A Bittersweet Yuletide for Divorced Families : Don't Use Children to Fight the Holiday Blues, Experts Say, Because It Could Worsen Situation

Times Staff Writer

Dr. Melvin G. Goldzband tries very hard not to sound like Scrooge, but in his business--mental health care for divorced couples and children and damage control for relationships that may fail--the traditional holiday season is often only bittersweet, at best.

He is just one of several psychiatrists and psychologists who agree there are many things divorced or possibly divorcing parents can do even at this late date--three days before Christmas--to keep the holidays from further dividing estranged couples and forever marring countless childhoods.

Ghosts of the Past

Even if formulating such a plan "may require more time than this Christmas allows," Goldzband observed in an interview here, "it (can) work by Valentine's Day, and it'll work next Christmas and the Christmases after that."

One of the most important techniques, Goldzband and other experts on divorce and child custody agree, is to keep the first holiday season after a divorce--in particular--from being haunted by the ghosts of Christmases past. The first post-divorce Christmas, Goldzband said, can never be the same as the Christmases that preceded it, and couples and their children must accept that reality.

Too often, though, without realizing it, Goldzband said, divorced parents--vulnerable by the rubbing raw of their emotions and reaching out for support and love in childlike desperation--use their children to try to force some joy from a joyless season. Inevitably, such attempts fail for parents and children alike.

"When a parent says, 'I want the kids for Christmas,' the parent is talking about his or her needs, not the kids' needs," Goldzband said, "and those needs are magnified by virtue of the fact that the parent is alone."

The Christmas season poses special problems and may inflict special pain on divorced families, but mental health experts interviewed by The Times agreed that separated couples who plan carefully can avoid holiday heartbreak for themselves and their children.

Holiday Hiatus

For troubled relationships, agreed Goldzband and two other experts, the holidays may bring almost irresistible temptation to take a hiatus from the tension of a failing marriage, putting off further discussions or negotiations until after the holidays. But as enticing as this break may seem to a couple, said Goldzband, the end of the hiatus is all too likely to arrive with the original tensions far worse than they were before Christmas.

Indeed, he said, for a couple in such a predicament, the holidays should be a time for even more intensive, honest discussion of differences--not an opportunity to find an excuse to ignore them. In some troubled relationships, of course, that may not be possible or even desirable, but the three experts agreed that, whenever parents can talk, they should.

For Goldzband, the comments about children, divorce, custody and happiness during the holidays are an outgrowth of publication earlier this year of his book "Quality Time" (McGraw-Hill), a volume that attempts to advise families caught up in divorce on ways to cushion its effect on the children involved.

Goldzband, an expert on child custody and experienced in courtroom testimony, maintains a private practice here, teaches at UC San Diego and keeps up a consulting business that takes him to half a dozen cities across the country to advise probation departments and medical schools.

Though, in the last year or two, there have been hints that the nation's divorce rate may be either stabilizing or going down, Goldzband said there is no firm evidence that a real trend has developed. Even if it has, there are millions of American children and parents who have experienced divorce.

Tension During Passover

Government estimates are that nearly 1.2 million children are involved in divorces each year, with the figure growing from 463,000 in 1960 to 1.18 million in 1981. Estimates for 1983--the last year for which complete figures are available--indicate there were 2.44 million marriages in the United States and 1.17 million divorces. Divorce rates stabilized in 1981 and have been in ever so slight decline since, according to government figures.

For divorced or divorcing Christian and many non-Christian families, the Christmas holidays are a special problem period, Goldzband noted in the interview, but for troubled Jewish families, the Passover season in April--since it is among the most family-oriented of Jewish holidays--can be the time of greatest tension.

"Holidays are miserable times," Goldzband said, sitting for an interview in the chair usually occupied by patients during therapy sessions. "They are difficult for an intact family. When you have broken families, those difficulties are compounded.

"You can't talk about the problems that holidays bring (for failed or troubled couples) without bringing out the fact that many parents are actually dependent on their children, just as much as the children are dependent on them.

"Divorce is very anxiety-provoking. And all human beings, when they are placed in an anxiety-provoking situation, go back on the time track to many more childlike feelings, expressions, ideas, thoughts and behaviors. That's to be expected."

The dependence may result in divorced parents relying on their children to salvage whatever feelings of stability and security that may be had in the wake of a divorce. Worse, agreed Goldzband and Harriet Kimble Wrye, a Los Angeles psychologist, children may become the rope in a tug of war precipitated by parental Christmas season disappointment.

