In Divorce: No We Can’t Be Friends

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Let’s do it differently, please.

I’d like things to be different between my ex-wife and me. I’d like us to be friends. I’d like us to be cordial and be good parents. But that’s not how it’s gone between us and I’m sad about it. I learned today, there’s enough sadness to go around, and too little happiness. What we are looking for in divorce is finding the joy of parenting, and not just the managed tolerance of one another. I’d like it to be different, but I’m only one voice.

As with the divorce, I would’ve stayed married for the kids. And perhaps that was not the right answer either. But as it fell apart I tried to stay connected. I tried to stay close.

Sure, I did my best as a collaborative divorcing parent, but as things got tough, the tough came between us and created anger. Perhaps I walled up that anger as indifference. I’d rather not know anything about my ex-wife’s life. I’m content to know she’s remarried and that my kids like the other guy.

But it’s not enough. I still want us to be friends. I still have this idea of us being cordial to one another. And, unfortunately, that — again — is not what it’s like.

And yesterday it took a third-party to finally get it through my thick head. I am writing a tv series about divorce and I was meeting with my cowriter. As we talked about our divorces I gave her an example.

“So, I’ve been out of work for a few months and yesterday I notified my ex that I’d gotten a new job and that the AG’s office had been notified. I was at least expecting a response. A ‘Good job,’ or something.”

“Oh,” She said. “You still think you are friends.”

“Well, yes, we try to be friendly.”

“She’s not your friend. And you need to stop expecting anything from her. Any acknowledgement of your good deeds would mean she’s still engaged with you. She’s not. She’s moved on.”

“So I’m just like a paycheck for her, and she doesn’t care about me at all?”

“Basically.”

“That sucks.”

“Welcome to divorce.”

“Okay, so I know and I’ve written that serenity begins and ends with me. But I was expecting us to at least be cordial.”

“Why?”

“Well, we’ve still got kids together.”

“Yes, but she’s focused on them. She doesn’t care about you and your journey. She’s glad you’ve got your new job because it means the steady checks are going to start coming in again. That’s why she turned you over to the AG’s office. She’d rather not deal with you at all.”

I’m not sure I’m fully over the idea of us being friends, but I sure got a lesson in practical divorce yesterday from my cowriter. Sometimes it’s great to be given the view from the other side of divorce.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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The Pretty Women Passing By, Gazelles and Lions

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I love women. I love a very specific woman, who I will marry in a few months, but in general I do still love women. I think the desire response is much deeper in the animal brain than we give it credit for. I don’t have a wandering eye, but I do appreciate a healthy body. And the healthier I become, the more I am even fascinated by my own body.

We are animals. We are programmed to look. In the beginning, we were looking for our mama, for milk. Then we progressed to looking for a mate. As humans, after we’ve had our offspring, we are looking more for pleasure. Granted there are plenty of men and women who are still looking for opportunity, but that’s a different urge all together.

I call them gazelles. The beautiful woman who jog by on the running trail. People watching. That’s a fun thing, right? What are we looking at? I can tell you I’m spending an inordinate amount of time on the women. And I can also tell you I have a preference for what excites me. And all this is hard-wired into my animal system. I’m not looking for a mate, I’m not even looking for a playmate, but I’m looking nonetheless.

What is it about beauty that fascinates us all so? On the running trail, I’d guess most women are also admiring the women more than the men. So we’re voyeurs. We like to look. People watching is a thing that both sexes enjoy. And again, I’m curious, what are we watching exactly?

I’m guessing that the sexual nature of our voyeurism is quite high. I notice hips, breasts, hair and eye color, of the passing women. And some I am instantly attracted to, others I’m not. And it’s an entire range of responses. I can see something beautiful in most women that walk by, but there are particular ones that charge me up. What is it?

Joy.

I think that’s the main thing I see when I am attracted to someone along the running trail. Yes, some of the physical characteristics have to be in place, but once we have an apples-to-apples situation, the JOYFUL women are most intriguing to me. I was wondering about this the other day in the grocery store. The whole thing where women get angry when men ask them to smile. I get that. We don’t want to be on display or observed in most of our daily experience. But if a woman (or man) is truly joyful something of that happiness comes through to those around them.

