It’s unrealistic to think that a couple that was not able to divorce well will be able to suddenly manage each other just because there is a celebration going on. But some careful planning can minimize the discord and put the attention where it belongs — on the young person who is marking an important transition. The best gift that parents in this situation can give to their children is to shield them from another go-around of the same old fight.

How To Prepare

In therapy, I seldom see both sides of a bitterly divorced couple when a family gathering is imminent. I generally see one person who is still very hurt and angry in the wake of a divorce but who wants to make the day go well for her or his child. Here is what we usually talk about:

  • Your former partner is not going to change, even for the sake of your child, even for the sake of this important day. Of course, I might be wrong. Perhaps she or he is doing painful and honest work with a therapist somewhere but, if you haven’t seen an indication of major change in the past six months, it’s a mistake to think that there will be change now. Your job is to stop having an investment in her or his change and to focus on your own.

  • Do your personal work and make enough time for it. The only person you really have influence over is yourself. Work with your therapist to figure out why this person you divorced still gets your goat so thoroughly and how to let it go. You are no longer married. Whatever she or he says or does really has nothing to do with you!
  • Be prepared. You already know which of your former spouse’s behaviors hook you. Write them all down. Think about ways you can react to each one that changes the outcome. You can’t change what he or she will do or say but you can certainly change what you do in response. Rehearse your new responses — in your mind and in role-plays with trusted people.
  • Have supports available. Still feeling shaky? Make sure that you have friends at the event who will be there for you. Talk with them ahead of time about ways to create a buffer between you and your former partner. Ask them to keep you occupied and to surround you with conversation so there really isn’t much room for more than a hello and a nod of acknowledgement to your ex.
  • Arrange for “time outs.” Figure out ahead of time how you can take a break if you need to. Perhaps arrange with one of your support people for a way to leave for a few minutes so that you can catch your breath, bang your head against the wall, count to ten, say a prayer, or whatever else would help.
  • Don’t drink! Whatever you do, don’t have more than the obligatory toast. Alcohol lowers inhibitions and will unravel all these preparations.
  • Have an exit plan. Figure out a graceful way to leave if things get too difficult. Often knowing we can leave allows us to stay.

Needless to say, these same principles apply whether you are dealing with a graduation, a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, a wedding, or even a funeral. Any time there is an event that brings all family members together, regardless of whether they are on friendly terms, can be a time of self-healing or a time of renewed hostility.

If you’ve made the choice to put the old fight behind you, the ideas listed here will help you through. Focus on your child. It is his or her day. You can’t prevent your former spouse from spoiling it if she or he is bent on doing so. But you certainly can avoid becoming a part of it. When you pull it off, you will feel very good about yourself. More importantly, your child’s memory of you on his or her important day will be about your love for him or her, not your anger with the other parent.