The Present and Future Perfect Planning In Your Relationship

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We’ve all got stress. We’ve all got moments, Friday afternoons are a great example, when the breaking point is reached, and if we’re lucky, the weekend is ready to open up before us. Ah, the WEEKEND. A time to cut loose, rest, rebuild ourselves and our love lives, and … And then we still find time and need to be distracted. Taken off point. Unplugged from our goals, plans, work, whatever.

I pull my headphones on, engage the noise-canceling function and boom, I’m in a moment of zen, right in my living room. Turns out, sometimes, I’m just looking to be distracted. Even the good things (okay, the great things) are often stressful.

She has a different type of creativity. Her’s is for dreaming up what’s next and then making the dream a reality.

And recently there have been too many good things to even list. But I can tell you the biggest impact has been the woman of my dreams showing up. And even in that blissful honeymoon-ish state, I still need time to disconnect. I guess we call it “alone time,” but sometimes it is just isolation time for me.

Isolation is a funny thing. I can be Facebooking like made, reading 5 articles on 5 tabs in my browser, and taking notes for new post, and I feel like I’m really connected, alive, multitasking. But, if I’m honest, I can see how my social media passion is also an escape from the present.

I was having a similar discussion with my new significant other about the concepts of backwards and forwards time, I first encountered in Time and the Art of Living. Here’s my basic paraphrase.

1. Present Moment. What we’re all striving to stay focused on. Meditation. Awareness. Conscious sex. Honest conversations. Listening. Hitting flow. Whatever you want to call it.

2. Thoughts about the future.

3. Memories of the past.

While I do think that keeping our attention on the present moment is a very powerful tool, there are times when these two other modes of time can be helpful and illuminating as well.

As I was chatting with my woman about the house we are buying next month, and she was working on a lot of details. She was measuring the rooms and comparing them with our current house. “Do you know we’ll have half a foot more width and length in our new house?” she asked, excitedly. At first I was thinking she was over thinking it, and then I remembered this concept of future time.

When we project ourselves into the future, it can be a wonderful exercise. We can begin to set goals and ideas for what we want, what we are looking forward to in the new experience. Setting up a framework for the future plans. And sometimes the projections in themselves can be lovely moments. As I leaned into the dream with my future wife, I enjoyed hearing about her fantasies regarding the new house.

“We can have romantic evenings in front of the fireplace.” And of course, we will. But in this very moment, projecting our ideas,  we could go there together. And everything, absolutely everything could be perfect in our minds. And this positive projecting can have bonding and energizing effects on us. We can find motivation and inspiration for what needs to be done to create the perfect moment we visualized.

And certainly we will live in this new house together. And certainly we will enjoy a glass of wine in front of the fire place. And it’s not as if the longing for that future moment causes us to miss out on some experience of the present moment. Actually, in projecting ourselves into this future-perfect moment we are creating an image of reality that we can actively create. (Did I get too woowoo on you there?) Let me give you a quote from the book.

Fast drivers can see no further than slow drivers, but they must look further down the road to time their reactions safely. Similarly, people with great projects afoot habitually look further and more clearly into the future than people who are mired in day-to-day concerns. These former control the future because by necessity they must project themselves into it; and the upshot is, that like ambitions settlers, they stake out larger plots and homesteads of time than the rest of us. The do not easily grow sad or old; they are seldom intimidated by the alarms and confusions of the present because they have something greater of their own, some sense of their large and coherent motion in time, to compare the present with. – Robert Grudin.

So it is this projection of a great project (in this case the house – and perhaps the house of our relationship) that I am willing to indulge in with my sweet woman. And together we can map out some ideas about what we want to create, not just physically, but emotionally as well.

A relationship is a lot like this. You state ideas and dreams to see if the other person resonates and lights up. Like a trial balloon.

“Wow, this cold night feels like New York City,” I said, some months ago.

“Do you want to go to New York City together?” she asked, clutching my arm against the wind and splinters of mist.

“Yes, that would be awesome. To walk the streets together. Like this.”

We’ve been taking wild flights of fancy into our imaginary future relationship as we give voice to various whimsical and fantastical ideas.

And with that she took several steps over the next week to book a trip together. This was still pretty early on in our relationship. WOW. I remember thinking, “What the heck? New York, so soon?” And what I learned was, she likes to set plans in motion, she likes to have events or travels to look forward to. Almost like my big ideas that pull me along. She has a different type of creativity. Her’s is for dreaming up what’s next and then making the dream a reality.

And here we are. Leaning forward into the next chapter together.

We have both been floating ideas and catching them as the other person tries out a together-dream. The two of us have found very little resistance, and thus the connection and commitment, which might freak some people out, has seemed right and natural. We still ask each other, as we ask ourselves internally, “Are we moving too fast?” The resounding answer is always the same.

“No. And I love you.”

That’s been the path. Present moment work staying focused on our jobs, our projects, my kids (for me), and we’ve allowed the future to unfold before us. Yet, at the same time we’ve been taking wild flights of fancy into our imaginary future relationship as we give voice to various whimsical and fantastical ideas.

Stay focused in the present moment, but do allow yourself to dream and project into the future with your partner. Opening those doors of dreaming together has been a gateway of power for us. So far… We’re batting 100%! Let’s keep heading in that direction.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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Divorcing with Kids: The Golden Rule – It’s About Time Not Money

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[Disclaimer: I am not a divorce attorney or a licensed therapist. The information I provide is my own story and my own experience of divorce. Please consult professionals if you need help negotiating your divorce or parenting plan. I am also not a men’s rights advocate. I believe in equal parenting roles as they best serve the children.]

Divorce was the biggest disruption and reset of my entire life. And because we had kids, I knew the way we handled the separation and business of divorce was going to be of critical importance to them. My Dad’s departure from the scene in my 3rd to 5th grade years, changed everything about my life.

Even though a lot of the divorce process is about money, the focus should really be on the time.

I remember the moment I learned that my then-wife had been to consult with an attorney. I called my long-time mentor and sometimes therapist and asked how soon he could see me. Within hours I was in his office sobbing. It was clear as I began talking about what was happening that I was grieving as a 7 year-old boy. I was crying for the sadness inside me that was really about *my* parent’s divorce.  I could still feel the broken heart as if I was reliving it.

My concern, going into the divorce was how to protect my kids from experiencing the disruption that had blown through all of my childhood family dreams. Later that evening I argued with my then-wife about her request that I simply leave the house. “We can tell them you’re going on a business trip, or something,” she’d said, earlier in the therapy. She said she needed a break from the intensity.

It was April. Our kids were in 3rd and 5th grade, two months from completing the year. I flat-out refused. Even as the therapist was telling us he thought we could use some time apart, I disagreed.

“The divorce is going to take a while to figure out,” I demanded. “We’ve been living as roommates for some time. We can make another 6 to 7 weeks until school is out. I’m not disrupting their school year because you want a break.”

It was a very hard close of the school year, but I am proud I stuck to my guns and stayed in the house. Sure, my kids were aware that things weren’t great, but they didn’t have the ground torn out from underneath them either.

I lost over 65% of my kid-time because I was “given” the SPO and the non-custodial parent role.

As we went into the negotiations around separating our two lives, we did a good job keeping the “best interest of the kids” ahead of our own. We paid money to an expensive and fantastic therapist who made her living helping couples build amicable parenting plans to guide the next 5  to 10 years of their kid’s lives. We paid to meet with a divorce accountant who modeled the various scenarios. (She keeps the house. You keep the house. You sell the house.) We did everything right, as far as we could tell.

In this process, I was grieving as we went along. I even caused a pause in the process when the parenting-plan therapist learned that I didn’t want to go through with the divorce. We took and extra week, and a few sessions to see what that might look like, if we didn’t get a divorce. I was trusting in the team we had hired and in my still-wife’s good intentions towards the kids. Everything was about the kids.