Instead of agreeing that a family will have Christmas with one parent on Christmas day and celebrate with the other parent at another time, dynamics are established in which both parents demand the special Christmas day visitation--fighting over it the way children may resolve disputes over a coveted toy.

"Christmas is a holiday in which we are all buffeted by stimuli that tells us to regress . . . be a child . . . think about children . . . think about your own childhood . . . think about families," Goldzband said.

"And all of these things, for single parents and especially recently divorced single parents, cause such a person to feel terrible. They become depressed and their own families may not be there to provide emotional support. Certainly, their ex-spouses are not going to provide it. They see themselves alone and they, of course, regress to more childlike situations and they become very dependent.

Parent Dependent on Child

"This is one of the reasons parents sometimes fight, even more , over who is going to have custody of a child at Christmas time than at other times of the year. The parent fights for the child at Christmas because the parent needs the child. The parent is dependent on the child to provide him or her with a Christmas milieu . It's a phony milieu because it is not a complete one, but it's the best the parent can do."

Goldzband, Wrye and UCLA psychologist Michael Newcomb had these suggestions for ways divorced and troubled couples can minimize--if not eliminate--the potential problems lurking in the Christmas season:

--Negotiate, as far in advance of Christmas day as possible, where a child or children will spend the actual holiday. The parent who will not have custody on the day itself can then arrange to have another Christmas celebration at another time. Important in this regard is that the child or children know what the plans are in advance and that the parents stick to them.

If that seems too much to ask of parents who have grown totally estranged, Goldzband said, "it is still possible for two people who hate each other's guts to communicate about their kids."

Live in Separate Cities

--If divorced former partners live in separate cities, negotiations can still be held to determine what celebrations and traditions are most meaningful to each half of the now-disassembled family. Successful arrangements by rational divorced parents can even include provisions to divide Christmas custody a year at a time, Wrye noted.

The important thing about holiday custody, she emphasized, is that it should be decided ahead of time. "Parents tend to want to avoid thinking about these things in advance, or say they can't, or say it will be 'OK,' " Wrye said, "and it's only in hindsight that everyone feels depressed and depleted."

--For couples who have had recurrent custody disagreements, instead of using the holidays as an excuse to intensify hostilities, just the reverse can occur. Clearly thinking divorced parents can use the holiday period as a motivation to renew negotiations that can resolve custody issues year-round.

--A divorced parent who does not have custody over the holidays should avoid spending large amounts of time alone, concentrating, instead, on keeping people around and staying around people, Newcomb said. "Use the friends you've got and be with them," he said.

'Think About Future'

--Avoid obsession with past Christmases and memories of good times now forever gone. "This is a new time and you may as well enjoy it for what it is," Newcomb said. "Think about the future."

--If the holidays are a time of loneliness for divorced people, they can also be a time of healthy introspection in which a parent reflects on the true effects of his or her manipulations of children. "What ought to happen in many cases is a recognition of what they're doing to their children," Goldzband said. "The parents can be mad as hell at one another and that's perfectly fine. But they need to shelve some of the anger that interferes with the lives of their kids."

--Divorced parents must avoid whipsawing the emotions of their children by competing to bestow the most expensive, lush gifts--a competition in which, societally, the female partner will probably be more hard pressed to succeed than the man since a man's economic resources often are more extensive.

"To some extent, we all have little children in us," Wrye said. "We are all subject to the myths of Santa bringing fabulous bundles to good little girls and boys and we have longings for Santa Claus to arrive in our lives.

"During a divorce, when there are less resources, we may not be able to provide those goodies in the way we used to. Little children end up feeling that they have been bad and that it is their badness that is responsible for the divorce. The old myth is that Santa knows what you've been thinking."

Don't Ignore Problem

--For couples in trouble but not divorced, the holiday season should be a time for renewed attempts to resolve problems--not an occasion to ignore them temporarily. "You can't sweep it under the corner of the carpet until after Christmas because, if you do, there's going to be more and more buildup and the tension is going to increase," Goldzband said.

Parents who try to put difficulties in limbo for the holidays, he said, are only fooling themselves, usually coloring their rationalizations with the idea they are doing what they are doing for their children's sake. "That's not it," said Goldzband. "It's for the sake of the children in themselves .

"They're saying, 'let's make a nice Christmas for me.' They're afraid to sit down and talk because they're afraid they're going to be hurt and rejected. They're not aware how much more they are going to be hurt and rejected if they don't sit down and talk.

"Christmas is a children's holiday in this culture and it's a holiday for the children in all of us."

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