish the financially disadvantaged spouse? The answer is that since the spouse providing alimony is the higher earner, he or she is likely taxed at a significantly higher rate than their ex.  Having alimony taxed at the tax rate of the receiver saves money overall– it preserves resources for the family as a whole. How to then divide that money can be addressed as part of the negotiation about to meet cashflow needs for everyone involved.

Under the new plan, and beginning in January 2019, the spouse paying the alimony will be required to pay the tax on it. Here’s an article that unpacks this unfortunate and short-sighted policy in clear detail: How the Tax Overhaul will Afffect Alimony Deductions

 

8 Rules for Dealing with an Overly Emotional Ex

8 Rules for Dealing with an Overly Emotional Ex

“I want to co-parent with my ex, but his emails are out of control! Last week he sent a ten-pager — ten words of which were about the kids. How can I make him understand I don’t want to talk about ‘us’ anymore?”

“My ex hates that I’m dating. She calls incessantly to “check in.” If she can’t reach me, she leaves messages telling me what a bad father I am!”

“Last night my ex texted to ask what I was feeding the kids for dinner. Before I knew it I’d fired back: ‘None of your damn business!’”

Sound familiar?

It might not make logical sense, but it’s true: If your ex pounces on every opportunity to lure you into a fraught exchange, they’re having a hard time letting go. After all, if they can keep you emotionally engaged — even against your will — they can avoid the painful awareness that you’re no longer a couple.

Fighting is an intimate act.

The fact that we now have so many ways to be “in touch” is a double-edged sword for divorcing parents.

On the one hand, electronic communications (voicemail, text, email) offer a more controlled alternative to in-person contact — helpful if you can’t be civil in each other’s presence. On the other hand, they’re loaded with potential problems. Electronic communications:

  • Allow a needy spouse to be in too-frequent contact
  • Allow an angry spouse a forum for unfettered verbal attack
  • Are notoriously easy to misinterpret
  • Establish an unhelpful expectation of immediate response (“It’s been a full hour of radio silence!”)
  • Allow for impulsive, destructive responses without offering the possibility of quick repair (ever wish you had a magic “I take it back” button on your keyboard?)

If you’re co-parenting with an ex who’s hell-bent on pulling you into unproductive, upsetting communications, you’re facing a challenge.

It’s tough, but with practice you can learn to avoid being sucked into the vortex.

You need some New Rules:

New Rule #1: Know Thyself

We all have pesky vulnerabilities in our characters which, when activated, throw our emotion into overdrive and our judgment into idle. And no one knows your soft spots better than your ex. If you’re someone who craves approval, a zinger like “Everyone knows what a terrible person you are for leaving this family!” will send your heart rate through the roof. If your sense of guilt is over-developed, a well-aimed “I hope you can live with yourself — our kids will never be able to trust anyone again!” may plunge you into depression. Learn your trigger points, so you can resist rising to the bait.

New Rule #2: Adopt “The Boundaried Response”

When it comes to communicating with an over-emotional ex, most of us err in one of two directions:

Mistake #1: The Defensive Response
The recipient responds with irrelevant, wordy rationalizations that invite further attacks.
Watch out for this if you’re insecure or conflict averse.

Mistake #2: The Retaliatory Response
The recipient responds with sarcasm and/or counter-accusations, thus upping the ante.
Watch out for this if you’re quick-tempered or still hurt and angry.

What we are aiming for is:

#3: The Boundaried Response
The recipient ignores all emotional content and responds only to relevant child-related issues — using few words and a neutral, business-like tone.
This response establishes appropriate limits and sets the stage for healthier communication in the future.

To give you the idea, here’s an example of a provocative email followed by Defensive, Retaliatory, and (finally) Boundaried responses:

The Provocative Email:

“When I picked Tommy up from school today he had a fever. I took him to the doctor — he has strep. Apparently he told you this morning that he didn’t feel well. What kind of mother takes a sick child to school just so she can get to work on time?”

The Defensive Response:

“Last night Tommy had a cough and a slight sniffle. I asked him how he felt and he said ‘fine.’ I took his temperature and it was one hundred degrees. I told myself I’d wait until morning to decide what to do. This morning his temperature was normal. I considered calling the doctor, but Tommy said he didn’t want to miss his science presentation today. I resent your insinuation that I’m not a good mother because I made a different judgment call than you would!”

The Retaliatory Response:

“Sorry you had to take time off from watching ESPN to take your son to the doctor, but someone has to make a living.”

The Boundaried Response:

“Tommy seemed fine this morning, slight sniffle. Sorry about the strep. I’ll give him a call later to check in. Tomorrow’s my day, so let me know if you’re keeping him home from school so we can coordinate pick-up. I’ll assume you’re sending him with meds unless I hear otherwise.”

New Rule #3: Don’t answer the phone

If your ex’s number shows up on caller ID, let it go to voicemail every time. Then check the message right away. If it’s your kids (or a true emergency), call back. If it’s a rant, ignore it.

New Rule #4: If every call is a rant, tell your ex you’ll only respond to written communications.

New Rule #5: Set a communication protocol

Ask your ex if he/she prefers email or text (don’t offer telephone), and stick to that format. Tell him or her you’ll respond to child-related communications within twenty-four hours, then do.

New Rule #6: Ignore petty communications

A text such as: “Sally arrived home with filthy hair. There’s this new product called ‘shampoo,’ ever heard of it?” requires no response.

New Rule #7: Impose a mandatory waiting period

When replying to a provocative email, wait at least one hour before pressing “send.” After you’ve calmed down (assuming you still want to reply), edit aggressively — using The Boundaried Response as your guide. If your second draft is one-tenth the length of the original, you’re in the zone.

Finally…

New Rule #8: Give yourself a break

Divorce is rough, and you’re only human — you will get pulled into old dynamics once in a while. When you find yourself in a fruitless tug of war with your ex, breathe — then let go of the rope.