Even though a lot of the divorce process is about money, the focus should really be on the time. As I was trying to be the compliant good dad, good guy, good divorcing man, I began to compromise on some of the items I had come to the negotiations with. And as my then-wife was focused and clear on her desires (custodial parent, house, child support) I was a bit disoriented. My only expressed desire was 50/50 custody and 50/50 parenting.

The problem was, even the cooperative therapist began to tell me I should settle for what she wanted. And at that time, six years ago, in the state of Texas, she was accurate when she said, “That’s what she will get if you go to court. She knows that. So let’s just start with things we can negotiate.”

Even as I was clear and determined to have a low conflict divorce, and to get as much time as possible with my kids, I was a bit misled by our counselor. It was 50% of my money that we were paying her to stay out of the courts. And she quickly sold me into the bad deal that is offered as the typical divorce in the state of Texas. (And likely in your state.) The phrase Standard Possession Order becomes the law of the land, and in our case, I was asked to accept that *very* unbalanced arrangement so we could move on to the schedule and the money.

The money will come and bite you in the butt if you don’t pay attention, but it was the kids and time with the kids that I was most interested in. And within a few weeks I my 50/50 schedule ideas were tossed out.

You may, in fact, have to sue to get what you want. But if what you want is to be present with your kids as much as possible, you should go for it.

Now, five/six years later, I can tell you this: If you want 50/50 parenting, go for it. Sure, you may have the odds against you, depending on your state and your case, but if that’s how you parented, I think that’s how you should parent after divorce. The old concept that the mom is more essential to keeping the kids happy, simply doesn’t hold true. The attorney I talked to recently about renegotiating my divorce arrangement said, “If you go in looking for 50/50 parenting, and have some reasonable evidence to support your ability to parent, we’re liable to win.”

The tides have shifted somewhat. I believe you will most likely be offered the simple deal. And for some more traditional marriages, the non-custodial/custodial parent plan works. But for the dads who are 100% into their role as DAD as well as their role as breadwinner, I believe the effort well worth it.

I lost over 65% of my kid-time because I was “given” the SPO and the non-custodial parent role. I also ended up paying more than I should’ve, because the theoretical job didn’t materialize to support the decree. By that time, the only option was to sue my ex-wife for a different arrangement, or different financial terms. 1. I didn’t have the money to fight; and 2. I didn’t want to sue anyone, much less the mother of my kids.

You may, in fact, have to sue to get what you want. But if what you want is to be present with your kids as much as possible, you should go for it. I didn’t have the choice, based on the people I put trust in and the system that was setup years ago in favor of the mother. And my regrets are few overall, but with hindsight today, if I knew how much I was giving up, I would have fought for the TIME. The money, even as unbalanced as it was, was less of an issue.

If you put your kids first you may need to fight to get what you want. And by putting your kids first, sometimes you may have to fight their mom. But to be the best dad you can be, you have to be there, you have to spend time with your kids. All of that time that was taken away is now water under the bridge, but today it’s much more clear for me. I take every offer to have the kids an extra night, or to support my ex when she has to work late.

Time is the number one parenting resource.

Stay positive. Love your kids. Respect your ex.

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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The Third Glass is an Anti-Aphrodisiac for Me

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A wine rack does not an alcoholic make, a wine lover does not a problem reveal, drinking is not the devil’s work, prohibition has never solved anything.

I’ll admit, drinking from time to time is fun. Last night for example, we had a round of margaritas at a nice restaurant. And the happy hour appetizers made the accidental outing more like dinner than the spontaneous happy hour it actually was. And as I was the driver, I waved off the second round for me as I was nodding for my sweetheart to have another. It was a warm fuzzy of an evening at that point. All sparkle ponies and grinning selfies from the comfy couch.

We were both feeling fine when we left before the real dinner crowd arrived. We’d missed the major 5 o’clock traffic jam and arrived home in 20 minutes. In the kitchen we discussed what movie or show we were going to watch.

“Well, I think we’re going to need a short format show,” I said, as she poured a glass of wine. Sure there was a moment of disappointment as I acknowledged her eventual departure, but I was okay with the idea. I had things I could do after she fell asleep.

“I want to be able to remember these great moments too. I want to be present for the love we’re sharing at all times.”

And that’s really part of the deal. If the third glass becomes routine we will be spending a lot less quality time, lovey dovey time in bed, a lot less deep explorations of our thoughts, aspirations, and plans. When the third glass enters the equation I begin to clamp down on the inspired discussions about plans, hopes, and dreams. There’s some pause on my part, when the smooth and slippery tone enters her voice. It’s cute. I’m not angry about it. I just begin to plan what else I’m going to do after she falls asleep.

The night before, as she put her empty wine glass on the kitchen table, saying, “Might leave this out for a bit more.” We smiled at each other as we did the dishes and generally cleaned up the kitchen together.

As we were down to the finishing bits I picked up the empty wine glass and said, “Would you like me to wash this?” I smiled. I was not being passive aggressive, she knew exactly what I was asking. She picked up the glass, smiled at me and proceeded to fill it with ice chips. Both options were still available to her. She poured the glass full of bubbly water. A new smile crossed her face. The smile that acknowledged that she would rather stay close, connected, and beside me for the night.

“Because I’m fine either way,” I said, before she had decided. “It’s just that if your going to have another one you’ll probably be pretty sleepy. Maybe we’ll skip the show all together.”

Her decision was towards me. Later in bed we talked a bit more about it.

“I hope my hint wasn’t to over the top or irritating to you,” I said.

“No, it’s good. I want to stay close. You’re a good influence on me.”

“I just don’t want you to miss a minute of this live between us. I’m so enthralled and in love that any distraction takes me away from being 100% aware and present for you.”

“I don’t want to miss any of you either.”

“So I didn’t hurt your feelings?” I asked, reaching out to take her hand. I wanted to get this moment crystal clear between us.

“Nope,” she said. “I want to be able to remember these great moments too. I want to be present for the love we’re sharing at all times.”

“Well, not all times,” I said. “It’s okay to imbibe a bit. It’s even okay to go for glass four and five if that’s what you want to do.”

“I like that you don’t really drink that much. It makes me more conscious of my drinking. And I know less is better for me, and better for us to stay close.”

The relationship is not all about me. The balance is about how we dance through all of the issues we face.

I took her in my arms and kissed her deeply. “There isn’t enough time in the rest of our days together for me to tell you and show you how much I love you. I’m going to express it as often as I can, and the more you receive the more we both grow.”

It’s hard, sometimes, being the light drinker. I occasionally feel sorry for myself, wishing I had an easier way to eliminate the drinks for the evening. It has crossed my mind at various times to make some demands, to set a challenge in place, but that’s also my child of an alcoholic talking, rather than a compassionate and loving partner.

Let me get this straight. She’s not an alcoholic. She likes to drink. Occasionally she likes to drink more than she likes to be with me. Together, when we are drinking, there’s a warm fuzzy glow. Most of the time, I turn back to water and clarity of purpose so I can get on with some of my aspirations. I’m not against letting one rip, but I don’t ever aspire to have a hangover. And that’s enough for me. A buzz is fun. Intoxication is not. For me.

The navigation and negotiation around drinking or not drinking is an on-going discussion in many relationships. Often it’s a struggle within an individual to make the choice away from that third glass. But my dry-drunk mentality is no healthier than the alcoholic’s. I am in my own fantasy/nightmare that has very little to do with her and her third or fourth glass.

Had I allowed the knee-jerk asshole to pass judgement on her and *any* drinking, I could’ve easily passed on the love of my life. I believe we have a lasting partnership. I also know we’ll have plenty future conversations about drinking, not drinking, wine or beer, or in my case, more often than not, bubbly water.

