Working as a ‘Britain’s top divorce lawyer’ has given Ayesha Vardag an unparalleled insight into the triggers that make marriages break down. Having listened every January to the things that went wrong over Christmas, Ayesha wants to use that experience to stop the same things happening to other couples during the festive season. Here are her top ten pieces of advice from over a decade at the sharp end of what happens at Christmas:
1. Dine out, at least sometimes
Give yourself a break from the stress of cooking and planning and making all the entertainment and book your family’s Christmas lunch in a restaurant or gastro-pub that you can walk to from home.
The pressure of being the perfect hosts, of cooking a huge, three-plus course meal for frequently judgemental in-laws would put anyone on edge. By the time you’ve bought all the bits and pieces you’ll never need again, the cost of cooking at home can be far more than eating out.
I discovered the joy of Yule dining out when I set about cooking one Christmas and found that the giant haunch of venison I’d been defrosting was still like a rock. We dined at the local pub, the Wykeham Arms in Winchester – fantastic, and full of all the atmosphere and buzz of sharing everyone else’s Christmas cheer. I got to talk and laugh with my family rather than just bossing them around in a quasi-military food operation.
The old idea that you have to become a domestic god or goddess to give your family a good Christmas is long outdated – what we all most need is time having fun with each other.
2. Be imaginative
Christmas is about celebrating with your loved ones, getting everyone together and doing something, whatever that may be. It might be that you celebrate with snowmen and conifers, or you might branch out.
One of the best Christmases I spent was with my husband in rural Italy – we went out to the local church to mass in the morning, then sat in the sunshine in the square with a glass of prosecco, followed by lunch at a very simple local restaurant. We did no shopping and no preparation and we had no washing up. It was heavenly.
You might go to anti-trad on a Caribbean beach or super-trad in a Viennese Christmas market, but consider a change of scene to make it a bit more fun.
3. Stay out of trouble
Office parties around the Christmas period are notorious flashpoints for the sexual smorgasborg of repressed office chemistry to bubble up. Hot liaisons that seem like a really good idea at the time can just be a fast-track ticket to the divorce courts and the job centre in one.
School parents’ parties are another, overlooked, vulnerable point – anywhere that you put like-minded people of similar ages with lots in common together, late at night and ply them with nachos and Pinot Grigio is a recipe for jealousy or infidelity. Watch out for the demon drink and don’t stay too late. Less is more.
4. Stay relatively sober
Drink moderately, if you like, but avoid getting drunk. As a divorce lawyer I deal with a lot of the aftermath of domestic violence or bitterly abusive arguments over Christmas, and they’re almost always alcohol-related. The tiredness, stress and external family pressures built into everyone’s Christmas can be magnified to explosive levels when combined with the lowering of inhibitions and the aggressive/depressive influence of alcohol.
Avoid focusing the entertainment around pouring on the sauce. Build in something like going for a walk, playing on the X-Box together or having a kick-around in the garden. If you’re going to watch TV, maybe pick out a movie you can get into together from what’s on air, or pick out/download something you love and want to share. You don’t have to become the Von Trapp family – but just getting everybody steadily pickled through the most stressful day of the year just doesn’t make sense.
5. Be discreet
If, for one reason or another, you’re having an affair, but you want to keep your marriage together –either because that’s how, tacitly or expressly, you and your partner make things work, or because you haven’t made up your mind what you want yet, be very careful.
Turn your phone off and keep it with you – most of our post-adultery Christmas custom comes from texts and calls discovered in an unguarded moment. Lovers suffer from separation anxiety and loneliness and the texting flies. Nipping off down the garden for an illicit chat is a bad idea too.
Don’t be trigger-happy, either. With photo-streaming and Facebook tagging, we find a lot of marriages break up because someone inadvertently shares a ton of pictures of the beach holiday that was taking place during what was supposed to be an urgent work trip.
If you’re leading a double life, and so many people are, at least be properly in one at a time.
6. Make an effort on presents, but don’t go mad
It’s so hard to find inspiration, but keep trying. Just having made a real effort to find something interesting or special can take you a long way. And be as generous as you comfortably can be. Don’t stint on the one day a year that you all get together and give to make each other happy – it’s too important to short-change. At the same time, don’t overstretch yourself – financial anxiety is one of the big stresses that can break people up, and Christmas piles on the pressure.
7. Open your presents first thing
You can get the kids playing with theirs and start showing yours off. It sets the tone and gives everyone something to do: there’s nothing worse than kids pestering when they’re bored, for them or for you!
8. Have more than one Christmas
Avoid spending Christmas in traffic on the M25, rushing between either your own parents or your children’s other parents. Plan to have your special Christmas with a certain group of people on a certain date. It’s especially important for the children of two different households, so they feel not that they have one, broken, Christmas but two really excellent, possibly very different, full ones.
Parents often worry about Christmas for their children if they break up. The fact is that, so long as everyone’s happy, children love the excitement of having two sets of presents, two special meals and two sets of celebrations.
There’s no magic in the date. It needs to be in the ballpark, in the Christmas season, and it needs to be happy and fun. That’s what counts.
9. Help your partner enjoy the family
Working parents can become distanced from their children and not know how to deal with them when forced to spend time with them. It’s important not to carp and criticise, but to encourage. It’s – “Hey, darling, let’s go out together and play with Johnny’s aeroplane with him” – not “can’t you get off the bloody sofa and do something with your kids for a change”. You don’t want your partner to come out of Christmas feeling like a failure. You want them to feel they really pulled it off, and they made everyone happy. That’s how to do your bit to make them feel they have a great family, and to want to keep investing in it.
10. Be sexy and loving to your partner
It’s so easy to focus Christmas all around children and wider family. But it’s a time that you and your partner need to feel strong in your relationship together. Show him/her some love, and that you remember how important they are to you. Make plans and look ahead to the next year; remember the fun things you’ve done in the past year.
Emotions run high at Christmas, and people almost see it like a litmus test for their whole relationship, even for their whole way of life. Make sure the impact you have on that day, the memories your partner has of you, are really positive, to carry you into the next year.
About the expert
Ayesha Vardag is internationally recognised as ‘Britain’s top divorce lawyer’. Her unrivalled success, no-nonsense style and gritty life experience make her a force to be reckoned with when it comes to resolving family disputes. Having launched Vardags as the sole practitioner in 2005, it is now the largest and best known independent family law firm in the UK.
Ayesha rose to fame in 2010 for winning the landmark Supreme Court case of Radmacher, changing the UK law on prenuptial agreements, and continues to work at the forefront of the biggest divorce cases on behalf of heirs and heiresses, tycoons, international sports stars, celebrities and royalty. She represented Pauline Chai, the ex-wife of Laura Ashley tycoon Khoo Kay Peng who was awarded awarded a £64 million divorce payout after a long and arduous divorce battle. It was one of the UK’s biggest divorce payouts of all time.