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The Homeless Dads: The Bad Deal Divorce

The typical divorce is actually pretty painful. The standard DEAL is almost an assault to fatherhood, and we need to fight to change it. In the most common arrangement, Mom gets the kids and house, dad gets the child support payment. It’s how things used to work. But today, unfortunately, the courts still go by this structure unless there is significant fight to something difference.

There are a few problems with this pattern.

So let’s see, I’ve got no home. I’m paying $1,200 a month for child support and $1,200 a month for health care. How can I afford an apartment?

The non-custodial parent is assumed to be a deadbeat when they are calling the AG’s office. You are segmented into custodial or non-custodial parent at the beginning. If you are the non-custodial parent the only reason you’d be calling is you are behind on your child support.

When we complain about unavailable dads, or dads that check-out after divorce, here are a few of the reasons why.

  1. The child support burden is a lot of money.
  2. Dads might be resentful of the “money only” role they are being put in.
  3. When dad is asked to leave the marital home they are often forced to move in with family members or friends, this is largely because of the cost of child support.
  4. In addition to $500+ per kid in child support (estimate) the dad is also asked to pay for health insurance. (Today, in my case this is an additional $1,200 per month with two kids.

So let’s see, I’ve got no home. I’m paying $1,200 a month for child support and $1,200 a month for health care. How can I afford an apartment? If I don’t have a killer job ($2,400 after tax expenses before I get a dollar for myself or my survival. Well, that’s a pretty steep hill to climb.

IF the playing field were equal, I would guess a lot more divorces would be negotiated in good faith. Today, even if you declare a collaborative divorce, the issue of money is liable to strike the dad in the pocketbook in a way the mom, to start out with, does not even have to consider. RARE is the case where the dad is given full custody and the mom pays child support.

Shouldn’t we start with 50/50 in both financial responsibility AND parenting time? This is the fight we are fighting in the courts today. I’m considering going back to court to reset the arrangement. I was attempting a collaborative divorce, but in the end I was handed this lopsided deal. I have to earn over $3,000 per month (taking taxes out BEFORE I pay the mom) before I have a chance at even putting food on the table.

Dad’s are just as important as moms. The loss of either parent is one of the most painful aspects of divorce.

This leaves a lot of dads as deadbeats, not because they are actually trying to shirk their responsibility, but because the mom and the court have saddled them up with so much financial liability that they cannot afford to make the payments each month. At that point the dad is subject to financial liens, foreclosure, and checking account freezes.

You know what happens when the AG’s office freezes your account?

  1. The bank charges you $57 – $150 for the freeze.
  2. The bank processes no further payments (rent, car payments, even your child support payments)
  3. You bounce checks.
  4. You’re credit get’s screwed.
  5. You end up with an additional $200 – $400 in fees.

And you know what the AG’s officer will tell you? (The Humans Of Divorce, Dear AG’s Office Special Cases Officer Mr. McK!)

Fair treatment of fathers begins at the beginning of the relationship. BEFORE you have kids, you can agree to parent 50/50. If that’s the deal, you should have the discussion about if things don’t work out. (I’m not talking prenuptial, just an understanding) In my marriage we started out 50/50, but as soon as she decided she wanted a divorce (yes, it was her idea) the arrangement went to the cutting floor and I was handed the dad deal. A bad deal for everyone.

As the dad can’t afford a nice place for the kids to come visit, they want to come visit less. As mom’s house maintains some of its status and comfort (important for the kids) the dad is left in the cold to fend for himself AFTER he makes all the payments to help the mom stay in the house and live within the lifestyle the couple achieved TOGETHER. Except now it’s not together. And the cooperation you started with before you had kids, becomes a longterm ground war between “the money you owe me” and the money you can afford to pay without suing your ex.

Dad’s are just as important as moms. Even with young kids, the loss of either parent (my dad left when I was 5) is one of the most painful aspects of divorce. For the dad it is doubly devastating: the no longer have a house, and the courts and the AG’s office have now put their credit at risk, making employment and ability to pay even more difficult.

Let’s put the balance back in divorce. Give both parents the benefit of the doubt.

Consider the dads. If you’re a dad consider the courts and get an attorney who can show  you examples of winning in court for fair arrangements.

The money after divorce should be divided equally. Anything else puts man men at risk for debit issues, credit issues, and put them at risk of suicide and depression. Let’s put the balance back in divorce. Give both parents the benefit of the doubt. And both parents should be advocating for a 50/50 split in the same spirit they entered parenthood, with expectations of a 50/50 partnership. That partnership doesn’t end at divorce. But if we load up the man with all of the financial obligations and punish him for being late on a payment or two, we are hurting all the members of the family. The mom loses when the dad’s account is frozen. Even if the mom didn’t want it to happen. Once you’ve asked the AG’s office into your divorce, they never leave. (Inviting the Dinosaur Into Your Divorce)

We need fair divorce laws. We need courts that will listen to the needs of both parents and consider 50/50 parenting as the desired outcome. Until we stand up and fight for equality AFTER marriage we will continue to be on the losing side of the post-marriage equation.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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Hold On! The Information You’ve Been Given About Divorce is Wrong

See if you can spot the lie:

  • The woman is the primary care giver.
  • The mom always gets primary custody.
  • Dads usually make the most money and spend more time at work, this situation is important for the continuity of the family after divorce.
  • The kids should be supported in a lifestyle they’ve grown accustomed to.
  • Women are usually the emotional ones in a relationship. They are the emotional center of the nuclear family unit before the divorce and should be given consideration as such after the divorce.
  • Dads are often distant, unengaged, and aloof in relationship to parenting.
  • Girls really need their mom’s more than their father.
  • Boys need their moms when they are young and their fathers later in life.

They are all wrong. Or at least misperceptions about how it is. Every case, every family, is different.

In my case, I’d go as a far as saying every one of these statements was actually the opposite of what our family was like. But as we headed towards negotiating our co-parenting relationship, I started being fed these outdated ideas as truth. Though they didn’t fit in our case, I was assured that the courts had done enough research and the experience to say “what’s best for the children.”

For your kids, divorce is the biggest trauma they’ve experienced in their young lives. The dad is often given the boot as the little group attempts to maintain some semblance of routine without him.

In our case, as in 90% of divorces in Texas, the split was divided along 1970’s traditional divorce wisdom. Moms are the primary caregivers, dads are the primary breadwinners, and keeping this balance is what protects the children from the harshness of divorce. That’s the party line.

The truth is, there is no protection from the harshness of divorce. However, not giving 50/50 consideration to the father in the family does everyone a disservice. Kids need both parents equally. If you can’t stay together for them, at least split up in the way that serves everyone’s need.

Can the father’s needs be tossed out at a court’s whim? Sure. It happens daily. But it’s not “in the best interest of the children.”

Divorce is hard business. And for your kids, divorce is the biggest trauma they’ve experienced in their lives. The dad is often given the boot as the little group attempts to maintain some semblance of routine without him. This is what you will be told is best for everyone. Well, everyone except the dad.

We’ve come to view the stereotypical male as detached and unfeeling. And that preconceived idea no longer holds water. Today the lopsided divorce, while all to common, is coming being challenged more frequently.

The situation: someone in the relationship has decided to break up the family, why shouldn’t it start with the assumption that the split is going to be a 50/50 on all counts?

If you are about to enter into divorce negotiations or a divorce war, please consider the needs of both parents in addition to the children. If, for some reason, it is determined the balance should be less than 50/50 make sure you understand the reason.

My dad was an aloof man. He was also the only breadwinner in the house. And my mom was, in fact, the emotional center in the house. That’s typical of that period in time. But the working mom revolution came along and changed everything. We’re more aspirational with our parenting, and in my case, we voted to split the details of parenting as closely down the middle as possible.