I also think we see joy as love. Joy breeds more joy, so why wouldn’t we want to be with another joyful person. And as a joyful person myself, how could I be happy with someone who was innately sour? Let’s not always make this about my ex-wife, but I’d have to say that her disposition is much less optimistic and open than mine. I never asked her to smile, but I often wondered where the scowl came from. Today, I suppose the scowl comes from me. I’m the cause of much of her wounding in the world, at least that’s what I project onto her angry face. But perhaps she’s just fundamentally unhappy. There are those people.

Let’s lean into love and joy. Let’s move away from those people who are constrained by their own unhappiness. And as we move through the world we can celebrate our joy by sharing it. I don’t think of my glowing smile as a challenge so much as a “hello, how are you, I hope you are happy too,” type greeting. I know it’s often misconstrued as a come-on, but it’s really just about sharing joy.

The gazelles on the trail are fun to look at. More fun when you can see their inner joy. I am tempted to race after them. But as a wizened old lion, what would I do with them if I caught them? Devour their beauty and youth? Pray on their innocence? No, I’d rather just admire their joyful gate as they bound by, young, beautiful, and happy.

I’m no longer in the hunt. My joy is settled and content in my new relationship. But my joy is also meant to be spread. I won’t ever make the mistake of asking a woman to smile, but I might smile at them from my own place of inner joy. To some that’s a challenge and something to be angry about. To others it’s an invitation to share some of my joy.

Life is good. If you are joyful and you show it people notice. By sharing your joy you are spreading the love between you and others. Gazelles and lions can live in peace as human adults.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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Divorce Lessons: If What You Want Is Love That Lasts

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If what you want is love, if you are looking for a long-term relationship, don’t settle for maybe, kinda, sorta, okay. Don’t. It won’t work out. That’s perhaps how we got in this “single dad” place anyway. We made compromises. We overlooked flaws because we were in love. Love is a drug, but wait a bit, until it wears off, before you decide to spend the next 5 – 10 years with someone. If you’re looking to spend the rest of your life with someone, why would you compromise?

What I Learned in My First Marriage

I my first marriage I was blinded by beauty and what I thought was a kindred spirit. Several things were kindred, but the overwhelming feature of that marriage was that woman’s paranoia and rage. It was obscured during our courting phase by good behavior and lots of passion. But on the honeymoon, when she got sick on the cruise, I saw a truly angry and inconsolable woman. At that very moment I saw the makings of my divorce.

Learnings: Don’t get fooled by beauty, look beyond the sexual infatuation. Make sure you go through a rough patch or two to understand the other person’s coping mechanisms. When things are bad, get the fuck out. It took me nearly six years to divorce this woman, primarily because I didn’t want to give up on the initial dream.

What I Learned in My Second Marriage with Kids

Again, I learned a lot after the relationship had gotten underway that might have queered me on the relationship had I had a clear mind. But I fell in love early, stayed in love through some very mixed times, and then learned, nine years in, that she had gone to see an attorney before even bringing the subject up. Even in couple’s therapy, she didn’t speak a peep. If you say, in therapy, “I’m thinking about going and seeing an attorney about divorce,” then you’ve got a place to start. If you’ve already been to see the attorney and have your “options” before you, then you are already in the process of leaving your marriage.

Learnings: Pay attention to falsehoods, they may signal larger issues. Once you have kids all parts of the relationship have to change. When one partner wants out there’s not a lot the other partner can do to save the marriage. It’s all about the kids. Even the divorce is mostly about the kids. Make sure you focus on their benefit ahead of your own, even if you lose in the negotiations.

What I’m Learning Before My Third Marriage

Finding a deeper connection is critical for a lasting relationship. Letting the other person see your pain and understanding how they deal with it, is also a critical part of sounding out the fitness of a relationship. And then watching to understand how much a new potential partner is moving towards you, asking you for opportunities to do stuff, finding ways to connect. If you can keep this seeking up in your courtship, perhaps you can keep it up in your long-term relationship.

As it turns out my fiancé and I come from diverse backgrounds. And while this could cause issues in some couples for us it seems to enhance our fascination with one another. She’s from Chicago, I’m from Texas. She’s never had kids, I have two. She’s a marathon running, I walk. In all this, we’ve found simple activities we love to do together. She runs, I bike along side her. She’s learning to play tennis, my favorite sport. We road bike together, and I’m beginning to keep up with her on the flats.

