7 Ways to Cope with Christmas After a Break Up
Facing Christmas after a relationship split can be an emotional minefield, full of painful memories and a pressure to be upbeat
Therapist Wendy Bristow offers 7 ways to make Christmas OK even when you aren't feeling yourself
If you are struggling to move on from a relationship, therapy can help - find your therapist here
Blue Christmas. It’ll be lonely this Christmas. Wham’s Last Christmas. There are as many melancholic pop songs about missing someone at Christmas as happy ones about looking forward to a loved-up time. Even the supposed favourite Fairytale of New York, which has reached the UK top ten on 15 separate occasions, is about two people looking back on a relationship gone wrong.
Which says something. It acknowledges that Christmas is an especially difficult time post-break-up. For all kinds of reasons. Mainly, of course, the pressure to be full of seasonal cheer when you feel you’re dying inside.
The archetypal Christmas is one spent with loved ones. Which makes it super-charged if you’re missing yours. Pressure to be happy coming from society, families – even ads on the TV – and that we all internalise ourselves growing up creates stress when grieving a break-up. Or, indeed, getting over the fact that someone you fell for doesn’t feel the same - it doesn’t have to be a years-long affair you’re mourning.
The dissonance between outward appearances – and indeed expectations from others that you’ll be upbeat – and inner reality is isolating in itself. You can feel lonely in a crowd, which is always painful.
A lot of people come to therapy because they’re struggling after a relationship breakdown. And it’s a rare one who looks forward to Christmas. Some lucky people will be spending the holidays with loving, supportive families who’ll listen and sympathise with them however they are. But many won’t.
Christmas post-heartbreak is even harder if you dread spending it with family. Maybe a difficult relative – someone super-controlling or who has an issue with alcohol – makes Christmas doubly hard to get through. And even if your folks are onside, if they didn’t get on with your ex or think you’re better off without them they may not lend a sympathetic ear to your sadness. Plus, whoever you’re spending Christmas with will want you to be OK for your own sake which is a pressure in itself. And you may worry that if you’re feeling flat you’ll put a dampener on their Merry Christmas.
So much for external pressures. There’s also a lot going on inside. The first year after a break-up, just like the first 12 months after a bereavement, is a minefield of significant moments: Christmas, your birthday, your ex’s birthday, your relationship’s anniversary. All tricky to endure because of the memories and wishes they throw into sharp relief. New Year’s a trial too if it reminds you how difficult the past 12 months have felt and it’s hard to imagine the next being any different.
Not forgetting that your ex probably was the family you were creating for yourself. If it was a long relationship there’s the memory of all those other Christmases when you were happy, or when things were already going wrong. Even if it lasted a few months, the wishes, hopes and dreams of how this Christmas could have been can come at you leftfield and leave you winded. Sometimes the dream of how things might have been is harder to let go of than the actual person.
Every break-up of a significant relationship creates ripples in the relationships around the couple. Maybe you enjoyed Christmases with your ex’s family and now you’ll miss them too. It can be incredibly painful to think about those people you got to know so well all getting together minus you, like you’ve been erased somehow.
And if you had children, negotiating who gets which bit of Christmas with the kids is incredibly painful and makes the whole thing more stressful still.
No wonder January is a peak time for people to contact a therapist or counsellor. This time of year after a break-up can truly be a bleak mid-winter and it’s not easy to struggle through it on your own.
Here are some thoughts that might help make Christmas at least OK:
1) Use your emotional intelligence
Difficult feelings don’t just go away because you want them to. You may try to ‘brush it off’ but when you suppress heartbreak it can erupt in other ways. Like losing your temper when Dad has one too many or bursting into tears because Mum over-cooked the turkey.
It sounds counter-intuitive, but letting yourself feel the anger, the hurt, the profound disappointment generally works better than trying to push it down. Which doesn’t mean wallowing in it 24/7 from Christmas Eve to New Year’s day. A twenty-minute solo walk while intentionally feeling your feelings can help no end. The idea that if you let yourself cry you won’t stop is just that – an idea. Tears are a natural response to loss and actually help process it more quickly.
2) Set up a buddy call
If you’ve a family member who knows what you’re going through, you could arrange a walk or outing with them as a pressure valve. A chance to talk about how you’re really feeling. If there’s no one like that around, you could arrange to Facetime a supportive friend.
3) Do something different
If ever there’s a time to be what might be considered selfish it’s after a break-up. People (hopefully) can be understanding about you not wanting to join the family this year. If they’re not, well, that might be part of the reason you don’t want to go. Flights at Christmas are famously cheap and maybe a friend abroad would be happy to see you from Boxing Day. Or, if you enjoy travelling solo, you could fly somewhere that doesn’t celebrate Christmas and avoid the whole thing altogether.
4) Approach social media with care
It won’t make you feel any better to open Instagram and see a pic that suggests your ex is simply having a wonderful Christmas time, as the song has it. Or that demonstrates they took their new lover home to the family. You might have blocked them, but often it’s the posts we’re not expecting that side-swipe us. Like when your ex’s sister, who you haven’t deleted, posts a family pic and there’s That Person grinning over a glass of fizz.
5) Do something practical
Sitting around all day in your jim-jams being fussed over by mum may be just what you need. Then again, it may not. Practical tasks can be effective distractions from all the pressure, loneliness and boredom. Offering to do the last-minute shop, peel potatoes or wash up can give you a small sense of achievement and a feel-good glow. And you need as many of those as you can get.
6) Don’t ‘compare and despair’
It’s a Christmas fantasy just as powerful as Santa that everyone’s having a wonderful time and you’re the only one who’s not. Especially don’t personalise this particular seasonal narrative. Your ex might be partying like there’s no Boxing Day or they may be lonely too. Your kids or your former in-laws may miss you as much as you miss them.
Reminding yourself that the world is full of people feeling rotten - just as it contains people who’re joyful and triumphant – can be helpful. One of the central ideas of Mindfulness is that you keep bringing yourself back to your own present moment – which often doesn’t feel as bad as all that. If it does, phone a friend. Or if it really feels unendurable, The Samaritans. You really don’t have to suffer alone and in silence.
7) Look after yourself
Whatever your self-care regime involves – me-time, meditation, eating your five a day, working out – try not to abandon it entirely.
Exercising helps because your brain gets a dose of feel-good chemicals like endorphins and serotonin. The opposite happens slumped in front of Paddington 2 working your way through a bucket of Celebrations. And while the odd drink is, of course, OK, attempting to ‘take the edge off’ the whole thing with booze, weed or other substances will only make you feel worse in the long run.
On the upside, the Christmas break does give you a chance to catch up on sleep. Given any difficult emotional state feels worse when you’re tired, that can only be a good thing. Christmas is, after all, a break from routine. And could set you up for a fresh start in 2020.