Our worlds have collided and in some ways merged. For the better. I’m enjoying a bit more downtime. She’s enjoying a bit more ON time as we head into the evening’s entertainment with clarity of focus and intention. And then we can reverse the mode as well. Alcohol is certainly not the only inebriant. Stress, lack of sleep, lack of healthy food, all produce altered states of mental health. Even a sleeping pill I love has the potential to give me a buzz rather than kicking off a good night’s sleep when I’ve had a bit too much afternoon coffee.

We are on this journey together. She is open to my questions and suggestions  and desire for her to be more present when we make love, for example. She is okay with dancing her dance and meeting me halfway in the discussion about what WE want. The relationship is not all about me. The balance is about how we dance through all of the issues we face. She confronted and accepted my depressive episode. She laughed and applauded my recent job loss from the mean dysfunctional corporate gig.

Here we are.

I may cross over to the realm of the third glass and beyond from time to time, when we don’t have to drive anywhere. But the choice to be come less conscious is conscious. Decide consciously when are about to fill up your third glass. Talk about the evening with your significant other. If your plans have different trajectories, don’t judge or complain about. Take responsibility to say what you want and what makes you happy. Every night is a new conversation. Less and less about alcohol.

We’re just beginning our journey together. I cannot assume my ideas are correct and her’s are flawed. She is not flawed or damaged. She is strong and leaning in to all the aspects of me. I am learning to let go of my own baggage and lean into her, and all her facets as well.

The journey is marvelous and it continues.

This post is a continuation of the Third Glass idea:
The Trouble with Alcohol: She Likes To Drink, I Don’t

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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What I Learned About Sex: It’s Almost All In Your Mind

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The mind is the most powerful  sex organ of all.

I’m a very sensual and sexual person. In the Love Languages book, my picture represents the Touch-centered person. So when my sexual interest and prowess began to wane, in my early 50’s I got a little concerned. I mean, I had never needed any help catching an erection, and as if all at once I was having a problem even with an eager and willing partner. So I started doing some reading.

 

As it began to happen, my erectile non-cooperation, I started looking for answers. I wasn’t sure if it was my age, my mental state (I was a bit depressed), or the woman I was with. I was flat-out confused. Several factors that I was clearly aware of were at play.

  1. I was recently divorced
  2. I was depressed
  3. I had started some SSRI medication to help with the depression
  4. I was in the first relationship since my divorce, and my partner was enthusiastic and joyful

ANNNND, I couldn’t get a hard on on demand. WTF? Or should I say, WT(no)F?

The first few things I learned.

  1. A good portion of sex is in my own mind.
  2. SSRIs have a huge incidence of sexual side effects. (More on the second level of this issue, in a bit.)
  3. A sexually aware partner is equally into getting themselves off as getting you off. When you can’t perform they might begin to doubt their attractiveness to you, or even question the relationship over all.
  4. My issue was not ED and I was not in need of the little blue dick helpers.

But a longer period of exploration and education was needed in order to get me in the position I am today. (Happy, well fkd, and joyfully engaged with or without erection and orgasm)

As I moved through this first sexual-and-engaged relationship I passed through several phases.

Relationship Phase One:  I’m depressed. I have no idea what I like. I don’t even crave ice cream. So, I don’t desire her, it’s probably just the blues talking. (This was the first month.)

Relationship Phase Two: Okay, it’s not all me. I can learn to love her, to be into her, and my mind is the key. (This was the second month.) I started reading Sexual Intelligence and really giving some thought to my situation: both to myself and to this lovely woman, who really liked me.

Relationship Phase Three: Well, perhaps I’m just not that into her. Sometimes that happens. There was a chemistry mismatch. Nobody’s fault. I developed my Dog Rule of Dating from at this point. But I began to explore the idea of not being in this relationship. (The third month.)

And it was an amazing discussion we had the morning after I broke it off. We had breakfast at a Denny’s. Sitting across from her I realized how much I loved her. I loved her, but I wasn’t sexually aroused by her. It wasn’t porn, or unreal youthful ambitions, or some other disconnect. I was simply a mediocre response sexually to my reptilian brain. I wanted a greyhound and she was a fancy poodle. (My apologies to her for the analogy.)

MOVING ON

The next relationship I had was highly sexual. In fact, the sex was about all we had. She would have knee-jerk reactions every few weeks, just as we were getting close, and break up with me. All my doubts of sexual dysfunction on my part evaporated with this lovely and intelligent woman, who was not ready for a relationship, much less a relationship with me. We didn’t last very long, but long enough to show me that SEX is not everything. In fact, our sexual chemistry got in the way of me seeing early on that she was not right for me. So we screwed our way into the Summer before the 5th breakup finally broke through my sexual-fueled denial.

AND ONWARD THROUGH THE FOG OF SINGLE DADHOOD

So in the first relationship I learned about TOUCH (I had never experienced someone so touch-centric) and I knew I would never put up with anything less. In the second relationship I learned that SEX could be awesome but the relationship could be super bad. And that set up my quest for the next love of my life.

GOAL: TOUCH + GOOD SEX + EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE.

When this woman showed up I was overwhelmed with the passion and connection we experienced from the first kiss. We both stripped away our inhibitions and hesitation in the heat of our connection: intellectual, sexual, spiritual. Sure, there were/are things we need to work through, but this woman was on a different level all together. So many things were ON that I was really dismayed when my mental state collapsed under the stress of a new job, new house, ANNNND new girlfriend.

That’s when things got really interesting. Given every opportunity to run away, declare me a perfect mess, she didn’t run away at all. She stepped in, stepped up, and engaged with me on all levels. I don’t know how she did it. I don’t know if it was the chemistry and amazing connection we had in the first 45 days, or if she had already fallen in love with me, but I can tell you that I was feeling totally unworthy and unlovable. And yet SHE LOVED ME ANYWAY.

Then the issues with my sexuality returned in spades. Yes, a new round of SSRIs was inserted to cut off my looming fall into depression. And YES, the Lexapro-generic created a new set of problems, that I had not experienced before. And the depression was also interfering with my ability to focus or stay focused on sex. Even while an amazingly sexual woman was dancing naked in-front of me, I was unable to work up the erection to get into it. At this point I was really concerned, that even beyond the SSRI side-effects I was dealing with something deeper.

Turns out it was deep. This is where the Sexual Intelligence book came into play.

What started happening in this case was first, absolutely the best sex of my life, and second my inability to orgasm over the course of 5 – 10 “sessions.” WHAT? This had never happened. Talking to my psychiatrist I was happy to observe, “Well, I’ve never had such a sexualized girlfriend at the same time that ramped up the SSRIs. It makes a huge difference.”

And I began to learn more about sex than I thought possible. I was pretty sure I was the most sexual/sensual person on the planet. But I had to learn that MY ORGASM was unimportant in the larger scheme of things. What I learned in this few months of confusion was this: SEX is everything that happens before, during, and after orgasm, and orgasm is not the goal, nor required for an amazing sex life. I mean, I love orgasms, but I had to either get over that expectation or get into some funk about sex. And I’ll tell you again, I was having the best sex of my life. What? I was confused and a bit frustrated.

A few new tools I learned at this time, besides the deferred focus on my own orgasm, was that men are quite adept at masturbation.

First New Learning: Our hand is the most familiar sexual partner we will ever have. Sometimes the friction, speed, and unpredictability of sex with a partner makes it more hard to orgasm. Sounds like heresy. Jacking off might be better than making love. But the function of orgasm as a release and the hand as the vehicle is pretty mechanical.

Second New Learning: By showing my partner what it looks like when I do masturbate gives her clues about how I like to be touched. I had a bit of resistance to showing her. But as we experimented and talked about all that was going on, I read the “Men Fake It” book and learned about our practice with our hands is sort of like our sexual training. So showing her what it looked like when I was doing myself, was very good information for her. Good information indeed.

Third New Learning: Anorgasmia is a thing. And for a while it was amazing how often I was ready to go again. Without the release of orgasm I had no refractory period. She loved that. But eventually she also grew concerned with our sex, if I wasn’t coming.