And we’ve been through a few lows to balance out the highs. Sticking with my own malady, she has seen me crumble under depression. And while it was frightening at first, since she didn’t know what to expect, she continued to stay close and ask me what I needed from her. All I needed was closeness. There was nothing she could do, but not leave. And we walked every day together. In depression it is very hard to keep your body moving, you’d rather sleep. But each day she’d ask me to join her for a walk and each day, against my own ennui, I would walk with her. We formed a partnership. Even in my darkest hour she would be there next to me asking me to go for a walk. If I’ve got her in my court, for the rest of my life, I’m set.

Learnings: Do things you love to do and as the other person to join you. Join the other person in the things they like to do. Watch and learn how each of you deals with hardships and see if you can find the supportive way to remain close and connected.

There Is Hope

Even after two failed marriages, I still have hope for my future with this woman. I think that the lessons from my previous relationships will allow me to form a healthier foundation for the longevity of my marriage. As we move forward towards exchanging vows in March, I get more excited and more sure of our love and connection. We’ve seen the worst, we’ve stayed close through it, and we’ve come out on the other side in love even more deeply.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

Back to Dating After Divorce

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I Believe In Marriage

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I tell friends that I’m getting married and I get that look. Like, “What? Are you kidding?” I’m not kidding. I’m proud of the fact that I’ve found my next mate. And should I be as tenacious as I was in my second marriage, I think this one might be for keeps. But it is the spirit and intention that is solid and good. And enlightening.

When my fiancé and I started going out together the pull to be in a relationship rather than dating was immediate. Dating, it seemed, was for younger people looking for entertainment, trying to find ways to kill time. My sweetheart and I were intent upon sorting out our relationship from the earliest hours of our first kiss.

I was quite clear when we started seeing each other that I was not a dater. That I didn’t want to date. I wanted a solid. She was the same.

We are making a mutual agreement, a celebration and affirmation, that love triumphs over all. That the hurts of the past were stepping-stones to get us to this point, this relationship, this massive feeling of love.

Then we talked about our past relationships. In both marriages we had both been the partner fighting to keep things together. If we’re both fighters, we said, what could keep us from working it out in this relationship? And that’s sort of been our mantra. We have disagreements and differences, but we move beyond them pretty solidly with the idea that you don’t sweat the small stuff, and that it’s mostly small stuff. We love the big stuff together. And we don’t spend too much time worrying about the small stuff.

Today we were exercising and I started thinking about how excited I am to be getting married. I announce it with pride. “March 4th, we’re getting married.” It’s almost as if it’s the first time. Of course, it’s not. I have two kids. But together we see the future together, with my kids and without them. She even helps me see the irrationality of my ex sometimes, when she asks for things that seem unreasonable. “It’s all small stuff, baby,” she likes to tell me. And with her by my side, it does all seem like water under the bridge.

I’ve got a good life. I’m still rebuilding myself and my creative empire, but with this woman by my side, I feel invincible. No wait, that’s not a good metaphor. I feel boundless. Hopeful. I feel seen for who I am and who I bring to the relationship. That’s a huge part of being in a loving relationship. You want to feel seen.

So today, I was riding my bike alongside her while she ran seven miles. I was proud of her. I was proud of us. And I was filled with even more pride thinking about getting married. That’s the spirit that you want going into a third (for me) and second (for her) marriage. I am undaunted by the failures of the past. And this time, I am convinced that the proper ingredients and attention to macro-compatibility has been taken care of. We are in love. And it’s love in a big way.

When we are with groups of people we can feel the joy radiating from our bond. We’re not supra-conscious of it, but there is a joy. There is a loving feeling we generate between us that we share with those around us. Our close friends are happy for us. They have seen the transformation of each of us in the basking glow and love of this new partnership.

I believe in marriage, because I know I am done with this woman. I can see a million young gazelles along the running trail, and none of them come close to the love and adoration I have for my future wife. And I am proud, after all I’ve been through, that she will take me. We are making a mutual agreement, a celebration and affirmation, that love triumphs over all. That the hurts of the past were stepping-stones to get us to this point, this relationship, this massive feeling of love.

Marriage is sacred. And in just over six months we will commit ourselves to this new life together. The truth is, we made our verbal vows about six months after we’d started dating. All the rest has just be the interlude before getting married. We wanted to steep in the joy of planning, the joy of telling people, “We’re getting married,” the joy of spreading our love for one another with all of those around us. I know it sounds woo woo, but we’re creating more love with the love between us. And our marriage shows the world that it’s never too late, you are never too broken, and you can find the love of your life.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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What a Divorced Dad Wants in the Next Relationship, Year 3!

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Dating is not enough.
If you don’t know what you’re looking for, you will surely miss it.