While I don’t blame my then-wife for “going for it” and asking for everything she wanted: the money, the house, the custody, I don’t think she was thinking beyond her interests. And we can all cite studies about mothering and nurturing, but today, just as many modern studies show the dad is of equal importance in bringing up healthy kids. The situation: someone in the relationship has decided to break up the family, why shouldn’t it start with the assumption that the split is going to be a 50/50 on all counts?

In my marriage, that’s how we agreed to have kids, as equal partners. What leads the woman to think she’s entitled to more? Why does more time with the kids also equate with more money to be paid by the father? It’s flawed math. Worse, it’s really flawed psychology.

As I was preparing to leave the house, she wanted to make sure I got a pet to be with me. She understood where her emotional bonds were.

I didn’t have the option to fight for 50/50 parenting once the divorce was in motion. By agreeing to a collaborative divorce, I was waving my right to sue my then-wife for terms. And while this also precluded her from suing me, somehow we started the negotiations with the old imbalanced split.

There’s no going back for us. The decisions that were made have run their course. My son is now 15, he was 9 when his mom asked for a divorce.  My daughter, who was 7 at the time, is the one I still feel the most pain about. She didn’t understand. As I was preparing to leave the house, she wanted to make sure I got a pet to be with me. She understood where her emotional bonds were.

I will never get back my kid’s youngest days. I will not be able to make up for the 65% lost time with them. What I can do is tell others about my experience. I can encourage, even moms, to consider the 50/50 route in compassion for the kids and also for the other member of the equation, the dad.

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

Back to Positive Divorce & Co-Parenting

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image: ballet 3, creative commons usage

The Little Oblivion I Will Often Seek

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I have to admit I do appreciate a minor amount of intoxication. I don’t do it often, but when I do, I revel in the relaxation, the joy, the fun of cutting loose. But that’s a little different from oblivion. When we seek oblivion we are looking to escape something, to get away from the complexities of life or living or love or loss. I understand this. Sometimes, I’m board, I want to be entertained for an hour or so and then I just want to black out into sleep. Well, not black out, black out, but you get what I’m talking about. I think, at times we all want a little oblivion.

I joked with my therapist that I was managing my life between Ambien doses. That’s funny, but it wasn’t very far from the truth.

For me, when I was suffering from depression over the holidays that oblivion came in the form of a very comforting sleep medication. Ambien. No matter how rotten I was feeling, I could count on a good night’s sleep when I took my little pink generic. And at $15 for a month’s supply, what’s to stop me, right?

Turns out while I did need help sleeping for a few nights, when my love of the sleep became something I looked forward to each day, that was a different desire right there. I was no longer having trouble sleeping, I was looking for the warm fuzzy of sleep. The big black blanket of pharma-enhanced sleep, is what I was craving as an escape from the hard times.

I joked with my therapist that I was managing my life between Ambien doses. That’s funny, but it wasn’t very far from the truth. See, if you don’t go straight to sleep, Ambien can make you a bit euphoric. And when you are depressed, a tiny sliver of euphoria can go a long way towards making you hopeful about joy in your life once again.

Each morning I would wake up a little more depressed, as I started slipping into a dark period, rather than a minor set back. And each night I would gladly affirm to my fiance that I’d taken my “sleepy meds.”

But it was no longer about sleep. On month two it was about joy. It was about a moment of feeling good and then a long dark and dreamless sleep. And they say Ambien is non-habit forming. HA. Who are they trying to kid?

I’m certain this is what many people are trying to do with daily alcohol consumption. A little buzz and a good night’s sleep. But this form of self medication is no better than my Ambien habit, and probably more destructive to their health. And Ambien does give you restful sleep. Alcohol actually interrupts your REM cycles and gives you poor quality sleep. So if you’re drinking to help yourself get sleepy you might consult your doctor and try something else.

The Ambien was having some sort of suppressive effect on my hopefulness.

But I get it. And I was getting into my little oblivion moments even as my life felt like it was spinning into the pits of blackness. I was drawing ever darkening pictures of my future in my mind. And each night I would release those wicked pains for a few minutes before I drifted to sleep. I’m guessing this is not unlike an opium habit, though I’ve never done opium.

Something, however was not healthy about what I was doing. I wasn’t clear about it until my prescription ran out one day in December and I missed a dose and missed my little high before falling asleep. The next day I had a much more hopeful outlook. I noted my desire to have an outreach conversation with my manager at work. I said to myself, that afternoon, “Wow, that was pretty hopeful.”

The Ambien was having some sort of suppressive effect on my hopefulness. I had seen this a few years ago. I loved my Ambien sleeps, but I noted that I loved them a bit too much. And the couple nights I didn’t fall directly asleep… Well, I really enjoyed those moments.

I watched my mood the next day after I refilled the Ambien. While I didn’t notice a downer, I also didn’t notice the lift I had felt when not on Ambien. So I took a break. And you know what. My hope came back almost like clock work. I haven’t had an Ambien since. Now, I’m not saying Ambien is bad stuff. In fact, in talking with my meds doctor about my experience, he said, “It’s a useful tool when the sleep is the real risk for you. When you are getting enough sleep, it might be best for you to stop the medication.”

Easy for him to say.

I longed for that happy moment. I felt like I was having no happy moments. My little oblivion felt like a reward or a respite from the depression. And it was not the first time I contemplated daytime-Ambien use. (BAD IDEA. Google it, it’s a thing, but it’s a bad thing.)

It seemed to me if they could make an anti-depressant that worked a little bit like Ambien… But what Ambien does is release some of your natural inhibitions. In my case this gave me the feeling that I could accomplish something. It gave me momentary breaks from my hopelessness. I believed joy was returning to my life. But the dawn would often bring back the same panic and dread.

I still sort of want an Ambien at night. But you know what, it might just be the dreams that also bring back the brain’s hopefulness in me.

They say Ambien makes people do stuff they don’t remember doing. Like eating at night, driving their car somewhere, or sleep walking. I never had that experience, but I sure had some emails I wish I hadn’t sent. Emails where I gushed on about how I was feeling better and would get my shit in order right away… In fact, why don’t we meet up for coffee in the morning.

Oh the coffee never came. But I was clearly “drunk” on something.

If drinking is a little like Ambien, I do understand the draw towards daily drinking. It’s not for me either, never has been, but daily Ambien, I could see how I might enjoy that if not for the side effects that it kills my hopeful attitude the next day and has me making promises my actually emotional state won’t let me fulfill.

I still sort of want an Ambien at night. I’d love to get that kind of sleep naturally. But you know what, it might just be the dreams that also bring back the brain’s hopefulness in me. And the waking up in the middle of the night to snuggle closer to your loved one, that keeps me a bit more centered. I’m not heading to oblivion each night, but I’m not waking up in hopeless hell either.

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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A Good Man in a Storm, Even After Divorce

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The irony here is often the storm is me. I’m sorry about that, me and my depression can cause a few problems. But for the most part, about 85% of the time when things are tough and about 95% of the time when things are good, I’m an excellent companion come rain or shine. It’s the rain times that broke apart my marriage.

She no longer believed in the promise of our marriage, and she decided to take her chances, and unfortunately the chances for the rest of us, with other options. Divorce options.

It wasn’t for lack of trying. We tried. We survived. We worked through enormous hurdles and came out of the trials and tribulations with two beautiful and blessed kids. No noticable defects so far. (grin)

But the hardships were unbelievably hard. In my mind that gave us even MORE staying power through the down times. But for my then-wife, something must’ve broken at some point. She no longer believed in the promise of our marriage, and she decided to take her chances, and unfortunately the chances for the rest of us, with other options. Divorce options.