Fourth New Learning: As far as sexual experience and my own sexual training is concerned, I was hyper-tuned to her pleasure. Most of my sex life was about extending my time doing her so she could have orgasms. AFTER she was DONE I’d go for my own. Her-centric sex is fine, but it’s a bit shallow. By focusing on her body, her orgasm, and her experience, I was kind of leaving my own enjoyment out for a good portion of our sex. I learned to let myself feel my own body, at this point. Just feel, don’t do.

Fifth New Learning: The connection is everything. As I had to learn to focus on my pleasure I also learned that really tuning into the WE of sex, rather than the SHE and ME, was a way of really enjoying things at a deeper level. And we both have some learning to do around pleasing the other person simply for enjoyment rather than our own release.

SUMMING UP GOOD SEX

The connection between the two of you during sex (foreplay, function, and afterplay) is more important that any goal of orgasm.

When orgasm is an issue, sex can still have all the fantastic qualities. In fact, I have been able to have more sex, and have sex longer, which was something I was missing in my normally functioning sex life. (BTW I’m off the SSRI and the effortless orgasm has returned for me.)

Know what does it for you and being able to show or tell your partner is a key ingredient for evolved sex. As we can let go of traditional SEX as the goal and open up to the full range of erotic experiences, we can expand our pleasure and our sexual vocabularies.

The mind is the most powerful  sex organ of all.

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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The Trouble with Alcohol: She Likes To Drink, I Don’t

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A couple walks into a bar. The woman says, “Saphire Martini, dry.” The man says, “Club soda with lime, please.” [What’s the punch line?] Bartender says, “Funny, when you came in here, I thought you guys were together.”

My girlfriend likes a glass of wine while cooking dinner together. Is she an alcoholic?

I will admit right now I have a problem with alcohol. At times my life was out of control and alcohol was the problem. Of course, I wasn’t the one drinking, it was my dad. My entire family was held hostage by my father’s drinking, his anger, and his resentment. My brother too, eight years older than me, did quite a stint as an alcoholic. I’ve seen the ravages of drinking, and I’ve veered away from drinking in my life. Not because I’m afraid of having a problem, but because I’ve learned to distrust that buzzy feeling.

I realized I was tripping because of MY reaction to her drinking rather than her drinking.

It’s not that my girlfriend has a drinking problem. She likes to drink. She will admit that she’d like to drink less. And she will also tell me that her drinking is more of a habit than an addiction, and that she used to drink out of boredom or loneliness. All of this I believe to be true.

Today, however, she’s not lonely or bored. She’s saying to me that she’s happier and more confident in our relationship than she can remember being at any time in her past. And still she drinks. So… There’s something else at play here. It is my problem with drinkers? Is it her wanting to drink less and still having a couple of glasses of wine a night?

For a while I was worried about this disconnect between us. She drinks, she knows tons of wines she likes, she has some sort of romance with martinis and talks knowledgeably and sometimes longingly about drinking. This was beginning to trip me out.

Then I realized I was tripping because of MY reaction to her drinking rather than her drinking. It was my drinking problem that was causing my own fear and doubt to enter the relationship. So I talked about it. She listened. She didn’t get defensive. I didn’t try to fix or change her. I didn’t ask her to stop drinking.

I did want to understand more about what made her drink even when she was with me. Habit? Maybe, but that’s not a good reason. Loneliness or fear? Maybe when she was living in a different house half the time. But when we are together she couldn’t be lonely. So I started understanding something about her and about me. She liked to drink. And I was afraid of drinking, hers or my own. So, I was the one with the problem. Kinda.

A week ago I started re-reading some of my posts about the relationship I was looking for. And sure enough my girlfriend hits all of the WINNING traits out of the park. But there was this, in something I wrote titled Seven Signs of a Healthy Post-Split Relationship.

Alcohol or tv are not constant sources of entertainment or escape.

Okay, so that triggered my worried mind again. I was reading some of my dating after divorce material, comparing how amazing and awesome this woman was and along came this zinger. Um, oh, yeah, the drinking thing.

But I have learned not to jump to conclusions and especially not to pay too close attention to what I wrote before I met her. I also said I’d never date a woman who was not a mother. I have since taken “never” out of my vocabulary. I had to. She is amazing, and the fact that she had not given birth to children had nothing to do with our love for one another, nor her ability to adore and love my children.

It was MY fear of alcohol that was causing me trouble. And it was my hyper-vigilance against drinking that was creating the issue.

So I didn’t stew on the topic, I simply told her about the post. (She is well aware of all of my writing, so that wasn’t a surprise.)

“So I was reading back over some of my writing from a year or two ago, where I was trying to outline exactly the kind of relationship I wanted, and I came over this funny thing…”

I told her about my fear of drinking, more specifically, her drinking. “And I was amazed how perfect you are, but this objection keeps popping up in my mind. I wanted to talk about it.”

“Sure,” she said, without a hint of frustration.

“Over margaritas, of course!”

“Of course,” she joked. “Let me change clothes and we can go.”

That was a few months ago, and she’s still drinking. I’m even drinking a bit. Partially to join her, partially to allow myself to learn from her about all of her travels, wine parings, and knowledge of alcohol. She really is sort of an amateur-expert.

At the same time I had to confront my own fears, and own them. It was MY fear of alcohol that was causing me trouble. And it was my hyper-vigilance against drinking that was creating the issue. So we kept dating, she kept drinking, and I kept talking and writing about it.

This was a big reveal to me: Everyone who drinks is not an alcoholic.

Okay, so I was letting go of that idea as I was observing our relationship and interactions around alcohol. She and I exchanged some jovial banter about her drinking and I sipped the Pinot and smiled. And over time I began to see what was bothering ME about her drinking. So I told her about my theory. Here it is.

The Third Glass (Making the choice consciously.)

It’s the third glass of wine that determines if we are going to have an evening together or if you are going to head off into some other place where I can’t really reach you or relate to you. One glass to cook, one glass with dinner… and then a choice.

Towards Me (No more wine means let’s be together tonight.”

If she is happy and content, I can’t see why she would need that next glass of wine to feel happy or secure. If she knows and experiences my love as true and present, she wouldn’t want to turn away from those feelings by dipping further into the wine. And here is my own wounded boy’s idea: if she loved me she wouldn’t drink until she was intoxicated.

Away From Me (Yes please, pour me another, means I’ve had a rough day, I’m feeling tired, I’d rather go to bed early.)

It’s that third glass, metaphorically that signals an intention to move away from our closeness and conversation into some altered state. Perhaps there is a numbness or release in the intoxication for her. But unwinding with a glass of wine is different when the third glass is poured and consumed and the words begin to blend together just a bit, and her jovial attitude shifts ever so slightly towards aloof and distant.

Again, this is my reaction and my emotional response to her drinking that next glass of wine. If she chooses to drink more, I tell her, it feels like you are leaving me in some ways. I can’t share at the same level. I don’t want to get lovey dovey. And the real communication between us has to be put on hold until the morning. That’s how it feels to me, the sober one. I can’t say how it feels for you. Perhaps I am too focused, too obsessive about not drinking, and the third glass let’s you unplug not only from your stressful day, but also from my intensity and earnestness.

What I really wanted to make sure I told her, as I was discovering all this stuff about me and my reaction to drinking in general, was that I didn’t need her to stop drinking. I didn’t even need her to limit her drinking to two glasses. What I wanted from her was to observe when she made that decision *away* from our closeness and into a less approachable state.

Several things I believe to be true about dealing with someone who is buzzed. (I define this as tipsy, slurring a bit, but mostly lucid. Not drunk, but intoxicated, or impaired. In this case, by choice.)

  1. Don’t take on any serious subjects with them.
  2. Don’t talk about their drinking until the next day when they are sober. Trying to talk to someone who is drunk about drinking is a no-win situation.
  3. Make sure they are safe and comfortable. And in my case, put her to bed, lovingly, and go about my evening routine without her.
  4. Sex can be okay with a buzzed person, but if you’re not both a bit hazy it can make for some awkward moments. And for the most part, when she’s had the third glass and I have not, my desire for sex with her diminishes a bit.

