Relationship breakdowns or splits can be stressful at any time - but add children and Christmas into the mix, and the pressure on both parties will escalate.

Whether you are on the brink of formally separating from a spouse or partner, or it is your first year apart here is some sensitive seasonal advice on coping with a family Christmas.

While Christmas can increase the stresses and strains of family life for couples who are experiencing relationship difficulties, my own research suggests that couples looking to separate start talking about doing so some 12-18 months before they make the final decision.

If children are involved, then it is usual for the 'cut off' point to be Christmas, and then the process begins in the New Year. Likewise, Christmas can have serious implications for couples who have recently been estranged and perhaps live apart from their former spouse/partner and children.

We recognise that Christmas can be extremely stressful for families experiencing these difficulties, particularly if children are involved and are impacted by their parents' decision.

Trying to work through any differences and placing them to one side by putting the children first can only be a good thing. Having some kind of plan or coping mechanism can also help, and try and get the support of other family members and friends.

Try to:

Be prepared

Splitting Christmas day in half - is this really best for the children? Do you want your children to leave all their new toys that they have just received so that they have Christmas lunch on the other side of town with the other parent? Don't punish children for the adults' decision.

Be fair

Remember that it is not about ‘your time and my time’ with children – they are not a commodity. It is understood that Christmas Eve night leading into Christmas morning is the most special time when we have children and that is an experience that both parents would love to share. But in reality, this sometimes isn’t possible – so arrange to each have your own ‘special time’ with the kids.

Be Respectful

If it is ‘your turn’ to have the children, then telephone the other parent or Skype/Facetime them. Both parents should remember that Christmas Day is exhausting for children given the level of excitement so they may not “perform” well during such a Skype or Facetime session, and therefore be forgiving. Don’t attribute blame to cover up your own inevitable feelings of disappointment.

Be Flexible

Very often the parent with whom the children live expects to have the children every Christmas. Very often, a Judge will alternate the best bits of Christmas Day ie Christmas Eve at 3pm to early on Boxing Day and then this is alternated between both parents year on year.  Among separated couples with children, Boxing Day very frequently replicates Christmas Day so that the children have two Christmas Days rather than just one.

Be Open Minded

Personal family arrangements for a special Christmas with the children is not necessarily a legal issue. Think about keeping this out of Court, keeping in control of your family arrangements and keeping the festive season special.  Therefore, contemplate Mediation or Collaborative Law. Devise a ‘Parenting Plan’ so that there are no hidden surprises for the future. There may be several years of Christmases still to enjoy with the children, so stop it being stressful and keep it special.

Did you know?: Most recent figures from Office of National Statistics (ONS) suggest that nearly half of all UK marriages will end in divorce (42 per cent).

It has also been well documented by many firms of solicitors around the country that the month of January is a peak time for estranged couples to begin divorce proceedings.

However, my colleagues and I have no evidence locally of a spike in post-Christmas instructions – and that for many couples thinking about separation, the process begins long before the festive period.

Divorce and separation figures (ONS England and Wales 2012/2013):

  • 42 per cent of marriages end in divorce.
  • Almost half of divorces involve children under 16 years.
  • Around a quarter (25 per cent) of families in the UK are lone parent families.
  • In 2013, over 120,000 families with dependent children separated.
  • The number of divorces in 2012 was highest among men and women aged 40 to 44.
  • Around eight out of 10 children and young people with experience of parental separation or divorce would prefer their parents to split up if they are unhappy, rather than stay together.
  • In the same poll, around half (47 per cent) say that they didn’t understand what was happening during their parents’ separation or divorce.
  • Two in ten (19 per cent) agree that they sometimes felt like the separation or divorce was their fault.