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The holidays are supposed to be a special time for family, full of joy and warm pleasures. For people in unhappy marriages, though, there's no joy in party-hopping, decorating, shopping or visiting in-laws with a partner they no longer love.

But December is a tricky time to end a relationship. Parents are reluctant to spoil the holidays for their children, let alone their siblings, parents and in-laws.

And those who have been unhappy for months (if not years) tell themselves they can ride out a few more weeks, especially when there is already so much to do. While the reasons for delaying a divorce until the new year seem obvious, the experience of making it through the holidays in an imperfect union can be excruciating.

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"The reality is, if you have a difficult relationship, holiday times are times when you are spending way too much time together and that becomes very, very stressful," says Jim Stoffman, a family lawyer in Winnipeg.

Once the new year arrives, it's peak season for splits. "January really is divorce month," he says.

This seems to be true in plenty of places: British family lawyers call the first working Monday of the new year "Divorce Day," when their phones ring off the hook, and a 2012 analysis conducted by the U.S.-based site found that Internet searches for "divorce" and related terms such as "child custody" jump 50 per cent from December through January.

The trend is backed up by Julie Brines, a sociologist from the University of Washington. She co-authored a study this year that looked at divorce records in Washington State between 2001 and 2015. It found filings rise like a temper from January through to March, with another large peak in September. "We refer to it as 'the broken-promise hypothesis,' " Brines says. "The promise that's being broken is the promise of the holiday."

That was the experience for Carly L., a stay-at-home mother who lives in Stouffville, north of Toronto, who endured a "sad and miserable Christmas" four years ago. Her marriage of seven years had been souring for at least three, and the final nail came during a visit to her parents' house at Christmas with her now-ex-husband and then-five-year-old daughter.

"He drank so much before dinner he actually fell over in the living room – from standing, to on the floor," says Carly. "If you're not happy, people tend to drink more and they don't want to be around your family." (Her ex would later accuse her parents of poisoning him.) She announced her desire for a divorce on Dec. 31, hoping to clear the slate for the next morning. "New Year's Eve just seemed like the most appropriate time to start fresh," she says.

The end-of-year breakup takes courage, though, especially since making a move to end a marriage during a time of year so focused on family is "such a socially stigmatized thing to do," Brines says. Many parents hold off, so as not to have their children link the holidays with divorce.

Two decades ago, John Stevens of Kitchener, Ont., held off asking his ex for a divorce until the middle of January. His kids were then just 4 and 1 and he says that "from the very first moment" that he decided to end his marriage, he knew that he also didn't want family discord to define their future holidays. "They had a happy Christmas and they still seem to enjoy that time of year," says Stevens. "For me, it remains one of the most down parts of the year. It's a time for family, and where there's none around, it's tough."

On the cold, calculated, legal side of things, some law firms actually recommend getting divorced before the ball drops on New Year's Eve.

Ashby Law, a U.S. firm with offices across the Pacific Northwest, points out on its website that getting it all over with has certain advantages. Filing for divorce early means beating the new year rush, while waiting can lead to messier financial paperwork due to year-end bonuses or your relationship status at tax time. Of course, anyone in a volatile or abusive marriage should get out of it immediately.

Whatever your situation, planning is essential, says Deborah Moskovitch, a Toronto-based divorce coach, because divorce can be a long, acrimonious process. "My recommendation is, start thinking about it in September," she says. "You don't want to be fighting the last week of December over who gets the kids when."

And while many people want to believe the magic of the holidays can fix a broken marriage, that wasn't the experience of Tereasa, a Calgary-based researcher who ended her marriage in January, 2012. She and her husband of 15 years had been drifting apart for at least two years, and she vividly remembers the gloom of their last holidays.

Despite the clear problems in her marriage, she wanted to believe the magic of the season might repair some of the damage. "You start to fool yourself. You think, 'Maybe I can make it okay?' " Tereasa says. She hoped the Christmas spirit might show through in her husband, that "his real, true, generous, kind nature that I know he has somewhere deep down will come out more."

Instead, it was a long, painful season, which included having to put on her best face during a visit to her in-laws' home. "I was sitting there feeling so miserable because if I leave [the marriage], they are going to hate my guts and they're never going to talk to me again," she says.

Having waited through December herself, Tereasa is not surprised to hear that divorce lawyers' doors blow off their hinges in the new year. "The beauty and mystery of Christmas and all of its pressures of family and tradition melt away in the cold light of January," she says.

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