So now we’ve had this talk. I’ve made up this concept of the Third Glass and she says, “I think a lot of people will really understand what you are talking about.”

When she has the third glass of wine, in my mind she is turning away from the relationship and into some self-imposed isolation or altered state.

As we move forward, I am clear with her about my limits for me. I might have a beer or a glass of wine with dinner, but that’s about it, unless we go out for margaritas. And for her the choices are a bit more complex. I’m sure I’ve caused her some stress around this, but it has to be out in the open and discussed.

When she has the third glass of wine, in my mind she is turning away from the relationship and into some self-imposed isolation or altered state. I have to let go of the outcome, and let go of my expectations, or speak up if I have a problem. [Again, please note, this is *my* frame around her drinking, not hers.] When she asks for a glass of water after dinner she is signaling that she wants to remain close for the rest of the evening. Both choices are fine. If I don’t attach my own stigma to the choice, I can allow her to take either path without guilt or shame. I can let go of my baggage and allow her to be exactly who she wants to be.

If she drinks the third glass I begin looking for what I’m going to do that evening when she’s fallen asleep. If she asks for water, my mind enters into a different set of fantasies that involve her participation. The real joy is that we’ve had this discussion. I even said I would run this post by her before I published it, so she could edit or give feedback. The last thing I want is to damage our relationship by exposing too much or causing her pain.

Last night, as I was cleaning up the dishes I looked at her with a sly grin as I held the cork above the bottle in an unspoken question. “Yes,” she said, “Put the cork in the bottle and get me a glass of water.” What that said to me was, “I’m here, I’m happy, and what are we going to do together tonight?”

Afterword: And the amazing thing is after I read this to her we were closer and even more ready to have the discussion in the moment about drinking, hers AND mine. (grin)

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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Carrying the Load: Money Issues from Marriage to Child Support

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Keep the love of your children in your heart and mind and forgive even the egregious actions of your ex-partner.

The most important conversation you can have in your relationship has to do with money. Who will work while you have kids and they need more time and support? If one of you will be the primary breadwinner, when will the transition back to balance take place. In my marriage that discussion was pretty clear for the first 7 – 8 years of our marriage. When I was laid off from my big corporate job, however the kids were finishing up 3rd and 5th grade, I began to ask questions about what’s next.

When my ex-wife did file with the AG’s office she said it was “to protect the kids.”

My then-wife was not happy. She remained unsupportive and even counter-supportive during the next year of our marriage. Finally when the next corporate job, for me turned into a nightmare, rather than a saving grace, I too was done. Done with giving up my health and 120% of my time to a big job. The white picket fence was fine, the kids were happy, and my then-wife was enjoying the same part-time schedule she had become accustomed to. Fine. But I was overweight, stressed out, and exhausted.

I began to ask about this balance in our work life as well as our intimate life. And rather than finding a receptive partner, I ran into my soon-to-be-ex-wife’s brick wall. Emotionally and intimately she had been unavailable for the better part of 18 months. And on the job front she was making efforts to re-tool, re-discover, re-define herself. Um, while our marriage was collapsing under the weight of the money stress, she was not working but having some sort of mid-life crisis. Perhaps I was too.

Either way, the money woes weighed most heavily on our relationship. And 1 month after the next big corp job went away, she let me know she had consulted an attorney to discuss her options. She was working her strategy and spreadsheets to divorce me. Wow. I was slapped in the face. But I was not surprised at her unhappiness, just her choice OUT of the marriage that would obviously destroy our kids happy-ish home.

From then on the friction about money go worse not better. As I was struggling with depression and my own financial trouble a few years after the divorce, I let her know I was about to be late with the child support payments. “I’ll get caught back up, as soon as I can.”

She was not agreeable. She gave me a month and a slew of ultimatum emails.

“I’m thinking of turning the whole thing over to the AG’s office,” she said, repeatedly.

Two things about this threat: 1. don’t ever threaten your ex, it does no good and only makes conversations between you that much more unmanageable; 2. don’t ever turn your ex into the Attorney General’s office. You are demonstrating that money is more important than your kids, and certainly more important than your ongoing relationship with your co-parent.

When my ex-wife did file with the AG’s office she said it was “to protect the kids.”

The effects of that awful and hurtful decision are still wreaking havoc on my life. At that moment I was trying to keep my house and my car in a restructuring bankruptcy. The AG’s ding on my credit killed all of my options. I had to sell the house and move in with my mom. (That was pretty harsh, emotionally. She didn’t care. She wanted her damn money.)

Today I was applying for a loan to replace my car that has been totaled by the insurance company. I was flat-out denied. The financial obligation to the AG’s office was the primary mark against me. No car at all? How am I supposed to go pick up my kids from school or the ex-wife’s house? Maybe she’ll loan me her car. NOT!

The damage you inflict on another person is really damage that you do to yourself. In the case of the co-parent, please reconsider any adverse actions on your part.

Before you file against your ex-parent, please consider your actions. In a moment of frustration and anger she lashed out in the most vindictive way she could. I was pleading for her to reconsider. I was showing her my income statements and asking for a bit more time to put the plan together. Why in the world would she do something to damage the income stream of her co-parent? Anger! Wrong choice.

Money struggles will continue for a long time after your kids have graduated from high school. You will be entangled in money decisions for the rest of your lives together. Why would you intentionally do something that would might keep the other partner from landing a new job, renting a house, buying a used car?

I’m not looking for an apology from her. I know it won’t ever come. She was justified in her mind. But I don’t understand how she thought it was a good idea. As I continually forgive her initially for the divorce and now for the inflexible schedule of the AG’s office I have to laugh a bit. She set us on a course by turning me into a “deadbeat dad” that also complicates her life. As I try to find the next big corp job, one of the vetting steps is often running a credit report. How’s that for justice?

“Honey, I’d love to get the next big job that would ease up the money for all of us, but I keep getting turned down at the ‘credit check’ part of the process.”

Yeah, keep your co-parent in a cooperative teammate role. When you make them the enemy, your actions might create just that. Of course the damage you inflict on another person is really damage that you do to yourself. In the case of the co-parent of your children, please reconsider any adverse actions on your part. Keep the love of your children in your heart and mind and forgive even the egregious actions of your ex-partner.

Today I have to forgive my ex-wife on a regular basis. Her actions with the AG’s office over a year-and-a-half ago will continue to kill my credit score until I can completely pay off the back child support. Unless I want to sue her, but that’s contrary to my entire premise of the positive co-parent. I’m learning to be better, more forgiving, and more loving, even of her.

Stay positive. Love your kids. Respect your ex.

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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Loving Again is an Ongoing Leap of Faith

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Loving someone is a leap of faith. A continuous renewal of your intention and energy to cherish and support your partner. Loving again after divorce or a painful break up is a process of releasing your previous experience and allowing for the new experience to be different. But there are always echoes. And with kids those echoes can create barriers to fully loving again.

We constantly say “Wow” to each other and to ourselves. It’s a bit like a prayer.

As you begin any new relationship there are moments when you have to decide to move towards the YES or away from it. The YES is that pull towards partnership, entwinement, entanglement, and committing to that path, that person, is a risk. You have to be willing to  challenge and rebuke all of those old tapes. You have to take a leap of faith well before you can be sure of anything. Falling in love is a process of allowing yourself to jump into the arms of this new person, into their lives, without too much concern or fear of the future relationship.

As you begin joining in this new love life with a new partner it is important to recognize the strings from the old pain and old patterns of your relationships in the past. When you feel that fear or sadness, it is a renewed committment to seek the new partner, that becomes the YES that allows your heart to reopen and re-feel the exhilaration of loving again. A friend once talked about “Writing over the old tapes with the new ones.” She was talking about reformatting your brain and putting new and good experiences over the old painful ones. It is important that you not run from the echoes, but that you open to the full experience of what is happening in your life.

