Alcohol, Infidelity and Relatives: Recipe for Divorce

Friday, barely 10 days after making a New Year's resolution, Donna is going to see her therapist about divorcing her husband of six years.

"Emotions run high around the holidays," said the 56-year-old California businesswoman who did not want her full name used because she hasn't yet broken the news to her husband.

"You really look at yourself in the mirror and dig deep, because Christmas is a time that is supposed to be so personal and family-oriented — the best time in a relationship," she said.

New Canaan, Conn., divorce lawyer Gaetano Ferro says the time between December and Valentine's Day is high season for breakups. Marital misery is often magnified during the holidays and many unhappy spouses want a clean slate in the new year.

"People in bad marriages find that the holidays accentuate the miserableness of their relations, and it causes them to run off to the divorce lawyer," said Ferro.

Often couples initiate consultations with their lawyers in the fall, but hold off because it's "bad form" to serve a spouse with divorce papers on the eve of the holidays, Ferro said.

The spike is not just an American phenomenon. In Britain, divorce lawyers call the Monday after New Year's "D-Day."

"Couples are very reluctant to consider the possibility of divorce in the lead-up to Christmas," British lawyer James Stewart told the Washington Post this week. "It's a terribly important time of year here. No one wants to give their husband or wife a proverbial bloody nose during the holidays."

The second-busiest divorce season is in September, according to Ferro, who just finished a term as president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers.

"The family goes away on summer vacation, and they're supposed to have a good time," said Ferro. "The kids go back to school and off to college, and Mom and Dad face each other with miserable faces without the kids to deflect it."

The most common reasons cited for divorce are infidelity, abuse, boredom and lack of sex, according to lawyers.

Donna said the love had gone out of her marriage, and her husband felt "more like a friend" than a lover. She had a "heart to heart" talk with her 22-year-old daughter from a first marriage over Thanksgiving: "I was starting to get serious about filing for divorce."

But Donna wanted to get through the holidays and see her husband's teenage daughter back to school before facing him.

Her unhappiness overshadowed everything at Christmas. For their 12-person dinner, she seated herself next to her daughter's father, not her husband.

"I made sure I was as far away from him as possible," she said.

"The gift giving was completely different this year knowing divorce was imminent," she said. "The gifts were less personal. I gave clothes instead of anything with a hint of romance. I did it on purpose."

"I didn't want to give my husband or anybody on his side of the family any hope," Donna said. "I completely ignored him. I knew that right after New Year's I was going to have a fresh start."

For matrimonial lawyers, January and early February are like the tax season for accountants, according to New York lawyer Sue Moss, who estimates 20 percent of her business comes at the start of the year.

"It seems everyone's New Year's resolution is to lose weight and lose the husband, and not in that order," Moss told the New York Post.

Those who file for divorce also find tax advantages to sticking it out until the end of the fiscal year.

Occasionally, that wild holiday party slips into an indiscretion that can shatter a marriage, according to lawyers.

But psychologists say it is high expectations and family that exacerbate misunderstandings and revive old grudges during the holidays. With blended families, the opportunities for conflict multiply.

"There is additional stress and the low after the high," according to Edna Herrmann, a Los Angeles psychologist who specializes in couples. "People are more dissatisfied with the marriage when they are depressed."

Christmas conjures up the nostalgia of childhood and often those memories cannot be recreated.

"For children, holidays are magical with Christmas trees and lights and a fire in the fireplace — and especially presents," said Herrmann. "It's magic and the child in you never dies. But they are always there in the background when the holidays come, and it is inevitable they are pushed to the foreground."

One couple with young children broke up after surprising the husband's parents with a visit after two years of no contact. According to Herrmann, the husband balked at his wife, who said, "When you see them, you get agitated. They talk to you about me, they are condescending."

When the family arrived, a physical fight ensued between the husband and his brother. His mother blamed his wife as the "one who always breaks up the family," according to Herrmann. The daughter-in-law retorted, "You don't even ask about your grandchildren."

One hour after their arrival, the couple stormed home — the husband had blood on his face and blamed his wife. She followed with, "I want out," said Herrmann.

Another couple split after her parents took a cruise during the holidays, rather than visiting the grandchildren. "The husband went ballistic," she said. "They don't care about the children and they never gave us enough money for down payment on the house. My parents do more."

Yet another engaged couple called it quits after visiting her family over the holidays. During their stay, her brother was arrested for dealing drugs.

"It was his first encounter with the family," she said. "He broke it off."