Carrie McDougall's boyfriend gave her a Christmas Eve surprise she absolutely did not expect — he dumped her. Even worse, it was for someone else.
Decades later, the 48-year-old web designer from Port Townsend, Wash., still vividly recalls that long ago Dec. 24.
"I was devastated," she remembers. Losing her first serious boyfriend was bad enough, she said, "but the fact it was on Christmas Eve added a whole other layer to it."
Unwittingly, McDougall was taking part in the decidedly unfestive holiday tradition of pre-Christmas breakups. There’s even a name for the phenomenon: the “turkey drop” which implies a break up in that period starting just before Thanksgiving.
In fact, holiday breakups are so common that in just the past week alone, a bevy of celeb couples including Scarlett Johansson and Ryan Reynolds, Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens, "Dexter's" Michael C. Hall and his wife Jennifer Carpenter and "Nip/Tuck" star Dylan Walsh and his wife Joanna Going have all announced they're splitting.
Now, data researchers David McCandless and Lee Byron have come up with what appears to be the first actual representation of the trend. Using information collected from Facebook, the duo charted the most frequent times of year that relationships end. There are two astonishing peaks, one in March and one right now.
To collect the data, Byron searched for terms like “‘we broke up,” “breaking up,” “broke up,” and “taking a break” and used a combined output to create the dataset shown in the graph. While the data isn’t really scientific, it does lend credence to the idea that if a relationship is going to fail, it’s likely to fail around the holidays.
Why? After all, don’t we want to be with somebody during the holidays to share hot chocolate, that pathetic camo Snuggie left over from last year, Bing Crosby movies? Don’t we want drunken sex on New Year’s Eve even if only to spare us from having to watch Mario Lopez in Times Square?
Byron said he did some subsequent searching via Twitter and came up with a list of reasons ranging from the mundane (“she was way too flirty” and “we were better off friends”) to the soap-opera ready like “because her husband needs oral sex.”
None of these are particularly holiday-specific, but, say experts, the holidays have a way of magnifying everything.
It’s no secret that “stress” and “holidays” go to together like ham and eggs. An article in the journal Hospital Practice equated Christmas and New Years with severe stressors like “experiencing an earthquake,” “the threat of violence,” “blizzards” and “job strain.”
Hospital admissions and deaths from heart attacks even bear this out.
So it’s no wonder that relationships can suffer too, suggested Pepper Schwartz, a University of Washington sociologist, relationship expert and author of “Prime: Adventures and Advice on Sex, Love, and the Sensual Years.”
“The holidays put so much weight on everything,” she explained. With all the nostalgia in the air, she said, people often start to think about their own lives, where they are in the world, if they are happy. When people internalize all the ideal images of romance and family, they can begin to wonder if their own real life relationships match up.
When we do that, offered Susan J. Elliott, a New York therapist-turned attorney and author of “Getting Past Your Breakup: How to Turn a Devastating Loss Into the Best Thing That Ever Happened to You,” things can get nasty.
“People are bombarded with holiday messages and cheer and they see they are miserable in their own relationships” by comparison, she said. They want to end “the façade and so lots of people break up at the holidays and often in one of those self-exploding ways where it’s not a nice breakup. More like they go running out the door with their hair on fire.”
What your mama thinks matters
UCLA psychology professor Andrew Christensen, who studies intimate relationships, speculated that “family is a likely culprit” in holiday breakups.
We tend to spend a lot of time with our families at the holidays, but what happens if your partner goes over like a lead tree ornament? “How a family views a member’s partner often has a powerful impact,” Christensen said.
If the worst does happen, and you get dumped, these experts have some advice.
First, Schwartz said, “it doesn’t take a Ph.D to know it’s pretty crummy to break up around emotional holidays.” So if you are one of those people tempted to pull the trigger, and you haven’t done it already, suck it up until January. Schwartz suggests that barring, say, an attempt to poison the New Year’s Eve champagne, or finding your partner in bed with Santa, there is no reason good enough to justify breaking up with somebody between mid-November and January 2.
Second, if your partner is crass enough to ignore this advice, don’t let it tarnish all future holiday seasons, or even this one. No kidding, what loser breaks up with somebody now? Good riddance.
‘Feel as bad as you feel’ – and move on
If you feel miserable, though, “I tell people to feel as bad as you feel,” Elliott said “but at the same time do nice things for yourself.” Go ahead and stay in bed, go unbathed, eat a quart of Ben and Jerry’s New York Super Fudge Chunk while watching a Harold and Kumar marathon. Feel sorry for yourself. Then get out of bed, shower, and figure out how you want to spend the season. If that means you skip the boring office party, skip it. If you want things to be low key, do low key things. Volunteer to serve others.
If friends invite you out, don’t automatically assume the scene will be full of nauseatingly happy couples. Ask if there will be opportunities to socialize outside of coupledom. Throw your own dinner party and invite people you treasure. And since the New Year is upon us, do some self-reflection. “Do a little New Year rejuvenation,” Elliott said. “Change something in your life.”
One thing that might need changed, she said, is expecting real life relationships to feel like fantasy holiday relationships. That’s advice we could all use.
Brian Alexander is the author of the book “America Unzipped: In Search of Sex and Satisfaction," now in paperback.