It was sort of sprung on me, even though we’d be in couples therapy on and off for several years. You can’t say we didn’t work it. We were doing the best we could. And we did pretty damn good through the hospital times with our second child. And we did okay in the times when my depression debilitated me for about a year. (I can explain this later, but not excuse it.)

So we’d been going to therapy, not to fix our relationship, specifically, but to help us learn how to communicate better. To stay in the reality of the situation rather than our own projections of what we “thought” was going on. SCT, it was called.

And that aspect of our therapist was grand. He really was helping us break down our own fears and misperceptions and get back to what was actually real, what the other person had intended to say, rather than what we heard. He let us know he was not a couples therapist. He was helping us get centered and clear with one another. And maybe that was exactly what he did.

The problem with SCT, however, is it does not really deal with emotions about the realities. It simply redirects you to what you know and what you are projecting about the future or lamenting about the past. We spend, as humans, a lot of time OUT of the present moment. And that’s a problem. So Rich, wasn’t trying to fix us or fix our marriage, he was trying to get us to tell the other person what we really wanted. What was really bothering us. And keep it 100% real.

Now, it seems to me that this would have been the perfect venue for my still-wife to tell me she was considering life without me, BEFORE going to consult with an attorney. But she didn’t do it that way. I found out in REALITY THERAPY that she’d already been to see a lawyer. Then when the emotions flooded forward from my disbelief and shock, our therapist sort of fell short of the mark. He consciously didn’t jump in the middle of it. Well, actually he did. I’ll get to that in a minute.

“You have a very hard time with honesty. And I don’t trust that things are going to get better. And I don’t have hope for the future of this marriage.”

When my then-wife said exactly what she felt was her truth, it was actually a projection about the future. So in that aspect the therapist should’ve redirected her back to this moment and what was real. He did not.

Here’s what she ultimately said, “You have a very hard time with honesty. And I don’t trust that things are going to get better. And I don’t have hope for the future of this marriage.”

Here’s what I was saying about my reality. “Things have been hard. We’ve done great at working through hardships that have been thrown at us. And at this moment in time I have MORE hope that our future is as bright as it’s ever been. Even this therapy is stripping away our worries and helping us focus on what is real.”

But it wasn’t enough to convince her to stay with me. And I was devastated right there in our our little “emotion free” therapy session. And while Rich allowed her to stay in her projected reality, he also took her side when she asked that I simply walk out of the house that night and tell the kids I was off on a business trip.

Again, bullshit, and again a failing of our therapist who should’ve been helping us communicate rather than siding with one of us. He agreed that she was under such stress that she needed some time off. Some time to recover her center.

“Why doesn’t she leave the house, then?” I asked, point blank.

Neither of them supported that idea. I’m not exactly sure why. And I fought with both of them, again. Not really the right place for an SCT therapist, but that’s what really happened. He was convinced I should leave her and the kids alone for a bit and regroup to see if there was something to salvage. I was in my own reality that THIS WAS THE EXACT TIME TO STAY REAL rather then lie to the kids and run out the door.

So I stood and fought. And we went to two more sessions with Rich, more for closure then progression. At this point he retreated back into SCT and the reality of the situation. The last session was more of an apology between the three of us for not being able to save the marriage. We were saying goodbye to each other and to Rich as our enabler.

Some people have different happy set-points. And I think her’s is very different than mine. A ton of things could make her unhappy. And often she found, still finds, ways to make it about me.

I’m not sure I would’ve gotten better results from a Gottisman couples therapist. I’m not sure I really needed to stay in that marriage. Sure, I can say I’m sad about all the kid years of time I lost to her rash decision and our therapist’s inability to keep himself out of our business, but in the end, today, I’d have to say it was a good thing.

You see, some people have different happy set-points. And I think her’s is different than mine. A ton of things could make her unhappy. And often she found (still finds) ways to make it about me. How I’m not taking care of her in the right way.

Again, SCT would direct her back to the reality of the situation.

  1. You are unhappy.
  2. You think he is causing you to be unhappy.
  3. But the unhappiness is in your thinking and not in his actions. He is not preventing you from changing the situation if it gets that bad.
  4. You can change your thinking at any time.
  5. The house is not too messy. The house is more messy than you would like it. It’s not his responsibility to clean house until you feel better. That’s why you hired a maid.
  6. You’re too focused on what he’s doing or not doing. Focus on yourself.

Those are some pretty good words of advice for any relationship. Oh and this one.

If you’re not having sex with each other, and the disconnect goes on for months at a time, something is out of whack. Even an SCT therapist should key in on this REALITY. But he didn’t.

I hope the best for my ex-wife and the mother of my two kids. I see now, that with her new man, she’s still about the same. She’s not all that happy. He’s probably not doing exactly what she would like either. But that’s the real lesson here. In relationships people need to look after their own realities and the ways those realities intersect with another’s reality.

In the case of my then-wife, she was unhappy about many things. I was happy about many things. It seems to me today we’re pretty much in the same situation, we’re just no longer married, and there have been some real complications put into our court. And she’s pretty convinced that I’m not supporting her correctly. The good part is I am no longer answering to her happiness, I no longer need to do her chores. That was about her. And perhaps more about her lack of desire for sex.

It was a reality I could not manage. In the end it was a reality that should’ve split us up and did. I am now free to have a relationship with a woman who enjoys life, who wakes up laughing, like I do. Sure, she’s got a list of things she’d like me to do differently, and I’m sure I have a few items for her. BUT we’re here by choice. WE love each other, daily, by choice. We don’t even have kids between us. But we love, laugh, and let go.

Love. Laugh. Let go. That’s a much better fit. So, in the end, I guess I’m grateful to both Rich and my ex-wife for releasing me for the next phase of my life.

LOVE.

LAUGH.

LET GO.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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Minimizing Collateral Damage of Depression and Divorce

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I’m going to talk about my depression for a minute. Okay?

Why is it, that when I’m depressed I cannot see the hope in the pattern? Why do I sink so far that even my own internal dialogue is powerless to lift my spirits? It’s not like I haven’t been depressed before. It’s not like I don’t know that I eventually rise back out of my funk. But somewhere in the short-circuit of my brain, I can no longer experience joy or hope.

As a parent dealing with depression I’ve had to substantially moderate my communications with my kids and ex-wife during these periods.

It’s the hope that’s a real killer. And it’s this vicious and toxic self-talk that I moderate by getting completely quiet. Sure, it’s not a good sign when I’m no longer my boisterous self, but it’s also safer for me to not be spouting off my dooms day fantasies.

I can see that these thoughts are flawed. I can even state to myself, “Man you are really hitting some f-ed up thinking here. Let’s not pay too much attention to this storm.” But I always DO pay too much attention to it. Or I consume too much of my own energy battling the wicked thoughts that I begin to shut off from everyone around me.

As a parent dealing with depression I’ve had to substantially moderate my communications with my kids and ex-wife during these periods. Several years ago when I was going through some of the upheaval of the divorce, I had a pretty open conversation with my kids about my “cloud.” My son came to the rescue. “You mean like that commercial where the cloud follows the guy around raining on him? Like that?”

This is the only time a pharma-porn ad for an antidepressant has ever served a purpose in my life, other than reminding me that I’m depressed. My son really understood the concept and the cartoon illustrations seemed to make the disease more manageable.

And as we progressed through that difficult Summer, my son would occasionally ask, “How’s your cloud today?”

It was a great opening. I was able to reassure both of my kids that my difficulties had nothing to do with them. And that I was working with a doctor and some cloud-removal medicine of my own. It was a nice bridge for us to be able to chat about Dad’s issues. And when kids reach the age where onset depression might arise, I’m so glad we have the framework to talk about things like medication and the state of my cloud.

