Welcome to our series, The Love Diaries – a space for you to share your experiences, advice, fairy-tale endings, setbacks and heartbreaks. We’ll be hearing from industry experts giving practical advice alongside Capsule readers (You!) sharing your firsthand experiences with love – everything from finding love, to keeping love, to losing love.
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This week, we’re talking Christmas – which is apparently break-up season. We talk to the people who’ve gone through it, plus to the experts about why it happens. Because, yip, we’re in the thick of it. The lead-up to Christmas can be one hell of a stressful time, and if a relationship is on the rocks, it’s never going to be more obvious than it is right now…
I love Christmas. I love the trees and lights and (nearly) all of the songs. So, one year in my late twenties, I knew something was very seriously wrong when I couldn’t bring myself to get the tree out of storage, hadn’t bought a single present and was actively avoiding Mariah Carey – and it was well into December.
I was properly, deeply unhappy. I knew I had to get out of the long-term relationship I was in, but I was absolutely terrified of doing so.
Christmas felt almost like a glaring deadline that I had to do something by. If I were to decorate the tree, it would feel like I was staying, going through the motions, committing to spending Christmas and the summer holidays together, trying to manufacture some joy and ignoring all my instincts (that I’d dampened for so long) that were screaming at me to leave.
The thought of it made me literally break out in a cold sweat. But one day I came home from work, announced I was leaving for good and packed a bag and went back home to my parent’s house. Christmas Day was just two weeks away.
The next two weeks (and, to be honest, the following months – maybe even a year) were a strange, surreal, time. It was Christmas – the time of joy. This magical, warm glow seemed to be sprinkled over everything and everywhere I turned was talk of celebrations and love. I felt like a little, numb lump of coal.
On one hand, I’d never felt so proud of myself for getting out of that situation – on the other, it felt like the most miserable time to go through a break-up. There’s nothing like waking up as an adult on Christmas morning in the same single bed you spent your childhood in – and not just being there so you can be with your family on Christmas Day.
What I didn’t quite realise back then, was I wasn’t alone. Not by a longshot.
See, while all those shiny ads are promoting diamonds for Christmas, because yes, the big day is the most popular day of year to get engaged – pre-Christmas is also one of the biggest times of the year to go through a break-up, alongside January, when most divorces are filed. In fact, we’ve just passed the day of the year when more break-ups happen than any other – December 11.
Even Facebook has noted this Christmas break-up phenomenon, discovering that by far the biggest time of year to change your status from ‘in a relationship’ to ‘single’ is in the two weeks leading up to Christmas.
Yip, while many couples whose relationships are hanging on by a thread keep telling themselves ‘just make it through Christmas, just make it through Christmas’ especially if there are kids involved – it’s actually the build-up to the Christmas break that most often breaks couples.
So how come so many break-ups occur right before the ‘happiest season’?
Kate, who broke up with her partner of four years on December 12 last year, says for her it came down to two things: stress and loneliness.
She had spent a solid chunk of 2020 focused on the fact she was terrified that she was going to lose her job – but as time went on, it slowly dawned on her that she may not have her priorities straight.
“Losing my job was the worst thing I could imagine happening,” she says. “After a while I started thinking about how messed up that was. Losing your job shouldn’t be the thing that terrifies you most in your life. It would be hard, but I realised it shouldn’t be my absolute worst-case scenario.”
So slowly but surely Kate felt her priorities change, and soon after, she quit that job she’d been so terrified of losing. She started a new job in a new field and wrote a list of goals for herself, the vast majority of which were things she wanted to experience in her life, not just achieve in her career or items she wanted to buy.
“But my ex just didn’t get it,” she shares. “I took a pay cut to try a new career – which I completely love – but he thought was crazy. I wanted to stop spending money on gadgets and appliances, and nights out drinking and try to start saving for a house, but he wasn’t keen. He said we’d never be able to afford the kind of house we like in the suburbs we were living in, and he didn’t want to move any further out, or cut back on nights out.”
While Kate’s priorities and mindset had changed, her partner’s had stayed the same. He went alone to those big nights out drinking and while he was sleeping off a hangover the next day she was catching up with friends and investing in new hobbies.
“Honestly, I’d felt lonely in that relationship for months,” she says. “We were just on different pages. Then, we both had busy runs up to Christmas with work, plus we had lots of weddings and things coming up in January. I was feeling so stressed. I tried to make it work, but we had really become different people.”
