Holidays can be stressful in the best of cases. But when you have an emotional abuser in your life, either as a spouse or an ex-spouse, holidays can be complete chaos as you try to be the adult in the room, ensure that the holidays go smoothly, and try to make holidays a time of joy for the rest of the family, while the abuser puts on a performance of particularly bad behavior.
Abusers are on bad behavior during the holidays for a number of reasons – the primary one being that they are not the center of attention. After all, at Christmas, we are celebrating Jesus’ birthday, not theirs. At Thanksgiving, we thank God for our blessings, we don’t pay homage to the abuser. Therefore, they attempt to make themselves the center of attention, or at least derail the holidays.
Abusers will use a variety of tactics to disrupt the holidays. The most popular tactic appears to be sabotage. To pull off a successful holiday gathering takes the cooperation of emotionally mature adults who divide the various holiday duties of getting a tree, trimming the tree, grocery shopping, food preparation, food service, decorating, setting a table, clean-up, determining what gifts to give, shopping for gifts, wrapping gifts, distributing gifts, travel arrangements, hotel reservations, plane reservations, fueling up the car, etc. If you give an abuser any of the above-mentioned jobs, he will ensure that it will be done poorly, if at all. The healthy spouse will then need to accomplish all of her own assigned tasks, in addition to the ones of her spouse. If the abuser manages to make a complete disaster out of his task, the healthy spouse will also have “clean up” work to do.
Abusers have a Dr. Jekyll / Mr. Hyde dual personality. So, they are often the charismatic, magnanimous, life of the party when others who he wants to impress are around, but abusive to his wife behind closed doors when no one else is looking. On the other hand, another popular tactic is to cause divisions and conflicts among family and friends. Snubs and insults are common since they view most people as inferior to them, and it makes them feel superior.
If the abuser is an ex-spouse, the abuser will use the children to hurt the other ex-spouse. The abuser will tell the children lies about their mother in an effort to turn them against her and alienate them. He is filling their minds full of lies about their mom, causing chaos, making them feel guilty for leaving him, playing the poor victim, buying their affection with expensive toys, asking for them to spy on their mom, and generally manipulating them. The abuser will ignore the parenting agreement, ignore agreed visitation and custody times, and generally cause chaos to the holiday schedules. It’s hard for mom to plan for Christmas dinner at 5pm when dad makes sure the kids aren’t allowed to leave his house until 8.
There are a few things to keep in mind to keep your sanity during the holidays when you have an emotional abuser in your life. First, have very low expectations of any help from your abuser. Assume that he will not be helpful in any assignment. Your best course of action is to refrain from assigning him any essential tasks that must be done for a successful holiday. Instead, assign a “fluff” task that will keep him busy and out of the way, but will not derail the holidays when it is not completed. Then, hire someone or ask a trusted friend or family member to help in the areas that you cannot do yourself.
Second, if your abuser is well-behaved in front of others but abusive when others are not around, try to avoid time alone with your abuser. If your abuser is prone to snubs and insults, you may want to warn guests in advance. Let him show his true character and don’t try to cover for him or make excuses. Let him implode in front of everyone. Leave if you need to, and take the kids to a hotel for the evening. Tell them it’s an adventure. If he turns physically violent, call the police, leave immediately with the kids, and get an Order of Protection as soon as possible.
Third, understand that the children are pawns in his chess game, and are stuck in the middle. You, the healthy parent, need to stay calm, not get flustered when visitation and custody agreements are not followed, and not make the children feel guilty for being late or not arriving at all. As the healthy parent, you also need to be the safe parent for the children. They need to know that when they come to your house, they are welcome and you are happy to see them, even if they arrive late or leave early. Don’t pump them for information about your ex, don’t try to explain how awful he was to you, don’t bad mouth him, don’t even talk about him if possible, and don’t make them feel guilty for being late or leaving early. Focus on making happy memories. If they share a lie that your ex has said about you or make an accusation, explain that if they want to know the other 99% of the story, they can ask a direct question and you will answer truthfully, but you won’t otherwise discuss it. If they ask you a direct question, respond truthfully without sugar-coating. If the parenting violations are especially egregious, you may need to consider legal action to enforce the parenting agreement schedule.
Abusers will always attempt to derail the holidays. Knowing this, prepare for it and roll with it. Be the safe adult, and don’t get flustered when schedules go awry. Focus on your blessings and on making a safe, peaceful, joyful place for you and your children. If emotional abuse turns into physical abuse, take the necessary steps to protect yourself and your children.