My goal in dating, in setting out a dating plan, was to wind up in a relationship. I don’t like dating. I didn’t like dating. And now that I’m set to remarry in March of 2017, I can tell you, while the process was not unpleasant, I prefer being IN a relationship to searching for one. Let’s get caught up.

Dating a Mom
I said this was of critical importance to me in my next relationship. Both the women I dated before finding my fiancé were moms. And I assumed that being a mom was a requisite for dating me, because I assumed that the “mom” gene was required to understand the “dad” gene. I was wrong. My fiancé can accept my dad role along side my mate role. They are not mutually exclusive, but one is not more important than the other. In fact, as I began to date my fiancé it became more and more clear to me that establishing my next relationship was as important as being a good dad. And in several years, my kids will be going off to college and all I will have is my relationship. I determined that getting the relationship right, regardless of kids was more important that if the woman had kids of her own. Date the woman, if she has kids or does not have kids is just part of the equation.

Going Long Term
As I stated early on in my dating adventures, I was not “into dating.” I was looking to be in a long-term relationship. (LTR) My dating activities were focused with that in mind. If chemistry was lacking on the first date, it was also the last date. I wasn’t interested in creating the next relationship. I wanted sparks and fire and excitement right from the start. I wanted spunky, adventurous, creative, and beautiful all wrapped into one package. I was not going to setting for “all right” or “nearly.” I was either all in or all out. I learned to streamline my dating process by using this rule: If I didn’t see a future in the relationship there would be no second date. Sure, people warm up to each other over time. But chemistry and initial attraction were part of my program. And when I went out with my fiancé I got all of my wishes in spades. Even as I was telling her, I was really not looking for a relationship, she was blowing my circuits with her charm, smiles, and wit. She knocked my socks off from the first Facebook text. And things have not slowed down one bit.

Going Too Fast
When you know it’s right, when you both know it’s right, there’s no need to hesitate. Jump into it. If you’re going to blow up, blow up big and soon. Why piddle about and “see” if things are going to work out? We jumped at the assumption that everything was going to work out, and the attraction and compatibility we felt early on was all the signal we needed. Granted we were both in the right position, we were both looking for NEXT, and we were both open to a long-term relationship. As they say, “Timing is everything.” When the timing was right with us, we were planning a trip to New York City together within the first six weeks together. BOOM. Don’t hesitate or you might miss it. Don’t doubt the magic, if you feel it lean into it, and if it goes away or fails, you will know you took your shot.

Sweating the Small Stuff
We’ve always maintained our eyes on the big relationship picture. We can disagree on several things while still maintaining our balanced love for one another. She can irritate me, and I can trigger her anger, and we know we’re bigger than any of the little misses. We have the BIG CONNECTION figured out. The little misses, the irritations, the things left undone and unsaid, can be repaired in the wake of the huge love we feel towards one another. If you’ve got big love, the little details will work themselves out.

About Those Kids
My fiancé does not have to be best friends with my kids. They don’t have to love her like a second mother. We don’t have that kind of relationship between the four of us. She is Martha, they are my kids. We all have a relationship together. Sometimes they are the priority, sometimes it’s Martha, sometimes it’s myself. But it never gets confusing because we are not jockeying for position. We all love each other. She loves my kids because she loves me. They love her because they have seen the transformative effect she’s had on my life. We are all happy. And we are all individuals in a relationship with each other. There’s give and take on the weekends they are with me. There is more flexibility and freedom on the weekends when they are with their mom. What we do have is time. And the time I get to spend with all four of them is of peak value. And when I most feel like a family is when we are driving somewhere in the car together and the kids are rolling their eyes at our overt displays of affection for one another. “I’ll get to be so lucky,” I say, to see you guys in love in the future. They get it. We all get it. We are a family of individuals who come together on alternate weekends to be a family. There’s plenty of flexibility in that and plenty of togetherness.

Looking to the Future
The kids will be moving past high school and moving out sooner than I imagine. I am going to eat up all the together time with them that I can. While I have the opportunity to be with them, I will show up 110% for them. And as they reach escape velocity I can focus even more on my primary relationship. We’ve started talking about retirement, dreams, next big plans. And we’re 100% in sync. Life after kids will not be a lot different that life today, but we’ll have even more time to explore things together. And when possible we’ll invite my kids along for the ride.