Kate says the fact it was Christmas only heightened everything. “It’s all about being with the people you love and showing them how much you love them – and I couldn’t cope with it anymore. Everything that was in the Christmas movies and ads only kind of highlighted what was missing in my life.”
“Everything that was in the Christmas movies and ads only kind of highlighted what was missing in my life.”
It’s one of the key reasons that can be behind Christmas breakups, according to psychologists.
Dr Doree Lynn, a psychologist and author Sex for Grownups says Christmas is often a time of high stress and depression as we can feel we’re supposed to feel a certain way, but often feel the complete opposite. “We have the media myth that this is supposed to be a happy, wonderful and joyous time,” she says.
She says it can also be an incredibly difficult time for couples who haven’t been together for long and are still defining their commitment to one another.
“Couples or people who are dating are in a bind,” she says. “It’s kind of a flight or another step to commitment time. The same thing holds true for Valentine’s Day. These are symbolic times where you’re making a statement, and if you’re not sure, particularly if you haven’t been dating for several years, a lot of people have issues about gift giving and how intimate the gift giving is and they get frightened because they don’t want to put pressure on the other person, but on the other hand they don’t want to feel like a fool giving something and not getting anything back.”
In those early stages it can also bring up some difficult decisions about whether or not to spend Christmas together. Which family will you spend it with? How do you feel about introducing your partner to your (potentially dysfunctional) family? If you don’t live in the same area as the family you’re celebrating with, what will your travel plans look like? How long will you stay? Where will you stay? Are you ready for that step?
American psychologist Heather Lyons says even the thought process of deciding how to spend Christmas can tip some couples over the edge. “People can begin to think about whether they can see the person they’re with as part of their family. This reflection can either bring couples closer together or help one or the other realize they’re not with the one.”
For couples who have been together a long time, it can be just as fraught. For those with a few Christmases under their belts that have involved navigating tricky family situations or dynamics, the idea of another, can be exhausting.
For other couples, all that reflection that takes place towards the end of the year can simply have them reevaluating their relationship. Are you happy? Where is your relationship going? Is it time to take another step?
As Dr Lynn mentioned, it’s often seen as a time to step up and make a commitment, which is why Christmas Day is the number one day for getting down on one knee – even higher than Valentine’s Day.
But that can all equate to a whole lot of pressure – particularly if you’re not just putting that pressure on yourself, but you’re also anticipating being asked about when you’re going to get engaged/move in together/have children/set a wedding date by family around the dinner table. And if one – or both of you – aren’t feeling ready to take a big step in your relationship, it can become a very stressful situation.
“It’s a lot of pressure for some guys,” says Cooper Lawrence, author of Been There, Done That, Kept the Jewellery. “If she is expecting an engagement ring … it will force the issue, making him think more seriously if she is ‘the one.'”
When American dating website Match.com took a look at this Christmas break-up phenomenon and surveyed members who broke up in the lead up to the festive season they found some of the reasons for splitting were quite expected, while others came as a bit of a surprise.
They found the primary reason (57%) was that they felt the “spark had gone”. A staggering 44% cited cheating claims or suspicions while 26% weren’t happy with their partner’s living habits. Eighteen percent said it boiled down to money issues, 9% couldn’t face the stress of Christmas and a savage 1% admitted they ended it just so they wouldn’t have to buy a gift.
They also found that most users thought that Christmas wasn’t a good time to end a relationship and it was better to hold off until the New Year if you were considering it. Another study drilled this down to an exact cut-off date for calling it quits – with most people surveyed feeling that December 6 was the last appropriate day to break up.
But while Christmas doesn’t feel like an ideal time to end a relationship, Match.com’s dating expert advised against holding off until after the holidays, if you’ve been seriously thinking about it but holding off just so you don’t ruin someone’s Christmas. She says it’s a difficult time to fake it and as you inevitably slowly withdraw from the relationship, your partner will notice, and it’s likely to cause a lot of hurt anyway.
“There are few feelings worse than just knowing someone is withdrawing from a relationship before it has been verbalised,” she says.
“If you have to break up before Christmas acknowledge the bad timing and remind your ex that the reason you’re telling them now is because you respect them and don’t feel it’s fair to mislead them,” she explains. “It’s natural for them to feel upset about this, however as long as you don’t appear too jubilant on social media, they’ll forgive you in time.”