Dealing with Divorce During the Holiday Season: How to Maintain Your Recovery

Contributor: Courtney Howard, BA, writer for Eating Disorder Hope

Close up of young couple fightingDivorce is emotionally draining. Even if the split is mutual and there are no children involved, the paperwork, attorney fees, division of assets, and mourning of the relationship can cause great stress and heartache.

When these triggers arise, disordered eating provides a false sense of comfort that can be tempting for those working toward recovery or even those with years of recovery under their belt. For this reason, it is important to be aware of the warning signs of eating disorders during divorce and ways to mitigate triggers throughout the holiday season.

How divorce triggers disordered eating

Eating disorders are often triggered or exacerbated by major life events or stressors. Divorce falls under both categories and can lead to disordered eating for a variety of reasons, including to cope with anxiety, feelings of worthlessness, and body dissatisfaction. These issues can come to a head during the holidays, when loneliness and stress can be highest for those going through a divorce.

If there are minor children involved, divorce can lead to additional feelings of guilt and distress. Custody disputes and co-parenting issues can turn an otherwise civil relationship between divorcing parties into a bloodbath.

This is especially true during the holidays, as new issues arise regarding who the kids will be with on Christmas Day or which parent will take them to the mall to see Santa Claus. It is easy for these factors to increase stress and, subsequently, disordered thoughts and behaviors surrounding food.

Candid image of young couple smiling in a coffee shopStress and body dissatisfaction related to divorce can result in different forms of disordered eating. Restricting, binge eating, bingeing and purging, and excessive exercise are all common disordered behaviors that can be used as an outlet for the uncomfortable and painful feelings caused by divorce.

Divorce affects eating disorder rates among children, as well. A 2011 study conducted by researchers at Michigan State University and University of Minnesota reviewed children of divorce versus those whose parents were still together, rating their body dissatisfaction, weight preoccupation, binge eating, and compensatory behaviors.[1]

Authors of the study concluded, “As expected, the heritability of body dissatisfaction was significantly higher in [participants] from divorced than intact families. However, genetic influences were equal in [participants] from divorced and intact families for all other forms of [disordered eating].”

Dating after divorce

Another daunting component of divorce is getting back on the dating scene. For some, it might have been years or decades since going on a first date. It is natural for people to want to look their best when meeting prospective partners but, following divorce, this can often lead to extreme diets or plastic surgery to chase an unrealistic ideal.

Cynthia M. Bulik, Ph.D., of University of North Carolina explains that it is best to remain authentic in the face of new dating or relationship challenges following a divorce.

Those going through divorce can focus on the good ways they have changed since they last dated, as opposed to the ways they are unhappy with having changed, including a few extra wrinkles or pounds. Dr. Bulik elaborates, “Being true to who you are and who you have become through life experience can help buffer you from engaging in extreme post-divorce makeovers that can lead to dangerous extremes.”

Stress during the holiday season

Romantic couple holding hands walking on beach at sunset. Man anDuring the holidays, there is more pressure to be happy. There is almost an expectation that, no matter what curveballs an individual has been thrown during the year, he or she will be happy at work holiday parties, church events, or family gatherings.

Individuals with eating disorders commonly put up a facade of happiness on a daily basis, masking loneliness and anxiety associated with their eating disorders. Those going through divorce might similarly smile and pretend that everything is alright despite anxiousness or sadness over attending holiday events without their former significant other for the first time.

It might seem easier to plaster on a happy face to avoid awkwardness or having to mention the divorce, but this can cause long-term damage in the form of anxiety and isolation. This does not mean completely opening up about life’s trials and tribulations to Greg from accounting, as self-disclosure is best done with discretion when feeling vulnerable.

However, if an individual is in a safe space, it is okay to acknowledge that it wasn’t the best year while being hopeful toward the future. Loved ones will understand and likely appreciate this authenticity.

Whether recovered, in recovery, or experiencing these behaviors for the first time, eating disorders are best treated when caught early. This holiday season, remain aware of triggers and do not be afraid to ask for help. Seeking help is a sign of strength and can prevent the trauma of divorce from leading to relapse.

Community Discussion – Share your thoughts here!

Have you or your loved one been impacted by divorce in disordered eating? What tips can you share for successfully overcoming triggers and going through the holidays?


[1]: Suisman, J. L., Burt, S. A., McGue, M., Iacono, W. G., & Klump, K. L. (2011). “Parental Divorce and Disordered Eating: An Investigation of a Gene-Environment Interaction.” The International Journal of Eating Disorders, 44(2), 169–177.

About the author: Courtney Howard is a Certified Life Coach specializing in eating disorders through Lionheart Eating Disorder Recovery Coaching. As a content writer at the Sovereign Health Group while writing freelance through Eating Disorder Hope, Courtney is a passionate advocate for recovery and works to fight the stigma surrounding all mental health disorders. She graduated summa cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) from San Diego State University, holds a paralegal certificate in Family Law, and is a Certified Domestic Violence Advocate.

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Last Updated & Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on November 23, 2015
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