The love pushes up the fears. The love with a new person will retrigger old hurts. As you spend more time with this person the little shocks of, “Oh hell, I remember doing this before with another person” will lessen and you can begin saying, “I have never experienced anything so free and loving.” That’s what you want to listen for. That’s the message you want to confirm with your new lover.

My significant other and I call it the “WOW.” And we constantly say “Wow” to each other and to ourselves. It’s a bit like a prayer.

In my mind, “Wow,” says:

  • Thank you
  • You are amazing
  • I can’t believe how much I love you
  • This is the moment
  • I’ve never felt so much love
  • Amen

However you think about divine intervention or higher powers or your religious touchstone, love is the most powerful force in our lives. It is through love of ourselves, love of our children, and love of another adult, that we find meaning and fulfillment in our lives.

Before children I was extremely self-focused. I was intense and focused on success. And then I fell in love with the woman who would become my wife and suddenly all the possibilities were open. And through the opening of our relationship we were both able to make the massive leap of faith to consciously bring another human into our lives. The moment we looked at each other and communicated that we were ready to go from practice (using birth control) to live ammo our lives were transformed. The leap of faith we took that morning in France, would burn away all of our ideas of self-actualization and striving. We said YES to our spiritual guides and asked to be given the opportunity to become parents.

As our story went, the marriage ended up not continuing, but we spent 11 years together leaping into the unknown, first in our relationship, second in our marriage, third in becoming parents. In divorce you must take that final leap, the fourth, into celebrating and supporting your previous partner in spite of the fracture and distance that comes as a result of dissolving the marriage and undoing the vows you made to one another.

But you never undo the vows to your children. And as you move through the years as co-parents rather than cohabitants and lovers, you will be stripped down to the bare essentials. In my case, over the last five years, I lost everything. Jobs, money, possessions. In some dark moments I contemplated losing myself. Amazing, that sadness that overwhelms completely enough for someone to consider an easy escape into death. I am ashamed to admit this moment, as if it’s some weakness in my character. But it’s a fact. A fact that I didn’t follow through on, but a fact that I contemplated, ruminated, on the idea that I could escape this pain and loss by escaping my own life.

As you move through the years as co-parents rather than cohabitants and lovers, you will be stripped down to the bare essentials.

My father must’ve felt the same despair as he made choices that led to his divorce from my mom. His choice was towards alcohol rather than towards us and our mom. He “chose” to deny his drinking problem and chose to marry another woman with a love of the distilled spirits as well. The descent was quick and horrifying to watch. But as he occasionally reached out to me, at 10 and 14 years old, to come live with them in the new fantastic house, I was clear that I would be taking a significantly different route.

As I have begun this new relationship in 2015 I have been shocked at times by the frictionless momentum we have developed while saying “Wow” to each other. But the bumps have been nonexistent, and the timing seems to have allowed both of us to make the repeated leaps necessary to join and rejoin regardless of the fear or differences. The YES has been much more powerful than any of our objections, and often more powerful than either of our individual ideas or expectations. We’ve blown through all of our expectations and are in an ongoing process of including our leap towards each other as we say “Wow,” and revel in the bursts of good fortune that continue to rain down on our lives as a couple.

And as we radiate and recommit, as we lean in towards one another and take the leap of faith towards life-transforming love, we can see the effect our joy is having on our friends and family. And the kids, while still readjusting to our new configuration, are already showing warmth and enthusiasm around our together unit, which now includes a new partner for me.

I can’t predict what will happen, but I can declare my commitment to staying in the YES mode and continuously transforming my fears into prayers as I turn towards this amazing new woman in *our* lives.

The leap of faith is strong and consistent on both our sides. As we hold hands and travel together and say “Yes” and “Wow” and “Thank you,”  we are creating love. You build love one leap at a time. And as long as both of you continue to leap towards one another, you’re future may be unpredictable, but the core energy will be solid and the core sound will be “Yes.”

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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The Benefits of a Happy Ex-Wife (Positive Divorce and CoParenting)

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The only example I’ve had in my life of a contentious divorce was my parents when I was 5 until I was 8! My dad was vindictively out to wreck my mom financially and the soul crushing battle lasted almost three years.

In my divorce my ex and I agreed that the kids were the most important part of our relationship and we would not put them in the middle of any disagreements regarding the divorce. And post-divorce we have kept to our promise. It’s been hard a few times not to spill the beans over something egregious, and I’m sure my ex has felt the same way on several occasions. But we’ve kept the “adult” worries and complaints out of their lives.

There is also a big dichotomy in our life as divorced parents. On one hand you’ve got the child support and family home that usually goes to the mom. In our case both of those agreements were uncontested. But today, almost 6 years later, there’s a bit of frustration at some of the ways we’ve both handled the money. Money was the major stressor on our marriage, and it was most likely a job loss that cause my then-wife to consider what it would be like to be with someone else.

We parent really well together. We are cordial, we support the kids as a team, and we’ve recently started negotiating and strategizing in-person again.

The bigger mistake on her part was filing our divorce agreement with the Attorney Generals off. That’s equivalent to reporting you to the CPS, except its about money. The events that triggered her switch from trust to enforcement were exacerbated on both our sides. The effects of her actions have destroyed my credit, which makes it harder to rent a house, get a job, and forget about getting a car loan. And I while I have never disagreed with the child support and what I owe her, I was expecting our cooperation to extend on into our coparenting relationship

And that’s the flip side of the dichotomy. We parent really well together. We are cordial, we support the kids as a team, and we’ve recently started negotiating and strategizing in-person again.

You see, after the divorce happens you never get to see what the other half (or in the traditional case of mom-as-custodial-parent more than 50%) of your kid’s family life is like. And my kids are very loyal to both of us, so I don’t hear much about their “away” time. Of course, my sad mind was certain they just continued their happy lives without me in the house. I’m sure the reality was much different. Either way, we did not consciously pass on any of the sadness or anger to our kids. They have thrived. And this is a victory for both of us, for our family unit no longer together but still focused on supporting our growing children first.

In a positive divorce no one is to blame. Every action involving your ex should be loving and positive. Think about your kids, let go of the “relationship” with your ex.

Also, with no direct view into their lives, the child support sometimes feels like a tax rather than a loving contribution to the “other half” of our family unit. New dresses, new shoes, and new hairstyles on my ex-wife can make me feel like I’m providing her a $1,500+ monthly luxury support. I KNOW that this is not true, it’s skewed and self-destructive thinking. It goes along with that grass is certainly greener in their lives with my ex. And the money can feel like a punishment at times. But again, this is just my own flawed thinking.

When my ex-said, “I’d like to come over a bit earlier and maybe we can talk for a few minutes without the kids.”

“Um, sure,” I said. It felt a bit like being married again and her saying, “We need to talk.” Something was coming that I wasn’t going to like. She needed something that required a face-to-face meeting to ask for it. In other words, I was in trouble. I brushed away that feeling with some effort, but as I sat in the passenger seat of the Prius, the one we bought together, I was anxious about the discussion.

The conversation was amazing. She wanted to collaborate on how the child support money would be spent and to designate some of it to the kids, so they could have a discretionary clothing budget.

What I learned in the course of the next 10 minutes was how much kids actually cost. Things that I hadn’t really thought of. Lunch money. After school sports activities. Tutoring. Music lessons. And the added expense of having the kids 5 or 7 days of the week. When she showed me the numbers, I got a better picture of how her financial mind works and she revealed her equal contribution to kid stuff. She was showing me how our collective kid money was being spent. The reality was quite sobering. I can’t say I don’t have twinges of anger when the money is withheld from of my paycheck, but now I can see how she is putting in the same amount on her side.