Even my ex-wife is supportive these days when things are “off.” She notices when my email responses take days rather than hours. It’s not her fault that she needs help and has questions that we have to answer together as parents. My depression does not abide by our needs or our schedule. And this year she texted me, “Are you having a hard time this Christmas?” Yep, as painful as it was to admit to her, it was more painful to hide the truth.

So I struggle with depression from time to time. Most of the time the onset has something to do with earning a living and the joy or panic around my employment. And today, I’m with a person who can embrace all of my flavors, and while she’s not enthusiastic about my quietudes, she is very clear that she is sticking with me, through thick and thin. She’s much better at the thin times then I am.

That’s the person I feel I really am. The UP person who’s trying to express myself in music, writing, and singing.

So moving forward, my challenge is to understand that I cycle. Is it bipolar? I don’t know, I think Bradley Cooper did us all a service by demonstrating the warped highs and lows of that variation of depression, but I’m not sure it’s that helpful a diagnosis. See, when I’m down my entire life suffers. When I’m UP, or HAPPY, or ENTHUSIASTIC, my life feels and looks as if everything it going well.

Well, what if the UPSIDE is merely my life going well. I have not spun off in a manic mode (out of control euphoria) since I did drugs in my high school days. My “highs” these days are really what I consider my full, creative, and activated self. Does this mean I’m cycling UP? Or that I’m getting hypo-manic? (Hypo, meaning just below the destructive mania.) I don’t think so. My meds doctor is not all that convinced that the label is very helpful in treating me.

So I get LOW. Those are the times I need the most help. When I’m UP I’m usually plugging along quite nicely. That’s the person I feel I really am. The UP person who’s trying to express myself in music, writing, and singing. It’s the ME that I believe my current fiance fell in love with. And thank goodness it was good enough to hook her heart to me before I took my first nose dive during our relationship.

And that’s the part that I have to work to repair. I do not need to jettison everything in my life when I start having a LOW period. And if I can hold on to the tiny hopes: 1. that my mate will stand beside me through the storm; 2. that the storm will pass; 3. that joy will return to my life.

But the message I need to keep repeating, even in the good times, is THE JOY WILL RETURN. If I can leverage that into some measure of hopefulness, then I am well along my path of recovery.

As we move forward as a family, I am certain I will have difficult times again. But now I’m going to counsel myself, and encourage my family to reflect back to me, with this truth: the LOW passes. If I can work to reduce collateral damage while I’m suffering from this brain flu, I will do everyone, including myself, a favor.

To that’s it. The hope is in the future moderation and mitigation of the LOW. To deny that it will happen again, or get overly cocky and optimistic about my happy times, is to open myself to the blindspot that is my depression.

But the message I need to keep repeating, even in the good times, is THE JOY WILL RETURN. If I can leverage that into some measure of hopefulness, then I am well along my path of recovery. I don’t have to aim for joy when I am activated and functioning properly. I do need to remember before, during, and after my LOW that I recover. I return fully and joyfully to my life. Forever and ever, amen.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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Thinking About Doing It: Depression and Creativity

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Yesterday I got a crash course in doing verses thinking about doing. Over the holidays I acquired a road bike and yesterday I took it out for a spin. In the first five minutes I was exhausted. Yes, I live in a hilly neighborhood, and yes I have not climbed a hill on a bike in quite some time, but I was a bit disappointed. And then I laughed. Wanting, thinking about, and looking at the bike was not the same as getting on the bike and riding. The idea of getting fit and being able to keep up with my fiance on the bike are nice ideas, but none of them happen in the “thinking about doing” realm.

When I actually had to explain to a friend, or therapist what was going on in my mind, I was often at a loss for words.

Over the last few months I have been quiet, trying to re-calibrate my brain. It was an enforced “time out,” that set me back on my plans and dreams a bit. And today I’m in the process of rebuilding the momentum I had before I slipped into a self-inflicted holiday depression. There was way too much thinking going on. Thinking that was not productive or positive in any way. And I listened and was partially paralyzed by the onslaught of chemicals that have been wired up to respond to such thoughts with much anxious energy and restlessness.

Really the answer to some of my issues would have been JUST DO IT, if I could have gotten there. But I simply didn’t have it. It’s not that I suddenly got lazy or started sleeping in. But some part of my mental-physical complex structure got out of balance and I stressed myself into paralysis. And when the adrenaline and cortisol start flowing, there’s a pattern that emerges. I hibernate. I hide. I run from problems that would be much easier to “just do,” but I can’t.

Again, thinking about doing something, is not the same as doing it. When I actually had to explain to a friend, or therapist what was going on in my mind, I was often at a loss for words. What I was staying out loud suddenly sounded so silly. The ideas that were ruminating around in my mind with vicious ferocity seemed so bizarre when I tried to articulate what I was thinking. And when I tried to explain why I wasn’t doing something I knew I should do, I only had one phrase, “I don’t know.”

I’m coming out of my illness and beginning to feel my hopefulness again. But I’m not able to climb a quarter-mile hill right out of the gate, my first five minutes on a bike. It takes some time to build up to that. My friend who sold me his used bike said, “Start out in the flats, build up to it.”

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Some of my depression is simply absurd. Some of my coping mechanisms are dysfunctional. And still I do them.

Some of you may know I’m writing a TV series from the “divorce” writings and struggles of a single dad. And today I’m planning, strategizing, and imagining the third (and finally perfect) version of my script. But I’m not writing it. I seem to think there is more planning to get done before I jump back it. But I’m pretty sure, I’m just scared.

Putting my butt in the chair and opening the script editor is the only way to make progress. Yes, I have a collaborative partner who has been hard to get a hold of, but there are plenty of scenes I can write without his next input. But I’d rather imagine it.

Sort of like my depression. I could imagine all these things happening. But when I actually had to talk about, to put it out there, it suddenly seemed absurd. Some of my depression is simply absurd. Some of my coping mechanisms are dysfunctional. And still I do them. I hide, withdraw, isolate, even when I know this is the opposite of what I need.

I want to be fit and healthy. But I’d rather read about it, that do it. It’s easier to join a gym then it is to actually show up. Sure the roads around my house are hilly, but that’s why I walk them. A lot.

To give myself a short pat on the back, I did continue to go out the front door and climb the hills around my house even when I didn’t “feel” like it. And even the “flat” walks have a substantial number of hills in them. Thinking about it now, I can recall times when walking up the hill I wanted to ride up yesterday that I felt how tired I was.

I am getting on the bike again. I am blogging again. I am writing the script this afternoon when I get home from work. It’s a matter of taking steps. Steps that can only be taken by stepping out the front door and actually engaging in the physical or creative process.

I love to dream about my TV series. It’s harder to simply keep writing it.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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image: the black cat of my depression knows I’m just not doing it, cc 2016, john mcelhenney, creative commons usage

Artists In Love, Parenting, and Divorce

WHOLE-withguitar

Preamble

Since an early age I have been able to express my love for others in a very open and direct way. And in my second marriage I learned, as things were falling apart, just how much of “that loving feeling” I was generating on my own. I thought I understood what it meant to be loved by someone, but I hadn’t really experienced it since the death of my older sister. I was manufacturing most of the warmth and connectivity in my family. Sure, I could tell my then-wife loved our kids and loved me, but it was a strained expression of love, not an open and on-going expression.

We loved our kids, that was obvious. Everything we did hinged around their wellbeing. But in that process of giving ourselves over to parenting, we pulled back from each other.

Of course, I hadn’t gotten the frame of the Love Languages yet. As I went down the dark rabbit hole of depression after the divorce I was lucky enough to join a recovery group. Over the course of ten weeks I met on Thursday nights with 15 other men and women going through the same process of letting go, rediscovering, and rebuilding. And in that class I learned a new language of communication as well. I learned about how to be in a relationship in the present moment, and let go of the expectations of what was to come. As I excavated the relationship in this group to examine what had gone wrong, a distinct picture emerged of our different creative responses and reactions to the stress of becoming parents.