As you look to build the long term relationship with a spouse, remember your kids are important, and in some ways they are priority number one, but that will change over time. As you become less of a priority in their lives, as they move on to college and their own lives, you will be left with what’s next. Make sure you are building the NEXT that you want. As I was looking at dating a woman, I was ever conscious of the next I wanted to build together. Today I have that and it gives me great hope and joy for the future.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

Back to Dating After Divorce

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Coparenting When the Other Person Wants to Fight

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It’s hard to understand where the anger comes from, so I don’t try. Let’s just say she’s still mad at me, six years after the divorce. Hmm. Am I still doing things that hurt her? I don’t think so. Is she remarried to a lovely and loving man? Yes, as far as I know. So how does it work that my requests for clarification come back as rants at my lack of parenting cooperation? How is it that a simple question becomes a war?

This is no way to coparent. The reason we cooperated in the divorce is to lessen the animosity between us. What then has gotten so corrosive in the six years since the divorce was finalized?

  • Things have not turned out as she’d hoped
  • Leaving me did not immediately make her a happier person
  • There are still financial concerns, and some of them are between us
  • The full-time job commitment is exhausting
  • Kids require a lot of food, transportation, and money

In this morass of what is called parenting, somehow, my ex-wife believes I am no cooperating as much as she would like. Sure, she asked for the custodial parent role, she asked to have the 70/30 split rather than 50/50 as I was requesting. So, there is some reason behind the imbalance. But is it okay for her to now be mad about it?

I guess people will be mad. And it’s certainly not my place to take her inventory. But it does impact me, her anger, all the time. I don’t ask for much variance from the schedule, because I don’t want to upset her, or really get involved in a conversation with her about anything. I avoid her as I’m dropping off the kids bags after a dad-weekend. Again, less is more concerning our interactions.

I guess the good news is she’s getting her new husband to intervene and negotiate on  her behalf. And I have to say he’s less angry. Of course, he’s parroting a lot of the same things she says. He’s asking odd questions that she’s asking him to ask. He doesn’t come across as angry as much as confused. He would probably handle things differently. And as we began discussing how to get the AG out of our relationship, at first he was receptive. But then the message came back, her message, the AG is staying, it’s for the best.

Somehow she believes I’m going to try to skip out on my responsibility to my kids. In six years I have gotten behind in child support.  But I was never unavailable to her or my kids, I was never uncooperative when she was asking for a variance from the schedule, I was never withholding money when I had it. But she felt she should use the state’s attorney’s to enforce the divorce decree.

I guess that’s her right. And, in her mind, common practice when the divorce or child support is contested. But I didn’t contest anything. I even let her have the 70/30 deal she wanted, even as it made me very sad to do so. I’ve relented on all my demands. And as she is now the custodial, primary parent, I am asked to behave a bit like a second-class citizen. Even calling the AG’s office, they give you the old “custodial parent press one, non-custodial parent press two.” Why should they split you before they have even spoken to you? Is it because they are mostly working FOR the custodial parent and AGAINST the non-custodial parent? Or so they can provide better service, or shorter wait times for the custodial parent?

Anyway, today I resolved to live my life, and to support my kid’s lives, in spite of my ex-wife’s anger and uncooperative actions. I’ve placed my demands and frustrations in the same box I placed them in when we were going through the divorce and I was being asked to accept things that I knew were not fair. But, divorce is not fair. Coparenting is not fair. And while cooperation is much easier with two parents that are civil to one another, it can also be done when only one of the parents is committed to the positive side of the street. That’s all it takes.

One positive parent can make 100% of the difference. I’m not perfect, and occasionally I want to lash out when she does something that seems unreasonable. I don’t. I never do. I have learned to put my anger and frustration into a different box, one I can use later to fuel my workout or writing session. She’s still able to get under my skin, but it’s up to me to put that energy to use for positive things. That’s where I live, ever-moving towards the positive in all that I do.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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Meet Your Lover at Their Passion

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Today I rode 15 miles with my fiancé. A year ago I could not have ridden half that distance. But she loves cycling. And I learned if I take up cycling it’s time spent doing something she loves, and we’re together. While I would not put cycling in my initial passions, I joined her at the point of her passion.

So she never joined us in our biking adventures, or our tennis “games,” or rough-housing in the pool. She chose to separate from us.

How many times in our lives do we have the opportunity to join another person in doing something they love? Dancing? Biking? Playing tennis? As you long to expand your time and join with this other person you begin to look for ways you can be together. And if that togetherness is bound up in physical fitness activities so much the better.

