By Marguerite Picard
‘Tis the season to be jolly… but it also happens to be the peak time of year for couples to separate or divorce. Why all the breakups around the holidays? Does the season cause the separation?
Rarely, is probably the true answer. But for people who are thinking about separation at the start of the holidays, there are aspects of the season that can add focus to their thinking. Alcohol, financial stress, feelings of playing at a charade, realising that gift shopping for a spouse is a chore not a pleasure, spending unaccustomed amounts of time together and with the kids, time with extended family, travel, heat. Seeing and regretting ‘all the flaws in our human relationships’.
A Matter of Timing
Anecdotally, clients have told me of many reasons why they wait until after the holiday season to speak to their spouse about separation. These include having one last ‘normal Christmas’, not being able bear the thought of telling the kids at Christmas, because holidays are booked, because there will be other people around to support their spouse, because ‘waiting until after Christmas is the right thing to do’, because fear and procrastination have lead to the year’s end and they can’t ‘do another year’, because it might be easier to settle the kids in two homes during the holidays, and amazingly often because they have waited for a child or the youngest child to finish school.
Whatever the reason, for those who have waited until the holidays to voice their decision to separate, there is often a special poignancy for everyone in the family.
Are Holiday Divorces a Special Category?
Probably not. For those who have waited until the holidays to voice their decision to separate, there is often a special poignancy for everyone in the family. But a special category? No. Every client’s divorce is a special category. Timing is just another aspect for us to be sensitive about.
In the case of those thinking about separating, my philosophy as a lawyer is to ensure that my clients start work with a psychologist or counsellor as soon as possible, whatever the time of year.
I resist giving legal advice early on if at all possible, so that clients can be allowed to manage their doubts about their marriage as an emotional issue and not a legal one, if that is appropriate.
The risk of giving legal advice too early is that it is an invitation to ‘lawyer up’ and turn an emotional crisis into a legal one. It normalises the involvement of the law and lawyers, which is in fact quite an odd response to a relationship crisis, and significantly increases the likelihood of separation.
Many times I have seen relationships go from fragile to finished in sixty seconds because lawyers (naturally) saw their role as giving legal advice on separation, which is hard to ‘ungive’. There is nothing like legal advice to create and entrench positions which can subsequently become the enemy of reasonable negotiation. I am keen to keep moving towards cultural change which sees a lawyer’s office as not being remotely the place to start talking about separation, and to keep the ‘advice genie’ in the bottle for as long as possible.
Responding to the Christmas Rush
Interdisciplinary collaborative practice allows for both spouses and their children to be cared for in the particular circumstances of their family, including their particular pain about the timing of separation. It is about caring for every member of the family emotionally, financially and legally, and supporting parents to keep their kids as their compass.
Whether I am consulted by the person who has finally spoken of a long-planned separation, the one who might be reeling from the shock of it, or one who is having doubts about their marriage, in collaborative practice, the aim is for every member of the family to be in the best shape possible, whether that is in two homes or one.
Working with psychologists and counsellors allows for the possibility of couples counselling rather than boarding the divorce train, express to a place nobody wants to go, at great emotional and financial cost. If separation is the plan or the end result, collaboration is supportive, focuses on the future and avoids acrimony. By comparison with litigation or adversarial negotiation, this is a gift for every day of the year. Sad but consoling.