Becoming Parents

See, when you have kids everything changes. Our young relationship was transformed by the mysterious and sacred event. And there was an urgent and searing love that burned away all of our doubt and differences as we came together as parents. But somehow it still wasn’t a loving relationship between us. We loved each other, but only one of us really knew how to express it.

Over the course of the next 9 years or so we drifted into more of a partnership than a loving relationship. It was not a dramatic shift, it was a gradual wearing down of our mutual adoration. I kept punching through with outpourings of love and affection, but over time the glow that was created was overwhelmed by the stress and weight of the routine of being parents. Parents who were both working hard to keep their own emotional lives together while still maintaining a warm and supportive home for our two growing children.

We loved our kids, that was obvious. Everything we did hinged around their wellbeing. But in that process of giving ourselves over to parenting, we pulled back from each other. And I’d be deluded if I tried to put the blame squarely on her shoulders. We had both wanted children. We both wanted to continue on our paths as creative adults. But we were also struggling with unmet expectations about how things would be once we achieved the goal: Two kids, a nice house, a few pets, and …

We dealt with the reality of life not quite working out the way we envisioned in different ways. She went jogging around the neighborhood. I went into my music studio. And together we negotiated our chores and kid duties. All the while we were good at celebrating our children. The milestones flew by as they moved from pre-k to “big kid school.” But while they were thriving, somehow our relationship to one another was not.

Parenting Demands a New Approach

The kids had become our relationship. And our own journeys turned inward rather than towards one another.

Little by little I began working in my studio more at night after the kids went to bed. Somewhere deep inside I believed that my craft would eventually provide for some relief from the hard times. But I was also moving away from her in ways that would only become clear much later. Our creative lives either find new outlets once we have children or we become frustrated artists. I dove into my music as a way to connect to my own inner passion and creative drive. And even as I became more energetic and hopeful, my then-wife became less so. I’m not sure if it was the lack of creative joy in her life, but I do know that’s how we met each other, full of joy and art. Our weekend routine before kids had become a series of check-ins around our studio time.

In the transformation of becoming parents we both changed. While the joy and fascination around the kids was the center of our lives all was well. The kids fulfilled some part of our creative souls in a deep way. And for a while, the children became our joint art project. But over time, they became a bit more autonomous, and the reality of the mundane set in again. Chores and bills and shuttling little friends everywhere causes additional strain that can wear on the most solid of relationships. In our transition from uber-connected-new-parents to parents-who-are-once-again-looking-for-their-own-path-in-life we lost the fascination and adoration between us. The kids had become our relationship. And our own journeys turned inward rather than towards one another.

Perhaps, I could’ve fought more for the marriage and demanded, in a masculine way, for her love and passion to return. I could’ve stood in more with the chores and tried to meet more of her demands for help. I’m sure there are things I could’ve done differently and better, but I’m not clear that my efforts to become a better husband would’ve healed the imbalance that seemed more fundamental. I’m not sure I could’ve woken up her inner artist again.

While the creative kernel continued to burn inside of me, I spent more and more time in the music studio after the kids went to sleep. There was even a good bit of my output that I fashioned into love songs and poems meant to rekindle, or at least affirm my love for this wonderful woman. Something between us had broken. She would point at my “lack of responsibility” for the reason she was angry a lot of the time. She would say the house was too dirty, or the money in the bank account was insufficient for her to relax. But somewhere in there, she had dropped her own creative song, and had begun to resent mine.

The Artist’s Journey is a Solo Path

My music became a symbol of the disconnect between us. What drew her in during our courtship, became something she fought against. My songs fell on deaf ears. My music seemed to represent for her why we didn’t have the money that would’ve allowed us to be more comfortable. But I think the real struggle was more internal for her. Her own art had transformed and thrived for a while around the birth of the kids, for a while her own internal song had not been silent. Somewhere along the path towards becoming a mom she reoriented her life exclusively around parenting.

When this played out in my marriage, my survival as an artist appeared to come (at least to my then-wife) at the expense of being a responsible father.

When the kids began to gain more momentum out and away from the two of us our closeness began to separate as well. As they grew and developed passions and interests of their own, perhaps she failed to rekindle the creative love inside herself. That was also the part of her that I fell in love with. As I was sputtering and struggling as a parent AND and as an artist, she was alone without her craft, and in some ways without me. She was focused on all the practical things. She began to see my creative endeavors as threatening rather than supportive. She wasn’t interested in the love poems I was writing. My childish creative spirit that had enraptured her early on became a symbol of my immaturity.

As artists we experience life as part of our creative path. Our outputs enhance and celebrate our ups and downs. Our creative voices can begin to get trapped under the rough business of bills, health insurance, and mortgage payments. The process of becoming parents turns up the intensity. Part of the artist’s struggle is how to continue finding time, and more importantly energy, to stay with it. Many parents drop their artistic ambitions in favor of their children’s wants and needs. When this played out in my marriage, my survival as an artist appeared to come (at least to my then-wife) at the expense of being a responsible father. The struggle became both internal (my energy and vision) and external (a threat to my marriage).

The fracture and collapse of my marriage ultimately became the emotional firestorm that uncorked my artistic voice. In my own individual struggle to survive, I found my release through writing. After the divorce, as I thrashed and fell apart during the months following my separation, I wrote to make sense of what was happening. And now, over six years later, even as the writing matures, the music and songs are beginning to come back as well.

An artist struggles through all of life’s conditions and requirements just like everyone else, but they tend to leave behind a story, or song, or image. This is my magnum opus.

My hope is that my song is not about divorce and trouble, but love and creative passion. As both of us struggled under the amazingly complex and overwhelming changes in our lives, I turned towards my craft as a way to cope, to organize my feelings and thoughts, and explore both the happy and sad parts of the journey. As the journey continues, my voice grows stronger here on the blog and in other areas of my life. As an artist, the crushing blow of the divorce stripped the band-aid off the pain I had been trying to express.

Today, my creative discipline and output has become an integrated expression of who I am. This song I sing becomes more of how I present myself in the world. My music and writing sets a creative example for my children as they pursue their dreams. I’ve shown them how it looks to recover from setbacks and disappointments.

This artistic me is the foundation of my new relationship as well. This time I am more confident and self-assured. I believe it was this confidence that allowed me to attract a mutually compassionate person to express and receive love and adoration with a similar playful and creative flair. In finding my deeper creative voice, I’ve also called in a partner who glows, and pings, and hums with her own distinct yet familiar buzz. Together we resonate and reflect back even more energy.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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image: on stage, kristy duff wallace, used by permission

The Spiritual Quest for Love

WHOLE-heart

On the spiritual path, there’s nothing to get, and everything to get rid of. . . . The first thing to let go of is trying to get love, and instead to give it. That’s the secret of the spiritual path.

—Ayya Khema, “What Love Is”

When you are alone, everything in your world is colored by your own internal thoughts and feelings.

In the company of friends I talk a lot about how I met my sweet woman. We both talk about how “the time was right” for both of us. And how “the stars or gods aligned in our favor.” And to be sure, we are both very prayerful and thankful people. And each morning when we wake up together there is a lot of gratitude between us, for us, about us. And there’s more. There’s another element that came first, that bonded us in a way that no previous relationship or marriage had done before, for either of us.

Spiritual and Kinda Religious

When you are alone, everything in your world is colored by your own internal thoughts and feelings. And your strategies and prayers are your own alone. When you join with another person, you’re songs and prayers add a “together” element that I believe is transformative. But let’s take a few steps back and explore what made our meeting so timely and so connective, what was the through-line that was so strong between us even before we met for our first date.