And as we continue to talk a bit more cooperatively about kid-money, I can see a good bit of her tenseness change. I can see how her stress and exhaustion is exacerbated by any angst between us.

So I have worked to give her the benefit of the doubt in all circumstances. Flash of anger on my part, “Nope, take the higher road.” About two years ago, when I started this blog, I opened a new perspective in my life. Positive divorce is about seeing the priorities and shared dreams of the overall family unit and not just your individual, or even your me-and-the-kids unit. When I stopped injecting little jabs of frustration into the system and stopped responding to her angry emails and texts with peace and cooperation, it was me that changed. It was my vitriol that I had to own and take care of. Take care of OUTSIDE of the relationship.

And this money talk we had was another break through for me in this process. Now that I have a picture of where the money goes, and see that she’s putting in the same amount, I have lost my frustration about the money. I still suffer from the AG’s process for enforcing the child support, but I am not resentful of any of the money. Nor do I want to protest or change the deal.

I will be in the process of recalibrating my life in relationship to my ex-wife probably for the rest of my life. Even after the kids are off and doing their own lives, there are always collective contributions that need to be made, adult advice that needs to be given, and we will never fully separate from the relationship. And in that light, I will never stop loving my ex-wife in a deep and profound way. Obviously it’s no longer about passion and connection, it’s about our kids. The kids we created as a couple.

When you have kids and you understand that the collaborative effort on all of you never stops, you can begin to see that any negativity hurts all of you. A sad or stressed out ex-wife makes a sad and stressed out environment for our kids. That’s what we agreed to not do. The release of my anger about the “enforcement” decision she made may continue to take some work and processing on my part. But I have to live in the other world as much as I can. The world that says she is doing the best she can, we are doing the best we can, and we move on from here. Sure, the “deadbeat dad” letters and threats from the state of Texas are hurtful, but that decision is long gone.

I believe it was a vindictive move, to sick the authorities on me. But I couldn’t understand how she could move so far off the compassion and collaboration thread, but I don’t know what she was dealing with at the time. So the lasting effect of the AG’s involvement in our lives is a teaching for me. While I could never see striking against her during a down period, for any reason, I have to forgive and release her from the blame.

In a positive divorce no one is to blame. Every action involving your ex should be loving and positive. Think about your kids, let go of the “relationship” with your ex. That’s all you need to know. It’s not easy, and it’s an ongoing process, but you have to transform your own life by supporting not only your kids, but your ex as well.

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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Are You Receiving Me? When Not Listening Turns Towards Divorce

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What causes couples to stop listening to each other?

In the beginning of your relationship (remember the courtship phase) there was nothing sweeter than the sound of your new sweetheart’s voice. It didn’t matter if you were both talking about work, or a movie, or what you were looking for in a long-term relationship. The sound of their voice and the way they looked at you was enough to send you to the moon, to make you believe, to give your heart the final push to let yourself fall in love.

It was from this confidence in my relationship that I was still writing love songs and poems to my beautiful wife.

And falling was easy, they said the right things, they wanted to be with you as much as they could, they reassured you of your attractiveness to them and their fidelity to your burgeoning relationship. All was bliss and planning and discovery.

How and why does your lover’s, partner’s, coparent’s voice become less intriguing? And when did they stop listening to you all together? Was there some event? Was it a gradual falling apart?

In my marriage we listened and laughed our way through the courting and falling in love phases rather quickly. Right place, right time, I guess. And then somewhere along the way, our words no longer conveyed the caring and love it once did. Sure we had a lot of conversations about chores and bills and delegation of tasks and errands. But along the way I was still constantly reaching back towards the love expression we once shared. I was writing love poems and love songs. I was doing the best I could in the marriage, but I was still reaching to bridge the widening gap between us with words of love. Sure, doing the dishes or vacuuming was more concrete than a love poem, but it was the whole experience we were grooving on.

I have tried many times to unravel the past and see just where the inflection happened and we veered off into ignoring and isolating rather than enjoying and celebrating. There was a very specific moment and series of events that began the fracture that eventually became our divorce.

I had been working at a big corp job for two years and suddenly the 2009 economic reset downsized the entire company, taking most of the creative people and over half of my group out. It was a hard blow, but they also gave me six months pay with insurance to soften the landing.

When they told us about the offer in November I immediately began planning for my next career move. One of the things I started right then was a blog about the social media marketing that I’d been doing for this international tech company. I had always been a writer and the blog became my megaphone for my career ideas, my business marketing ideas, and my real-world experience lessons in trying to use social media to generate revenue.

The blog took off. I had a few early hit posts that began building a readership. And I worked Twitter like a fiend, imagining it as the next real force in marketing. But something happened at the same time to the communication and trust in my marriage. I remember the lunch we shared when our divergent perspectives and ambitions clashed in the bright clear February day.

“Well,” I said, “It seems like I have six months to figure out what’s next.”

“No,” she said, “It’s only about thirty thousand dollars and that really doesn’t get us very far.”

I was stunned. “Wait. What?” I was happy about the opportunity to retool and find a job with a bit more work/life balance. I was recovered from the job loss and on to my trademark optimism about the future. She was building her spreadsheets and being very pragmatic about the dollars and expenses and what she felt was a very risky period for us.

The reason I came to understand later was she really wanted me to just get another big corp job and be back on the path we had been on for two years. I was 20 pounds heavier and completely burned out and was looking forward to reframing our lives in a different way. I could not just go back to the corp job grind stone. I had to find a better job, a better way to earn a living. And we had to work together to make a sufficient income to live the life we had established.

Over the next few weeks we worked on this disagreement in therapy. We built our own spreadsheets in excel and exchanged ideas about what we envisioned for our future. But we couldn’t quite reconcile the two opposite ideas: her: just get another great job, me: I want to find a more healthy way to earn a living.

At one point she told me point-blank that she wasn’t in love with me any more. She was giving me a warning, “You’d better listen to me. You’d better pay attention to what I’m saying. I am not happy.”

She also started taking aim at my blog, saying I was being mean, or saying things that might come back to haunt me when I was looking for the next job. I didn’t agree at all. I was building a new potential for employment. I was blogging with the intention of selling my expertise as a consultant. I was also picking up momentum with the posts and began building an audience. I picked up a few consulting gigs at this time, even as I was looking for work in the traditional way. The next job eluded me. I had interviews. I was getting the response on my resume that I wanted, but something wasn’t putting me in the HIRED column.

A few months after our initial meltdown it began to happen. She had always been good at expressing her anger and frustration, but she was really beginning to let me have it. Complaints were an acceptable form of behavior modification, but her complaints became rages. She occasionally blurted out, “F*** You” in a moment of frustration. And it was as if her anger was spilling over beyond her ability to contain it. Why she wasn’t getting at this with her individual therapist  I don’t know, but she was certainly trying to work it out with me.

At one point she told me point-blank that she wasn’t in love with me any more. She was giving me a warning, “You’d better listen to me. You’d better pay attention to what I’m saying. I am not happy.”

I tried to be zen about it and cooperate and respond while continuing to go about my merry way, in terms of job hunting, consulting, and blogging. But my positive attitude seemed to signal to her that I was not taking her threats and warnings seriously. I was, and I wasn’t. We were in couples therapy. We were in a committed marriage. And we were having some problems. No problem. We’d work it out.

Somewhere deep inside me I was solid in my belief in the marriage. This was just a difficult period that we would get through, as we had done so many times before. I remember saying a couple times, “I don’t really like you right now, and I know you don’t like me, but I love you and am committed to this marriage. We’ll get through this tough time.” That is what I believed. That is also what I based my confidence and positive attitude in the midst of all this obvious angst on her part. I KNEW my marriage was solid, the details would unfold and we could repair the relationship as we went along.

It was from this confidence in my relationship that I was still writing love songs and poems to my beautiful wife. Sure, my beautiful wife was frustrated with me 24/7 and wasn’t interested sex at all, but we’d get through this. I was sure of it. And I was calm in the face of her escalations and demands. I think that might have made her even more angry.