I remember in the early months of my relationship with the mother of my children, she began taking tennis lessons with one of her best friends. They loved to joke about how they were doing it for the sexy skirts they got to buy and wear. And though I give her an “A” for effort, there at the beginning of our relationship, she didn’t continue beyond the first 6 weeks. I would often ask her to go “hit” with me and the kids, but often she took the time as an opportunity to have some alone time instead.

It seemed that there was always some reason that she wouldn’t join in. Board games. “No thanks.” Swimming. “Not this time.” And tennis. “I’ll just say here.” She often took the opportunity to join as an opportunity to not-join. Odd.

When the kids were riding bikes, I suggested we get her a mountain bike for her birthday one year, so she could join us. “That’s not a great birthday present,” she said. I never quite understood that response. “Um, what is…?” So she never joined us in our biking adventures, or our tennis “games,” or rough-housing in the pool. She chose to separate from us.

In relationships, marriage or dating, we choose what activities we want to join in. And we can either look for ways to connect or we can look for ways to be separate.

As our marriage was winding down, she did try to enter the tennis court again. This time it was just the two of us. And I recall the feeling of sadness as we were entering the court for the first time in 10 years. I thought she looked great in her tennis outfit. And I was encouraged by her openness to “trying tennis again.” But her heart was not in it. She was doing it as a potential bridge between us, one that she chose to shut down years earlier. And the roadblock between us had become too high to pass.

We only played tennis together that one time. It left me feeling empty, as I knew she did not enjoy herself, and would not be suggesting tennis again.

In relationships, marriage or dating, we choose what activities we want to join in. And we can either look for ways to connect or we can look for ways to be separate. I believe my then-wife was aware that she had isolated too much in our marriage and that she was making an effort to come out of her shell and join with me. The effort was appreciated, but the overall effect was lost in the sea of dissatisfaction that was obvious on the tennis court that day. She had never continued her lessons, had never joined the kids and me on the court, and was not very happy being a complete beginner. It was easier not to play tennis.

It’d be easier not to get into bike riding with my fiance. I’ve fallen several times and have the scars to prove it. But we keep getting back on the bike and we keep making dates to ride. Today we’ve got an ongoing Sunday morning ride that we can both look forward to.

Join with your partner in all the ways you can. Time together doing things you both love is time together IN LOVE. That’s how it works. And that’s what you want from here on out, a way to join in more and more of your life.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

Back to Positive Divorce & Co-Parenting

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Going Positive and Growing Stronger

screen-shot-2016-10-10-at-6-22-18-amI’m reminded this morning that I have a choice in every interaction with my ex-wife. As I have written before, there are two levels of healing that need to take place after divorce. (Two Levels of Healing) But this morning I see it’s even more simple than that. I wake up, reset my day, and forgive my ex-wife. It’s as easy as letting her go, letting her be as she is, and wishing her well in her day shepherding our kids from school to activities and such. While she has them 70% of the time, against my wishes, she has also been doing a great job at being an uber-single mom.

Today I dance myself awake most mornings, without my kids. But I’ve begun engaging them in new ways.

I resent her time with the kids some days. I wake up wishing I had my kids to rouse, tussle with, and make breakfast for and get to school. It was a ritual that I used to love. It was my ritual when we were married. From the earliest days of parenthood, I was the early bird, I was the breakfast man, I was the song weaver who would start our day with some new band I had discovered. I literally danced everyone awake. Except my then-wife, who liked to sleep in as much as possible.

Today I dance myself awake most mornings, without my kids. But I’ve begun engaging them in new ways. I text them before they ever wake up (yes, they check their phones on waking like most teenagers) and offer to buy them breakfast and give them a ride to school. Their mom doesn’t mind, because it halves her driving load. And my kids love the extra time, and the alone time with me. Well, I get the feeling they do anyway, as they are starting to ask me to take them to school on off days.

I can bring joy into their lives now as I did when they were little.

So as I have begun to offer my joy to them in the mornings, I have begun to form slightly different relationships with them. For example, my 13 yo daughter has begun asking if I will hit tennis balls with her after school on Wednesdays. This was her idea. I’m thrilled. Tennis is my sport and we used to play when she was younger. Today, I suspect it is as much about getting time with me as it is about perfecting her backhand. But the cool thing is, she’s getting good at tennis, without even trying. She’s the sporty one.