Seeking, Longing, Looking for Love

When there is an absence of love in your life, for many of us, it is like a missing piece of our soul. The term “empath” has been getting a lot of play lately, in describing people who feel into others empathetically. And what I’m well aware of about myself is: in the absence of a love relationship my experience of joy, passion, and elation is greatly diminished. I glow more brightly when I have another person to resonate with. So in my seeking, post-divorce, I have been looking for a resonance in both physical and spiritual terms.

Eventually I hit on the accurate dating profile: Desires a LTR and someone who is actively pursuing their own dream, project, agenda. I was clear, I was not all that interested in “dating.”

So you set out on your noble quest to find a new relationship. In my case I set up profiles on a few of the online dating sites. (eHarmony – nope, give me the ability to browse people, don’t tell me who you think I match with; Match.com – a bit better, larger audience, fairly interesting profiles, and you pay, so you’re looking for something; OK Cupid – my favorite site, because of the random and often revealing questions, it’s free, and has a lot of people who are just playing around, not looking for a relationship.)

And for the record, I had a few dates via Match and OK that were interesting. I learned several things about myself in my first rush at “getting back in the game.”

  • I was not interested in casual sex.
  • I was not able to feign interest when the person was boring.
  • A lot of profiles (pictures and stories) are outright fabrications.
  • A lot of people are playing on dating sites, but have no intention of dating.

I had some interesting insights in filling out my several profiles. Eventually I hit on one that seemed to attract the right mix of women. Interest in a LTR and actively pursuing their own dream, project, agenda. I was clear, I was not all that interested in “dating.”

Dating to me means several things:

  • Actively in pursuit
  • Not looking for commitment
  • More interested in entertainment
  • Drinking was part of the focus for 90% of the daters
  • Interested in lots of dates, lots of entertainment, maybe playing the field

And the first real relationship I had was from Match.com. The first contact was from her to me. (Very rare.) When I was non-responsive, she followed up with a second email that said, “Hey, I was looking at your profile wondering why I we hadn’t gone out on a date yet and then I realized, hey, this guy didn’t respond to my email. So I thought I’d ask, ‘What’s the deal? Is there something wrong with my picture or profile?'”

And this first relationship changed everything and eventually set me up for success later down the path. Girlfriend #1 was a tiny bit older, wiser, and a few more years down the road of the post-divorce routine. But most importantly, she shared the same love language: touch. BOOM, a light went off during our first week together.

As I reignited with the proximity of her physical affection and began to find my inner joy again, I began to look beyond the present moment and into what relationship goals I had, beyond her.

In two marriages combining into 17 years, I had never felt as adored and loved as I did with this woman. She easily engaged in hugging, holding hands, and other physical signs of affection. And just like me, she reach out for that touch *all the time.* And she was also comfortable expressing her affection verbally. She would just tell me, “You are so damn cute.” Like, out of the blue. And every time I heard it, I was surprised. “Me?” And the real surprising part was how infrequently I heard that during the entire course of my two marriages. Touch is language number one, but words of affection also play a strong role in my constellation of what “feels like love.”

The Nearest Miss

There was one missing ingredient for me in this first relationship. Something that didn’t immediately click. And since we had both been through a divorce recovery class, we had a label for what had happened. And she even predicted this outcome in that first amazing week at the beginning.

“I may be the healing relationship for you, and that’s okay,” she said. “I’ve had mine, and I know what I’m looking for. And I’m okay if this is just a crush. Let’s see where things go and not get too far ahead of just being together.”

She was right. As I reignited with the proximity of her physical affection and began to find my inner joy again, I began to look beyond the present moment and into what relationship goals I had, beyond her. In the moments between Christmas and New Year’s Day, we found the space to separate without a whimper. We both knew it wasn’t *the one.* And we were both committed to finding *the one.” And with that, we also wanted each other to have the best relationship for them. We had breakfast the morning after we “broke up.” I remember a few tiny tears, but mainly the big realization at how much I loved her. And when the romantic relationship was out of the way, I could fully feel my adoration of her. We’re still friends, confidants, and virtual wingmen, as we encourage each other, even now, to get what we really want.

Reset and Rebuild

I went through a year after breaking up with her before I ran into my next girlfriend. But the year in the middle involved a lot of rebuilding and remembering what made me happy. On that back porch, with girlfriend #1 she asked me, obviously aware that I was struggling a bit, “What do you look like when you are happy? What kinds of things do you do?” Those two sentences became my mantra over the next year. I hit the online sites again and went out on a few dates, with no real connections. And repeatedly learned that an evening drinking a glass of wine with someone who wasn’t even a near miss was a true waste of an evening. I slowed down my efforts to find my next date.

And I started looking at what things made me happy. I reconnected with my music and started looking for musicians to play with again. I started attending a tennis workout several times a week. And I started a focused walking program in the foothills around my house. I was building the new me. I was determined to become the happy me, the one who would attract the next girlfriend rather than have to go out advertising myself on Match.com.

As I was starting to “feel my oats” in spite of some financial set backs I crossed paths with my next girlfriend: the tennis player. We flamed up and flamed out fairly quickly, but she also taught me a few valuable lessons that made my real relationship so much more obvious when the right woman came along.

I was going to work exclusively on my own program of becoming a better tennis player, a better more confident musician, and a more confident me. I made a fundamental shift away from pursuit and back towards self-work.

With girlfriend #2 we had the physical spark that had been missing in my first relationship. And we had tennis. That was enough to keep a lopsided relationship going for a good bit of the summer. But something was amiss. And this time it was easier to pull back when the signs became more obvious that the “relationship” was something I wanted but she didn’t. I was willing to create 90% of the connection in order to keep playing tennis and keep up the illusion that we were building a relationship. We were not building a relationship. And when I was able to see this, I was also able to say good-bye without anger and to affirm my ability to break up well.

The Turning Point

This second relationship showed me what was missing from the first relationship, and showed me my own blind side of being the over-achieving optimist. I was willing to overlook the dysfunction in the name of relationship. But that’s not how it’s supposed to go. And I knew it wasn’t working out, but I continued a few more cycles of passion-breakup-passion-breakup before I opted out.

And at this point I made a fundamental shift. I was going to take my dating profiles down. I was going to work exclusively on my own program of becoming a better tennis player, a better more confident musician, and a more confident me. I made a fundamental shift away from pursuit and back towards self-work.

My idea was, I wanted to become the person who she would fall in love with. I even wrote a poem to her, before I had any concept of her, almost as a prayer. (SHE IS HERE.)

The interesting part of the equation, the part that must have something to do with a higher power (Or maybe it’s just “timing.”), was how my new girlfriend (fiancée) had been traveling down a very similar post-divorce progression in her life. And we both hit on the “no more playing around at relationship” idea at about the same time.

It turns out we’d been “friends” on Facebook for 5 years. And it turns out, she had noticed me at a party 5 – 6 years earlier and made a note of my disinterest. (This is exactly when I was entering my divorce, so yes, I was unavailable and unapproachable.) And then a few amazing things happened.

  1. I got a Saturday night gig for my band and was working using all of my energy to put on my musician coat of many colors.
  2. This interesting woman “LIKED” my gig announcement on Facebook and began to put out notes about her support of the gig.
  3. She went on a spiritual retreat a few months before the gig and confirmed that her current relationship was not working. She’d been doing the 110% routine as well and was done with the dysfunction.
  4. She took a pre-gig nap and slept right through the gig. (So the eventual meeting was delayed.)
  5. She put up a picture of a fancy bottle of Scotch and celebrated the silliness of her ex-boyfriend and the benefit of giving a gift you wanted for yourself.
  6. I contacted her via Facebook about the post, pointed her to this blog, saying I’d been writing about breakups and dating for a while.
  7. She responded via Facebook with an invitation

Screen Shot 2015-10-11 at 12.10.04 PM

Um… TENNIS?