I wasn’t all that calm inside. I was hurt by her words. I was sad that she was not responding or even smiling at my songs and poems. Sure, words are not enough, but I was doing everything I could around the house to be the best husband and father that I could be. I had been stepping up my partner-in-chores role for over a year. I also felt like I was putting in 110% percent to the marriage. And part of that contribution was not responding in kind to her outbursts. I was hurting and feeling abandoned and isolated, but the inner commitment to my marriage and parenting with her, was unsullied.

It was from that confidence that I began to express my own dissatisfaction with the relationship. It had been several months since the money/severance conversation and I had landed a new big corp job. All the requests from her had finally been fulfilled. We had enough money, I had the big job with benefits and retirement contributions. I was still over-performing as a responsible parent and home owner.

It wasn’t enough for her. Nothing shifted. Even when there was money in the bank, and money coming in, and a maid to help with laundry and general cleaning, she was still madder than hell at me. As I began to realize that all the things she used to be mad at me no longer applied, I was expecting some of *her* joy and intimacy to return. With all the conditions of satisfaction met she was still as frustrated as ever.

Guess what? It wasn’t me that was making her mad.

So I began to express my own frustration and disappointments. I wanted to revisit our sex life in therapy and understand where she had gone. I wanted her to get her own anger issues under control so we could rebuild our friendship and trust.

It was under these stresses and disconnections that I lost the big corp job after 4 months. Sure it was a serious blow, and I had a case against them for discrimination, but I knew we would recover.

On top of everything she was going through personally and the festering anger at me the job loss without reasonable explanation was too much for her. She snapped. All the threats and complaints she had been lofting at me suddenly made 100% sense to her. I was an unreliable breadwinner. I was killing my opportunities through my edgy blog. And I was not changing into the person she wanted me to be, so… She was done.

Of course there were a ton of emotional and practical issues that we had between us, but in the end I was demanding a change and she was claiming that I hadn’t changed enough.

Within a few weeks we were negotiating a divorce rather than strategizing a rebirth of our love. I was unprepared for the revelation that she had been to an attorney to consider her options for divorce. I was blind sided. Not because I was happy. No, I had been expressing my own dissatisfaction for the first time in our marriage. I was blindsided because I had no concept that our MARRIAGE was in trouble. I was still 100% committed to our marriage. And it was from that belief and joint agreement that I felt confident to stand up and state what I wanted in the relationship.

When the other partner decides, however, there is very little the committed partner can do. The fracture has happened. The other person has declaired they are considering divorce. Then that option is forever on the table and could be used as leverage. I’m considering divorce if you don’t… If you won’t change, I’m going to divorce you.

I was not what was making her mad. I was also not capable of making her happy, nor making her want to stay in the marriage. Once the “talked a lawyer to consider my options” card had been laid on the table, all bets were off. I had no more confidence that the solidity of our relationship was capable of withstanding some readjustments.

It seems crass now to say it, but in the end I believe she just wanted me to go back and get the corporate job. It allowed her to freelance and spend time at the kid’s school being a volunteer. And when I declared that in the long run that was not going to be my path, that I would get the job but I was planning a move to something else, she was faced with the reality that I wanted her to contribute fully to our financial needs so that we could *both* live a more balanced life. That was enough to break up our family and seek greener pastures.

Of course there were a ton of emotional and practical issues that we had between us, but in the end I was demanding a change and she was claiming that I hadn’t changed enough. I actually think she wanted me to continue pulling in the big bucks regardless of the health impact it had on me. It was definitely an easier lifestyle for her.

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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An Amazing Thing Has Happened

whole-bw-couple

[Several amazing things have happened in my period of silence. I am excited to begin writing the story of my life and recovery again. While nothing has been posted here since February, a lot of living has taken place. I give thanks for the woman in my life. And I thank you, my readers, for your continued support and patience.]

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.

See, she had read this blog. She was aware of my emotional fragility and what I had written about the pain of my divorce. And she entered a relationship with me knowing these things about me. And then, even when the proverbial shit hit the fan, she leaned in rather than away from me. She recalibrated. We talked and examined what we were doing together. I talked about my depression and how it usually affected me. And again, she decided to stick around.

Now the weird thing about depression is when you are going through it, your world view gets rather myopic. You are so self-focused on what has gone, is going, and will go wrong in your life, that you miss the fact that there are a lot of people around you who are being affected by your emotional flatline. As I was questioning my life focus and my reason for being alive, I had this other person, this new person, who was also experiencing my depression with me. She might have been a bit afraid or sad that the shining prince had fallen ill. She might have run away or given reasons for “things not working out.”

She didn’t, she stayed.

When she asked what she could do for me, I said plainly, “Just be here. Stay close. Touch me.”

She did. She still is.

In my marriage, I went through a number of spills and thrills. And while she did an amazing job at staying married to me, and remaining a committed and resourceful mother, she didn’t really have much emotional comfort to offer me. I’m sure she was scared to death. Her breadwinner, and husband, now-father, had fallen ill and it was with something that couldn’t be measured very well, or medicated very well, or planned for or predicted. Though I couldn’t understand it at the time, due to my myopic narcissism, I can now see how difficult her road was with me. I honor the fantastic work she did as a parent to our two children and in keeping our boat afloat during some emotionally wracking times.

But my then wife wasn’t really all that emotionally available. Even when things were good she didn’t really express a lot of emotion. She was much more logical and calculated. We had a good mix together when things were good, emotional and logical. But when things got sparse or challenging, we often went to our respective corners and sulked.

I didn’t know about Love Languages at that time. We tried a lot of soul-searching. We did therapy together and by ourselves. We worked at it. I DO absolutely believe that she gave it everything she had. In the end, however, things became overwhelming for her, to the point of wanting to leave the marriage and pull the family apart. I still remember being at the last couple’s therapy session and us both stating our final assessment of the situation. We were ending our therapy and saying our goodbyes to our therapist and giving in to the dissolution of our marriage.

My then wife said she did not see things improving. She felt it was better that we divorce. I said, how I really felt we were at a launching point in our relationship and that we had been given this crisis as a way to express and work through all the things that had fallen apart in our marriage. I wanted to continue. She did not.

I learned that one person cannot keep a marriage together no matter how hard they try or how much they want to keep the family together. I was in agreement that things could not continue as they had been. But I was also convinced that she was still the woman I was in love with, and the marriage was stronger than our current complaints or disagreements.

But, of course, I couldn’t make her want to work it out with me.

Okay, so it wasn’t all about depression and emotional availability. We both worked hard at being in the relationship and being good parents to our two children. But along the way we fell into unhealthy coping mechanisms that drove us apart rather than together.

Today, I can say, I have been seen at my worst, by this new woman, and she has embraced me through it. And as I was thrashing in my own bile, I gained a perspective at some point that went like this. “What about her experience of this mess? She’s going through this too. I have to give some credence to her strength and love for me and step up, even for today (if that’s the best I can manage), to support her experience of this relationship and our time together.”

For a moment I was able to get out of my own self-pity and self-destruction and say, “Wait, what about her experience?”

It was a bit of zen moment. To be so deep in a depression that everything in the world seems dark, and yet to rise above it and try and take her wants and desires into consideration. It was like an out of body experience. I looked down at my sad self and at her happy (maybe shaken) self and asked, “What does she want this relationship to look like? What about *her* experience of happiness at this moment?”

And it was indeed this little fulcrum that allowed me to crack the black heavy cloak that was shrouding out all light. And adding into the equation our deep physical bond and commitment to staying close. And as I gave back to her, tried to stay open and communicative, she showed me she was not afraid. And by staying close, she affirmed her own words, “I’m going to stick around.”

I am not 100% back, but I have an ally and a lover who can take me in ON and OFF mode. What a blessing she is.

To be continued… (grin)

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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