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

December 22, 1985|ALLAN PARACHINI | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — 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.

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