Turns out I had hipped her to the blog a few weeks earlier. And she was planting the real seed. The road map to my heart had been well documented, at least in theory.

The Spiritual Message:
The first thing to let go of is trying to get love, and instead to give it.

And that’s the moment that we began reframing out future ideas while including some other person in the picture. I had been writing constantly about not dating and going offline, and real-time. I had also been writing almost daily love poems. The poems of desire, I called them. But they were also like a call for someone to answer. Like this fragment from, “burning up in prayer”

Screen Shot 2015-10-11 at 12.16.03 PM

I had also enlightened her to the other blog and somewhere along the way she decided that these poems were painting the outline of her. So she architected the “tennis” message at just the right time.

Timing Is Everything

So, is it timing or god that brings us together at the perfect moment?

I don’t know the answer to that, but I do know this: someone can walk into your life and change everything you’ve ever wanted or imagined you wanted. When that happens you are either prepared for departure and flight or you are not. The first time my sweetheart crossed my path I was in no mood or frame of mind for anything beyond my own sad story. When we crossed paths the second time, she was well prepared with my trigger words and actions. And I was broadcasting on all channels my desire for a partner to step up and be enveloped in my madness.

The wash and rush of our relationship surprised us both, but we accelerated into the good feelings and absence of red flags. There was/is nothing holding us back. There is growth and adventure ahead, but there is mostly our joint willingness to join with and appreciate the other person’s circus. Our prayerful thanksgiving throughout our daily lives together, merely affirms what we feel and hope.

My path was winding and long, but here are the basics.

  1. Learn what you really need in your relationship
  2. Learn what you must jettison from any future relationship
  3. Keep focused on your own life, your own growth, your ripeness
  4. When the moment arrives, be fearless in your commitment to love fully
  5. Stay in the present moment
  6. Listen for and discuss issues as they arise
  7. Celebrate the spiritual and physical connections in your life together
  8. Press ever onward and upward together – limitless

Any divergence from this path is a distraction. If you want the relationship you’ve hungered for, settling for anything less my teach you some valuable lessons, but you eventually have to move on.

I wanted a relationship. I didn’t want to spend time “dating” or trying to impress someone. I wanted a woman to show up in my life fully-formed, fully-empowered, and fully-ready to take off with me. When I was prepared to give myself in the same way, and when I had decided to quit pursuing the dating thing, that’s when I was ready. That’s how we knew were were both ready, we had both been expressing the same desire for the *next* relationship.

Arrived.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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Reference: What Love Is – by Ayya Khema

image: heart with love seeds, epSos.de creative commons usage

10 Things I’ve Learned In the 5 Years Since My Divorce

WHOLE-dapperdad

It’s all about the kids. If you’ve still got a beef with your ex you need to get over it. There’s no point. You might have disagreements about stuff, but those should be handled with the same intensity as a convenience store clerk. “How much for a pumpkin spice latte?” “Four-twenty.” “Great, I’ll take two.” Beyond that, you should get support and counseling elsewhere if you’re still steamed about “issues.

There will issues in the course of parenting children, but the negotiation and consultation should be accomplished without drama or large emotional toll on either one of you. Here’s what I’ve learned.

1. My kids-time is the most important resource I have.

I cannot get enough of them. The divorce gives me less time. But it also gives me the opportunity to be more present when they are with me. I can parent at 110% when my kids are under my roof. And when they are with their mom, I can also offer help, transportation, and regular check-ins. If you can put your kid’s schedules in front of your own, you’ll be doing yourself and them a favor.

2. The nuclear family relationship never ends.

My ex and I have a lot of business to negotiate over the next 5 – 10 years or so. Our kids are 12 and 14, but the obligation to them and to each other doesn’t end at 18. What ever anger or unrest I have about my divorce or about her life, I need to take that up with my therapist, minister, or friends. My ex is struggling with her own issues, her own life, her own navigation of transportation and counseling required by being the parent of young children. Anything I can do to get my “issues” out of the way, I’m going to do it.

3. Take Some Time Off

Your emotional baggage must be cleared before you begin dating again.You can try jumping into a rebound relationship. You can try online dating as an escape from feeling what you’ve lost. You can try serial dating, or casual sex. You can try to jump straight from “family” to “single and dating” but it won’t work in the long run. The issues that caused your marriage to fail are likely to require some self-examination and recalibration. And any anger that you still hold towards your ex is going to come out in current relationships as sideways outbursts. Those moments when you’re furious about something rather trivial. If you’re experiencing anger sparks do your part and “take them outside.”

4. You Are the Project

Once you depart the family unit you’ve got a lot of time and a lot of questions. The time alone is a big gaping hole for a while. You may need support outside your family to get your alone-needs met. The quiet time, alone, is where you begin to remember what kind of activities make you happy. The first woman I dated asked me, “When you are really happy, what does that look like?” I was stumped. I was also clearly unready for a relationship, until I could answer that question. I needed to find my happiness again.

For me those things that fed me before my marriage and during my marriage were writing, playing music, and playing tennis. In the maelstrom of divorce I lost all perspective of what *my life* was going to be about, if not my marriage and kids. But that’s the key question. It’s another chance at resetting your life towards your ultimate goal. Asking yourself, “What is my life about?”

5. The Journey is the Goal

It’s easy to get wrapped up in your single parenting activities. And while you’re feeling the need to be super-parent, and you’re juggling after school activities, and all the other newly single activities, you also need to learn how slow down the pace and enjoy the steps along the journey. For several years I was actively seeking a relationship. I felt I had done the work on myself and I deserved an awesome relationship. I was in a hurry. I thought I wasn’t, I tried to play it cool, but I was striving a bit too much. I would go after second dates with online connections that were obviously not a match. I was running profiles on OK Cupid, Match.com, and Tinder. (Without much luck, btw.)

I was working too hard. I was too earnest as I looked in my date’s eyes for a clue or a spark. I was self-generating romance and potential where there was none. And as I accepted the frustration of my first two relationship attempts, I decided to stop broadcasting my availability. I decided I was NOT GOING TO DATE. And I was really not going to use online dating sites as an excuse for not engaging people in the real world.

The real switch was falling back in love with my life and orienting my “off” time around passion and joy. I was turning things inward and becoming the person I wanted to present to the world. My idea involved becoming the radiant lover I was looking for, and actively not looking for her. Sure, I was writing love poems and broadcasting them elsewhere, but I was determined that I was going to find the next relationship or I was going to be alone, for a bit.

6. Winning is a Team Sport

Things began to go right for me again, after several breakdowns and derailments. And as I was telling my son the other day, “When things go good for me, I can help with other things in your life as well.” I had given him a $150 pair of sunglasses unexpectedly. “And things are good in my life,” I said. “I’m glad,” he responded.

As I lifted out of the muck again, and continued to work on my positive influence, I noticed how things go easier between me and my ex-wife as well. As I was able to offer my help and support in various ways, she was able to relax her vigilance in other ways.

Yes, the best revenge is living well. But the better revenge is everybody living well and giving up the need for revenge.

7. Love Can Awaken and Nourish Your Soul Again

A new relationship arrived out of the blue. And the realignment of my life didn’t take long. In love, so many of life’s other complications fall off the radar. Magically, my ex-wife’s gesticulations became less overwhelming. It wasn’t that they changed. I changed. I began to glow with my own joy. I began to resonate with another person in a way that I wasn’t sure was possible again.

I had been hoping, praying, and working towards finding a *next* relationship. When the relationship showed up, in the real world, I was ready, willing, and able. That the transformation was mutual had more to do with magic, or prayer, or timing. But really, it had to do with my own relationship with myself and my kids. And as I continue to let go of my ex-wife, and continue to release even the frustrating parts of that relationship, I find even more of my livelihood waking up in my new love life. And my kids can see it.