As your kids get older, perhaps, you can begin moving on from the divorce and moving into something else. Just relating with your kids on a more-adult level. No, they are still kids. But they are reaching an age where they can decide what they want to do, and they can ask for what they want. If they want more time with me, I’m going to make myself available as best I can.

I can bring joy into their lives now as I did when they were little. Yes, there was a period in the middle that I had much less access to them, but we are past that. And for her part, their mom facilitates our connections. I have to be grateful for that. We’ve always cooperated in regards to our kids.

This morning I give thanks for the flexibility and caring my ex-wife shows me and my kids when they ask for some new connection. We’ve both worked hard to get here. And as we work better together everyone benefits. I can’t wake them with song everyday, but I can wake them with an attentive and happy dad looking to support them in any way they can imagine. All they have to do is ask.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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Losing Dads in Divorce

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My dad died when I was 21 years old. I was a freshman in college. And the loss nearly took me out too. While our relationship had been tumultuous, losing the opportunity to connect with him, forever, was devastating. The real story is, however, that I lost my dad when I was about six years old. My mom tells the story that she told him he could choose to continue drinking and lose his family, or he could stop drinking. I’m not 100% sure it went down that clearly, but I am sure of the fact that my father was an alcoholic.

He exited my life in a big way when he moved out of the house. Even before his divorce was final he was remarrying another alcoholic and the slide down into darkness was as swift as it was complete. I have no idea what his new wife felt about his kids, but it was clear that neither of them cared about their kids as much as they cared about partying together. I recall this period as one of estrangement. I could no longer get close to my dad. He was either drunk lamenting his divorce, or drunk celebrating his newfound love. But there was not a lot of love to go around. The love was for the bottle. I know it sounds cliché, but it’s more truth than myth.

What my dad missed from my 6’s on was everything. I was a star tennis player (as my dad was a tennis player) but he never hit with me. I was a successful football player but my dad made one game that I can remember, and he brought “her.” I was an awful baseball and basketball player, and today I can see how other kids dads were instrumental in helping them get over the fear and challenge of competitive sports. But my dad was nowhere to be found.

Sure, he was a hard worker. He was a successful doctor. And somehow he kept his schedule and his medical practice even as his vitality was going down the tubes. You’d think after his first heart attack he would start making changes in his life. You’d think. And maybe the second heart attack would really be a wake up call. But, in fact, my dad had three heart attacks before he was forced to quit drinking and smoking due to the chemotherapy that was required for his cancer treatments.

For the first time in my young life, from age 6 on, my dad got sober. It was a glorious and amazingly sad time. As his brain unpickled, he began to speak about “missing so much of your life.” He was dying, and yet he began to understand what he had lost in the 15+ years since the divorce.

I took all the time with him that I could. I spend weekends out at his condo, at the golf course, with him. I even tried to play golf with him, but he was still a tyrant and jerk about losing balls. Well, me losing balls. Him losing balls, no problem. I was satisfied riding in the cart with him and enjoying spending time with him. Even though his body was emaciated, he did his best to enjoy the last year of his life. But the poignancy of the loss was almost too much to bear.

On Sunday as I was about to drive back into town, he said, “I really want to do more of this with you.” We had spent the weekend playing cards, me watching him play golf, and essentially catching up on our lives. The next weekend he was admitted to the hospital for the last time. What glimpse I had of my real dad was short and sweet. He died about three months later, after a protracted withdrawal phase where he couldn’t speak or communicate by more than a squeeze of the hand.

I miss my father. I wish he had been around to see my kids, to know my kids, to enjoy my kids. But not if he had still been drinking. So maybe he did us all a favor, by allowing the alcoholism to cure and then kill him rather than prolong his agony and drunken stupor. I’m pretty pragmatic about drinking these days, I do it some, but more than two beers simply does nothing for me. Why blunt my experience of living.

My father was blunting his experience of loss. In his marriage he made the wrong decision. He chose to leave and lose the best family he could ever have imagined. And even as he tried to grandiosely celebrate his new wife and new adopted daughter, the real love of his original family escaped him. Until he was dying. Then we all came rallying to his bedside. All four kids spent the last few months in town, trying our best to be cheerful and supportive, but quietly crying with each other at what we had already lost and what we were losing.

Today I saw a dad and his kid on the baseball field. I wonder if I would’ve been a better baseball player if my dad had not been an alcoholic. I wonder if I could have played first string basketball if I’d had someone to shoot hoops with. As it was, I was left to playing horse in the driveway by myself. My mom tried, but she wasn’t all that sporty.

