12/22/2010 04:59 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Happy (Post-Divorce) Holidays

The first holiday season after a divorce is notoriously difficult. Our treasured (or not) holiday rituals with our former spouse are part of the long series of losses that we have to endure after the separation. Even if we weren't delighted with our past married holidays, there is still a void to fill. We need to create a new ritual and new people to enact it with. Sometimes we have lost more than the ritual. We may have lost some of our former friends who chose to stay closer to the other spouse. Or we might lose time with our mutual children who have to divide their holidays between mom and dad. This situation can be anything from awkward to excruciating.

Occasionally former spouses decide to remain "friends" and continue to share their holidays. While on the surface this may seem strangely civilized for divorced folks, it also might end up spiraling downward into melodrama and misery. This often happens the first time one of the former spouses brings a new significant other to the festivities. Even if the ex-spouse remains calm on the surface, there may be tension boiling right beneath it. If the former couple's children are present, they can become pawns in the game. (If the offspring are underage, this facade of being "friends" has the unfortunate result of keeping the children's dreams of their parent's reconciliation alive, which prevents the children from ultimately accepting the divorce.) And pity the poor potential new partner who enters into that poisonous web! I have seen them, looking slightly stunned, fervently and futilely trying to escape the sticky tendrils enveloping them.

It is far better to start fresh and find your own new happy-holiday routines. If you don't have family nearby to spend your holidays with, then find old friends, new friends, or special activities to fill your holiday schedule. If you feel ready to enter the "single world," there are lots of groups that organize parties, hikes, concerts, and other outings. Go into these events with the attitude that you are going out simply to keep yourself open to meeting new people and experiencing new things, that is, to have fun! Do not feel desperate to meet someone to fill the void left by your ex - the look of a desperate divorcee is enough to send any decent single heading for the hills. If you are not yet up to fun and frivolity, religious and charitable organizations offer many meaningful opportunities for holiday events or volunteering. Giving your time to help others who are less fortunate during the holidays may help you appreciate the blessings that you still have in your life and stave off having your own "pity party."

If the wounds of divorce are still fresh, the most important is to take the time you need to grieve and heal from the loss. Even if you have few good feelings left for your ex, you still have to grieve the loss of the couple that once was and the dreams you once shared. There is no fast or easy way to do this. The grieving process plays itself out differently for each person. Some do a lot of grieving before the separation, having long known that divorce was inevitable. Those who denied the ongoing marital disintegration until the actual separation have longer work ahead of them. In many cases, the newly estranged require outside resources - a mental health professional, support group, or religious mentor - in order to move on with their lives in healthy ways. The process can't begin in earnest until you "own" your role in the problems. Without taking some responsibility for the demise of the relationship, you are stuck forever slogging through the mud of anger, victimization, and bitterness. If you have been separated from your ex for a year or more and still spend a significant amount of time wallowing in these negative emotions, do yourself and those around you a huge favor and seek professional help.

On the other hand, if you have licked your wounds clean and feel ready to start the great adventure of finding your new outlook, new identity, and new experiences, the holidays may be a great time to get away entirely. Take scuba lessons on a tropical island. Visit distant friends or relatives that you don't often get to see. Take the trip to Macchu Picchu that you have put off for decades. Do anything that you have put off for ages because your spouse wasn't interested and you would have felt selfish doing it on your own. Enjoy your newfound freedom and independence!

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