Surviving Thanksgiving: Strategies for the Newly Divorced & Separated

Thanksgiving is the first “big” holiday my ex-wife, Caroline and I will share since separating last April, after 28 years of a mostly happy marriage.

This year, a not-so-small army will attend. Besides our three daughters, Caroline’s five brothers and sisters, and their families, will join us. Along with my sister, her husband, and her daughter. As well my mother, and my ex-wife’s father.

Perhaps most remarkable, is that a gathering of this size is unremarkable. We have a remarkably close family. And with hope and work, that isn’t changing.

There have been awkward moments since our split. Over Memorial Day, a month after the split, Caroline’s brother was in town. At the family barbecue. I was anxious. I tried to appear cheerful but I felt ashamed. I was scared my family was looking at me with pity. I used beer to numb myself. Not to the point of inebriation, enough to “take the edge off.”

When my brother-in-law awkwardly reached out, saying, “You okay?”  I replied with a loud snort. When I saw concerned faces avoiding my eyes, I decided it was time to go.

To avoid a repeat of Memorial Day, I have six strategies to manage the holiday stress.

A Dash of Details – I’ll provide a smattering of details demonstrating my progress. I’ve been taking five mile walks almost every day. That’s huge for me.

I’m also writing like a madman. These are the details that should reassure my family. Come up with some dashes of details you can use.

Deflection – I’m arming myself with three or four humorous family stories from past holidays. When my brother-in-law asks, “How’s it going?” I’ll be ready.

“It’s going great. I’ve been walking a minimum of four miles a day. I’m astounded how much I miss while driving.” And then, the deflection. I’ll spontaneously recall a family memory.

“Remember our first Thanksgiving, when we took turns trying out the blowgun your uncle gave you for your birthday? That was hilarious!” True story and it was hilarious. I’m confident it’ll lead to others.

Introspection– After exhausting humorous family stories I’ll rely on introspection. For example, if my sister starts probing, and she will, I’ll shift the spotlight. When she says, “We’re really worried about you. Nobody can get hold of you on the phone. Are you okay?” I’ll be ready.

I’ll smile serenely, replying, “I am okay. I’ve been writing a ton and my cellphone has terrible reception in my apartment.” And then, the introspection maneuver.

I’ll say, “Watching the kids growing up, I find myself thinking about what’s really important. I think it is true, you’re only as happy as your saddest child. What about you? How are things going with you and your kids?” That’ll give me a good twenty minutes to nod knowingly and practice deep breathing.

Compassion – Compassion is at the foundation of my journey. While I’m naturally empathetic, it’s taken decades to recognize the only person I had no patience for was me. It astounds me how easily I forgive family and friends. Everyone but myself.

For example, I spent decades in shame over a career choice I made when I was 22 years old. The right choice would have changed my life path. I’ve finally accepted that one bad decision in my early twenties doesn’t define me. That forgiveness enables me to share who I am, rather than hiding behind the shame I felt towards myself.

Aspiration – This is a reminder to breathe, to take mindful pauses. I recently had a conversation with Caroline about our youngest daughter, Lexi. Lex was coming to town. Lexi and I had dinner plans. Caroline wanted to join us. She was worried she was intruding. I said, of course she was welcome. She replied, “I’ll pay for dinner!” And then she started talking restaurant choices.

I was angry and hurt. Caroline hadn’t acknowledged my generous gesture. I took a breath and instead of reacting, I acknowledged my feelings and responded gently. “You know honey. When I said you’re welcome to join us, I would have preferred if you had said, ‘thank you.’” Caroline stuttered and apologized. “I know. I’m sorry. Can we just start this conversation over?”

On my journey, that was a huge moment. I responded and didn’t react. Remembering to breathe gave me the chance to recognize my feelings real-time, rather than just reflexively become defensive.

Inebriation – I’ve relied on self-medicating to get through stressful times in the past. I don’t think it works. In fact, I’m pretty sure it doesn’t. I end up reacting, not responding.

The Memorial Day cookout story reflects reacting without thinking. Asked an innocuous question, my reaction was to snort. Not a response. Not a good choice. So, with that in mind, I’m spending this Thanksgiving on the wagon.

And those are my strategies for dealing with the stress of getting through my first Thanksgiving in three decades as a single man. How about you?

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