Dad’s fulfill a vital role in our lives. When that role is limited or eliminated the children suffer the consequences. Let’s put the balance back in parenting. And when divorce happens, let’s fight to make 50/50 the norm and not the exception. I don’t think it would’ve made any difference in my father’s case, he didn’t want 50/50, he wanted out, in some respect. But the out he was granted was final and absolute. And until he was dying he drank to keep himself from feeling the loss.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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Trying Again to Be 100% Positive

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When I set out on this journey, three years ago, to build a 100% positive divorce parenting blog, well… I knew there would be challenges. I knew that I was starting with a chip on my shoulder and another blog, where I could vent. Today things are much the same, I still blog out of both sides of my mouth, and I’m still confused as to how I can keep pissing my ex-wife off so frequently.

I’ve come close to achieving my goal of 100% positive, even when I’m skirting a difficult subject. But I’ve also failed repeatedly.

I know sometimes people need other people to be mad at. My mom, for example, is a worrier. If I don’t give her something to worry about, she’ll be worrying about someone. It’s fine when it’s not me. But it’s always going to be someone. So, perhaps that’s the deal with my ex-wife. She needs someone to be mad at. Somehow the world has done her wrong, or she’s not living the life she’d really like to be living, and somehow I have something to do with it.

I’ve done my best to pull all punches here on The Whole Parent. And I’ve come close to achieving my goal of 100% positive, even when I’m skirting a difficult subject. But I’ve also failed repeatedly. Most of those posts are sitting unpublished in the “drafts” folder, awaiting some revelation or insight that allows me to approach the subject with a better attitude.

That seems to be the name of the game these days: attitude. I could be mad at my ex-wife. There are certainly things she’s done, things she’s doing, things she will do, that can set me off. My first response, these days, however, is to breathe, relax, and let it go. If I can laugh about it later I can laugh about it now.

Let’s take a recent example of miscommunication that could’ve gone two ways. It went the angry way, but let’s look at what happened and see how I fed into the fury rather than diffused the situation, like I normally do. (To be quite honest, I’m a bit tired of being the good guy divorced dad.)

You see, last week my wife authorized braces (not the inexpensive kind) for both my kids who seem to have great smiles, to me, the non-educated non-dentist father. She agreed to some $5,000 per kid with the dentist and had the Invisalign braces put on my kid’s teeth. She never asked me about it. Never mentioned it. I heard about it from one of my kids complaining about them, not knowing why he had to get braces in the first place.

Wait. What? So my ex-wife incurred a $10,000 medical expense and forgot to ask or tell me about it? That’s a violation of our joint-custody rules. Hmm… I suppose I could go about my response in two ways. 1. Anger. 2. Reasoned response.

I sent her one email on the subject.

“I will only say it once. I do not think either of our kids need braces.”

In an effort to cover herself she didn’t respond to my email, she blasted everything about the last six years that made her angry at me.

That was it. Now, I could’ve done better. I could’ve played, the “you must’ve been too busy to call me…” card, but I was irritated and I let my angry side show a bit. I’d have to say I stayed pretty far away from the ANGRY response. And maybe because I didn’t take a more aggressive approach it gave her an opening to rail against me. She went on in a two page email about how disappointed she was in me, in my questioning her decision about this, about how unsupportive I’ve been in the last six years, since our divorce.

Of course, she was defending by attacking. She didn’t answer my question, until I posed it in a second email. Again, very short and to the point.

“I’m assuming that you want me to pay for half of their expenses, even though you did not ask me about it. Why didn’t you ask me about it?”

Now, I knew this would get her fired up. And another hot letter (too hot to excerpt even) came smoking into my inbox. I didn’t even read the entire letter. She knew she was in violation of our agreement. She was taking the FU approach to responding.

I’m curious how my more tempered email would’ve been received? The problem is she knew she had done something wrong. (Getting $10,000 worth of braces put on our kids without consulting me.) And in an effort to cover herself she didn’t respond to my email, she blasted everything about the last six years that made her angry at me.

Well, I’m doing a pretty good job here of keeping it above-board, but occasionally, like today, I have to let a little of the pain show through. Tomorrow I go back to being 100% positive. And tomorrow I will once again show the fully loving response to her angry missives. It’s all about the kids these days. Our anger, our emotions towards each other, shouldn’t even come into the equation. I do my best. But I can do better.

Have I failed?

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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