Christmas compromises: Holidays and divorce don't always have to clash


Every family wants a traditional Norman Rockwell holiday, but for those going through a divorce, battles over who gets to see the kids on that special day, and when, can turn that dream into a nightmare.

"Whether you're in the middle of a divorce or whether you're just thinking about it, things heat up around the holidays," said Tom Muha, an Annapolis psychologist.

"We all want a Norman Rockwell or Walton Christmas -- it's a dream promoted by Hallmark and AT&T; commercials," he said.

"But for families going through a divorce, the holidays can be stressful. There's travel and shuttling the kids back and forth and usually more drinking than usual and sometimes [people] say things that might not otherwise be said."

At the suggestion of Anne Arundel Circuit Judge James C. Cawood Jr. -- who referees many visitation disputes by issuing court orders -- and lawyers who handle domestic cases, Dr. Muha and psychologist Maureen Vernon have planned a daylong seminar on Friday to teach people how to have a "successful divorce" and avoid court-ordered solutions.

The seminar, from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., will be conducted at the Anne Arundel Medical Center's health education facility, 140 Jennifer Road in Annapolis. The cost is $95 at the door, or $85 if you register by mail. For information, call 266-0019 or 263-2000.

"We've seen cases that go in and out of the courts five years, and seven years, and just go on and on. The court system cannot get people to work out agreements -- Judge Cawood can impose an order, but he can't help people resolve the situation or their feelings," Dr. Muha said.

"We don't advocate divorce, but if you're going to do it, there are ways to make it more civilized."

That's certainly true in the case Dr. Vernon had to referee last Christmas.

The 16-year-old in the family had just earned her driver's license and was looking forward to taking her brothers and sisters to dad's for Christmas. With her license and the car, the kids could see both parents that day and for once, Christmas would be pleasant.

"She called me Christmas Day in tears, because they were supposed to have dinner with dad -- it had been planned -- and mom called right before dinner to demand the kids come home immediately," Dr. Vernon said.

"I had to get both parents on a conference call and get them calmed down so they would see it wasn't fair to put that kind of pressure on a 16-year-old. Do you think those kids are going to look forward to Christmas again after all that?"

One reason such situations develop, say the psychologists, is that parents in divorce have a tremendous amount of anger and a negative self-image.

"Your whole definition of yourself is crumbling around you and the person you've trusted the most in your life is suddenly the enemy," Dr. Vernon said.

"The anger lets people distance themselves. About 80 percent of it is about power and control. In a divorce, you feel powerless and you can't control the other person, so you try to control the child. The child is both the pawn and the trump card."

And it isn't healthy for anybody.

At the daylong workshop, the psychologists plan to do more than preach about how to have a "successful divorce."

"We're going to do some role-playing, and we're going to teach people techniques they can actually use," Dr. Muha said.

"It's not like we're giving these incredible solutions. Some of them are just common sense: the kids get 10 days vacation and they spend five with Mom and five with Dad. But sometimes you're so caught up in the power struggle they lose sight of the fact that everybody's getting hurt. We'll show you how to come to your senses."

One if the first priorities for any divorcing parent, said Dr. Muha and Dr. Vernon, is "take care of yourself."

Even if only one parent attends the seminar, it's not a problem, said Dr. Muha, "because it takes two people to have a fight."

"We'll show them a positive role model and get them to practice what to say -- that's why it's an all-day seminar and not an #F hourlong one. We want them to be able to do this when they get home," Dr. Muha said.

"We've found it doesn't do any good to just say, 'Stop behaving this way.'

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