In 2017, Hatty Smith, 44, had one of the better Christmases she'd had in a few years.
This was in spite of the fact she'd divorced Dom, her husband of 18 years, earlier that year. After she moved into a new house with her three children, Hatty ended up inviting her ex-husband to join them on Christmas Day.
"For me, personally, I’d had some awful Christmases because of that feeling when I was unhappy in the marriage – which I was for quite a long time," Hatty tells Red. "So, last Christmas, as a separated couple, it was actually a lot easier to be magnanimous and generous and invite him into our house. He’s not a bad person at all, we wanted different things eventually. Stuff happens, it’s sad but we just drifted apart."
It was, in fact, the Christmas before which was a "massive catalyst" for Hatty's divorce, she says.
"It was kind of the beginning of the end. Often that happens when you’re in this really intense situation where everyone’s supposed to be having a lovely time – my ex-husband, bless him, was slightly rubbish at the whole present giving so I did everything and it just became a horrible big chore.
"I was in a slightly depressed state anyway and Christmas was just a bit desperate, actually. I remember my sister visiting and she could see really clearly how I unhappy I was but none of it was being said as you can’t go there at Christmas. There was huge pressure."
Shortly after the festive period, Hatty began doing more things for herself - something she'd neglected for a while.
"That Christmas, I had a bit of an epiphany," she explains. "I thought I can't carry on like this and am going to make myself feel better. I'd had feelings which had been simmering for a long time then with Christmas being so pressured - and as a Mum, especially, you work so hard to make it lovely and end up working yourself into the ground - it came to a head. I felt I couldn't talk to anyone about how I was feeling because it was Christmas, it was very difficult and isolating."
Hatty's experience isn't uncommon. January is hailed as the most common month to get divorced, with the 8th labelled 'Divorce Day' by legal firm Slater & Gordon earlier this year. One of the many suggested reasons for this is the pressure of the 'greatest time of year' the month before.
"Underlying issues in relationships that were already there can become highlighted at Christmas, with people spending more time together," Simone Bose, a counsellor at relationship charity Relate tells Red. "It can be difficult to avoid the issues any longer, and can create arguments around the little things at home."
Relate are even predicting a spike in their services come January 2019, based on previous years. The charity say they receive a 13% increase in calls and 58% in website users in the first month of the year, and that in their autumn survey of more than 2,000 UK adults, more than half (55%) believed Christmas puts an added strain on relationships.
"Pressure to spend time together, pressure to spend time with family members that you may not get along with, can create conflict in the relationship," says Bose. "The logistics of trying to make everyone happy, including children and in-laws, can create added stress on top of the weight of issues you have all year long. If financial issues are something that are a strain on your relationship and you have different beliefs about how you spend money, how you spend money at Christmas can create bigger arguments and stress."
Hatty attributes her cordial separation with her ex-husband to still possessing "a genuine care for each other in spite of it all". She actually believes they've come out of their divorce better friends than they were in the marriage. They kept the divorce process "simple" by avoiding solicitors and opting for the tech startup Amicable, which doesn't use lawyers and instead describes itself as a "divorce services company".
"We didn't want to be pitted against each other," Hatty explains. "We wanted to split together and that's actually what we managed to do. It really preserved, in fact heightened, our fondness for each other. There was no terrible situations or nastiness, it was just drifting. We managed to separate ourselves from each other in a gentle and caring way. It's remarkable really."
It was this mutual care that spurred Hatty to invite Dom to join her and their two shared daughters, and her 22-year-old eldest daughter, for Christmas lunch last year.
"We'd been doing our style of Christmas for so long that in the run up it felt like there was no reason not to do it again. He came to our new house and we basically just did what we'd always done.
"It was slightly weird, probably more for him as it was in my new home. He would have been on his own potentially and that didn't seem like an option for us, as a family."
Though everything went well last year, Hatty and Dom won't be spending Christmas Day together this time round. Now that they have new partners, they will be celebrating with them instead, however both parents will have their own special Christmas with their daughters where they will create new traditions.
"We will still see him," Hatty reflects. "And, we did invite him to have dinner with us this year. I think he thought about it really seriously but he’s doing something in his new relationship, which I think is lovely."
Tips for if you have to deal with your ex at Christmas
Communicate via text
"This way you can look at the message and think about how you’re saying things which has given us the opportunity to be really polite to each other even when times have been tricky. Communicating via text means we are careful and measured about what we say to each other. The emotion is taken away because you’re not actually looking at someone you were married to for so long, making it easier."
"It’s about being ok enough in yourself to be kind to people around you, including your ex. Be kind to yourself in this difficult situation and don’t expect too much of yourself so that actually you can extend kindness to others as well."
Utilise your support system
"Throughout my divorce, I’ve been very supported by my female friends and my 22 year old daughter, who has been an absolute rock. Sharing what you’re going through is sensible. Everyone understands how pressurised Christmas is so ask for help, both physically and emotionally."
Simone from Relate says…
Don’t be scared to embrace new traditions
"Children can be very sensitive so model positive behaviour for your children by showing you can get along at this time of year. Keep up rituals and traditions they have done before where you can, but also start new traditions with your children to make Christmas feel different, but still positive."
"Especially about how you divide time with your children. Agree on one day for each or half a day for each. Pay special attention to your children’s needs at this difficult time to adjusting to a different Christmas than they are used to with both their parents."
Plan in advance
"Agree on these plans in advance of Christmas and ensure that your children know that both of you are on the same page and have done this amicably. Do not try and control what the other is planning with the children, allow them to have their time, as you wouldn’t like to have them telling you what to do on your day with the children."
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