8. The Ultimate Goal

We alone are responsible for our own happiness. And finding that happiness after divorce is a process of recovery. We must recover what was important in our lives before kids, and reset our our path back towards our larger goals. The journey is the goal, but our own happiness results from finding ourselves along the path. And as we bring that happiness back into the lives of everyone around us, we begin to see positive changes in everyone else.

9. Happiness and love are infectious.

10. Always Love.

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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Celebrating 2 Years of Being The Positive Divorce Dad

WHOLE-songwriter

You never leave the family, you just leave the house.

Two years ago I started this journey, finding the Positive in my divorce. My life was changed by the act of trying to reframe everything in a non-adversarial mode. Even when she would be mean, I would never respond in-kind. Ever. Having this blog, this Positive folder to put stories into made me more aware and more conscious of creating love and connection between myself and my kids. And in not riling up their mom, giving all of us an easier life, post-divorce.

As I have continued to weave my Positive Divorce story in the public eye, I have learned many things.

The angst of divorce is our own. The trauma of divorce is held within all of us. If I can behave in ways that support my kids in every interaction, I can remember to be kind, be slow to react, and be thoughtful of our continuous future as a family unit.

Things started two years ago with this post.

dad's gang

A Return to Wholeness After Divorce

There’s no way sugar coat it. Divorce is the single biggest event that has happened in the lives of my family, ever. As amicable as you want to make it (and we tried) things get rough, sad, hurtful, complicated, and confusing. And while we as adults can only fathom that chaos from our own perspectives, the churn in our kid’s lives will shape them forever. I know my parents divorce, and the subsequent loss of my father’s love and influence, had devastating effects on my life. I’m a survivor. I’m here to talk, write, and grow even more from the experience. But it sucked.

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And along the journey to now, I have discovered many things about myself, about my kids, and about this process of divorce and recovery from divorce. The goal, when you separate is to maintain a civil relationship and do what’s best for the kids. It’s a lot easier to say that than it is to actually do it. Your ex will do stuff that baffles your mind. You will want different things. You will do the best you can. And it will be a challenge sometimes, but I learned that when I was able to hold up the positive white flag of surrender, I was able to set the tone for my experience of the divorce.

I also wrote the manifesto for what I was doing. It has been updated several times, but the core mission remains the same.

Becoming The Whole Parent, author, John McElhenney

About Becoming a Whole Parent Again, After Divorce

My unwavering and immutable mission:

1. 100% positive
2. Kids first
3. Honest feelings

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In the second month I met Arianna Huffington at a tech conference. When she gave out her email and asked for ideas I was typing the message and including my post from earlier that morning.  All Available Light: Positive Parenting Energy Is Never Lost. I think that post really turned a corner for me. I was hitting stride and developing a different voice that would grow stronger the more I wrote. Arianna emailed me back within hours and I became a HuffPo blogger. See my archive: John McElhenney on the Huffington Post.

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It was at this point, a good three years into my divorce journey that I hit on my home run post. (Still getting the most reads of any page on my blog.)

What A Single Dad Wants In the *Next* Relationship

Rules for dating a single dad. (I’ve got two kids and a full-time job, but I’d still like to find time to be with someone.)

  1. Let’s not rush into things.
  2. I’m Looking for 100% Pure Connection
  3. I’m Into Moms

There’s more, but you can read it in the post.

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And next was the 2nd post divorce relationship and first experience with navigating another person’s resistance and dysfunction. All the while, learning to let it go, take it easy, and keep my focus on the present moment and not wondering and worrying about where we were going.

Screen Shot 2014-04-23 at 7.55.42 AMLearning About Sex and Dating As We Go Along

Dating is not marriage. In fact, dating (which I admittedly don’t know much about) can be shut down by getting too serious or too future-plans oriented. As my schedule and future is quite flexible, I was surprised how quickly my “relationship” concepts changed yesterday when confronted with a challenging dilemma. On one hand I had met and “dated” an amazing woman. One the other she was telling me how our closeness and chemistry was freaking her out.

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And then I was able to open up a bit about post-divorce depression, which is common for us empaths.

WHOLE-thekissHow Long Will it Hurt? Divorce Recovery, the Road Back to Happiness

Today, over four years after my divorce was finalized, I was still struck by a pang of sadness as I was dropping my kids bags off at my ex-wife’s house, the old house, our old house. I wondered, “How long will it take before I feel nothing?” But I immediately knew the answer. I will always feel a loss when dropping my kids bags off at my old house. The rest, what I do with those feelings, is up to me.

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Everything seemed to fall into place after I wrote this important post.

WHOLE-prayerPrayer for Single Parents, and My Ex

“I wish you happiness in your new life, I always want to see you shine, you are the other half, the partner in this parenting journey we accepted together. Your joy is joy for our kids. Your peace is their peace, and mine. As we walk separate paths we are blameless and grateful for the gifts we’ve been given. And to you, my dear ex, I give the deepest respect and love. Thank you for where we’ve been, where we are, and where we are going, still a family, still parents, still blessed.”

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And from that point on, this blog became as much about relationship building and dating as it was about divorce and difficulties. Rounding the 5th year after divorce, things began to change for me.

I was invited to do a few interviews:

I began to identify my core relationship needs and decided drop online dating as distraction. I put the intention out there for what I wanted, and started working on myself and my joy rather than pursuing a relationship.

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I wrote The Deep Space Divorce Saga which began with

My Little Rocket Ship of Hope and Love WHOLE-rocketship

I am hilariously ashamed, and… Laughing at my situation, because if I didn’t laugh at it, I’m sure I’d be freaking out, depressed, or drinking. Something to escape my current grounded state. Ready to laugh? Me too.

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And it was right at this time, January of 2015, that an amazing woman showed up in my life and changed everything.

May I Fall In Love With You?

Do you long for the intoxication of love again, like me? I can feel it in my bones, growing stronger daily, as I grow stronger and more confident. And the more clear I get about 100% or nothing, the easier it is to make decisions about my time and efforts. Dating and a relationship will be a core part of my life again. Today, not so much.

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The new non-dating attitude and honest reinvention of myself had called in the perfect woman. I could not have known it at the outset, in January, when I wrote the post above, but within several months there was an entirely different thread being woven on this blog.

whole-bw-coupleAn Amazing Thing Has Happened

She arrived in my life in January of this year.

In February of this year my life fell apart, due to my own emotional tides and I slipped into a depression. I did not see it coming. I was on top of the world, and boom, I was freaking the hell out. And then the most amazing thing happened. She stayed close and connected.

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And the rest, as they say…

Thank you for staying on this journey with me. The outpouring of love and support has been vital at times. My positive attitude continues to get stronger and project itself into other’s lives, through this writing. I am learning. I am growing. And I hope, I am becoming a better father, ex-husband, and lover. Let’s see where we go from here.

I think my latest post shows a continuing search for meaning in all of this love stuff. And I’m very excited to be back on that path again. This time for good.

WHOLE-runner

The Care and Feeding of Your Lover

Pray for your lover’s health and happiness, then let go and let them pursue it however it best suits them in the moment.

 

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Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

Note on the intention behind this post and this blog: Yes, divorce is hard. Trying to whitewash every single detail of a co-parenting relationship in some fantasy land haze would be of benefit to none of us. I am committed to owning my part in the divorce, always. And I am hopefully clear on my self-awareness when it comes to my own struggles with money, depression, communication breakdowns, and disagreements with my ex-wife. What I hope, is that this post doesn’t come across as a humblebrag, but as a celebration of the progress I’ve made in navigating the last two years of being a single parent and co-parent. I always appreciate comments and feedback.

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