Category Archives: anger

Growing Up in a Warzone: Childhood Trauma and Adult PTSD

It’s no wonder I don’t know how to express anger. The anger in my family of origin was shown to me as a dangerous weapon. My father raged and the entire family cowered. I was four when it started. In these times, the war times, as a four-year old kid, what you need is a comforting adult to pick you up and soothe you. “Everything is going to be all right.” Except, in our family everyone was triggered and afraid. There were no adults in the room. And when my father drank in addition to raging, all hell would break loose inside our house. It was during these times that I escaped to my stick and stone fort up in the hills behind our house.

I was building forts and stocking them with stick guns and rocks. And I would take refuge in the hills whenever things got to hot in the house. And this happened often. And again, what a little kid needs at this point is a parent to come and find him, hold him, reassure him. What I got was relief from the roaring house and isolation. I was a lonely little boy. None of my friends could understand what was happening at my house. Sometimes I was afraid to have them over to play, because I didn’t want them to experience the war zone.

As an adult this coping mechanism is still triggered. And honestly, most adults suffer from isolating behaviors, even if they weren’t born into the anger zone. I think those of us with depression just find deeper and darker silences than most. So as an adult under major stress I head for my fort in the hills. I keep my mouth shut. And I huddle alone waiting for someone to rescue me. The rescue that never comes. The rescue that can’t really come, because I have to rescue myself. No mom or sister is going to come and find me. And even if they did the relief would be temporary.

The fear and isolation are inside me. And in my childhood I learned to be a wonderful performer. I made straight A’s, played all the sports, and even became a profession magician at 12. I was doing magic tricks all the time to keep the family happy. Of course, it didn’t work. I was sad. My family was sad. My dad was rageful.

It is such a familiar feeling when I retreat back into my isolation. It doesn’t feel good, but it feels familiar. My broken and alone self is one I identify with. I have been broken for a large part of my life. I was broken at the age of four and the trauma is still deeply hidden. Of course, the body does not lie, and that trauma comes out at shame and lack of self-love. I’m really horrible to myself. My internal voice often says things so mean I wouldn’t say them to an enemy. I’m working on that one, big time.

Still, growing up in an unsafe and hostile family home trained me to be hyper-vigilant. I guard against anger and disappointment, by trying to be a better person. I’ve learned some of my weaknesses and I’ve learned to compensate for some of them. It’s a long process of growth and recovery. Today, however, I’m happier than I’ve ever been. Even ending a 2.5 yo relationship, I find myself in a “sky’s wide open” future mindset. Today I could go anywhere, do anything.

The path for me now is to be still. I often rush into things before I am certain of the answer. Today my higher power is in charge of the next steps. I’m going to live my life with joy and grace and see what opportunities step up to meet me.

image: anger, creative commons usage

What’s Underneath the Pain?

I’ve been working with my therapist a lot over the last few months, trying to get underneath my major complaint: overwhelming sadness and regret. Sure I am sad and anxious. Those are real feelings. But where is the anger? I have no access to my anger. And this is a problem for me. I avoid anger. I’m scared of anger. But anger is your friend.

I learned at an early age the destructive power of anger. My dad, the alcoholic, had rages that scared the crap out of everyone in my family. I was 5. I learned from then on that anger was not safe. And like my father during his sober times, I learned that anger and disappointment were best kept inside and never exposed to others. I learned dysfunction. I learned to hide my feelings. And most of all I learned to avoid conflict at all cost. I learned to lie to diffuse tense situations. Even if the lie was not in my best interest.

This plays out in my relationships like this. A girlfriend says something really mean to me. A little time later she says, “I hope that didn’t hurt you. I was just telling you how I feel.” “No,” I would lie, “It didn’t hurt me.” But in that lie I was discounting my real feelings, I was not standing up for myself, and I was accepting unacceptable behavior towards me from someone I loved.

It’s no wonder that anger is hard for me to find inside myself. I’d rather avoid anger, conflict, disagreements. But anger is also energizing. And it’s that energy I was missing in my efforts to recover from my lingering depression. And I don’t think my therapist had the tools or experience to handle what I was going through. Sure, he tried to get me to express anger towards him for failing me in my treatment. But he was also my lifeline. He was the only one I was telling most of my fears to. And flipping to anger towards him, no matter how I felt about him, was too hard. So we struggled together. But I’m afraid I could’ve used a less passive engagement. So I’m seeking new counsel.

This pain that is underneath the sadness and loneliness is something we all struggle with to varying degrees. Some people try to deal with it head on, with therapy, 12-step groups, or journaling. Some people choose to avoid or cover it up with alcohol or drugs. The first group is trying to get through the struggle. The second group is trying to mute it, escape it, forget about it. But the second group is doomed to more of the same feelings they are trying to cover up. Alcohol is a depressant. It’s not a sleeping med. It’s not a way to relax. It’s a way to forget.

In conscious healing, an individual uses all the resources available to deal with what’s going on in their lives. In my case, the cognitive therapy was unable to counteract the bad chemistry in my brain. No amount of counseling, no amount of journaling, was going to pull me out of my depression. And as the meds continued to fail, I went through long periods of hopelessness. Even in the midst of a privileged life I was thinking about killing myself. Even with two great kids and several family members who were close and close by, I was cowering in my beautiful house trying to figure out how to painlessly off myself. But it was the bad chemistry speaking. And I knew enough to laugh at my suicidal thoughts. Sure I thought about it, that’s called ideation, but I NEVER made a plan.

If you ever find yourself making a plan, call 911. Your brain is trying to kill you.

I have a lot of pain underneath my current sadness. And I have a long way to go to get more comfortable with conflict and releasing my anger in a healthy way. For now, I’m still stuffing some of my feelings, and I’m still scared about some other things that feel out of control. In fact, most of life is out of control. All we can do, all we can focus on is ourselves and our program of recovery. We cannot wait for the other person to change. We cannot cajole them into recovery. We have to let them go, to find their own way, to seek their own higher power.

Look underneath what’s bugging you. Is there anger there? More sadness? Then get some help. Write about it. Reason things out with someone else. Because until you begin to uncover what’s going on inside your head and heart, you will continuously be driven by things that don’t serve you.

Yes, I have lost everything for the second time in my life. But I still have so much to live for. And, for now, I’m as happy as I’ve ever been. I’m still digging into and talking about my anger resistance. But everything seems to be moving in the right direction in my life. I’m putting in the work on myself. I’m striving for success rather than just survival. Oh yeah, the meds kicked in a few weeks ago and it was like I was a different person. I came out of some sleepy depressive fog, and I could tell my old jovial, engaged self was back.

Take care. If there’s anything I can do to help you on your journey, let me know.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

image: sad clown, creative commons usage

 

Know What Your Problem Is? Mom and Dad.

Family of origin events and habits form a good part of what makes us who we are as adults. For example my dad never expressed his anger until he literally exploded and scared the crap out of all of us. I have that same repressed anger, except I never get to the explosion part. Of course, for my dad it took a drink or two to loosen his vitriolic tongue. And my mom taught me how to suffer in silence and worry, worry, worry about everything. She also showed me my first example of depression, after her divorce when I was 7.

Those several facts have given me a blueprint of my emotional DNA.

  1. I have trouble expressing anger.
  2. I have trouble with people who drink too much.
  3. I’m scared to death of someone raging at me.
  4. I worry a lot about things that never happen, wrecking a good bit of my here-and-now present moment.
  5. I have a depression symptom that looks a lot like simply giving up.

And all of these factors weigh into my adulthood personality and personality disorders. I am conflict adverse. I’d rather lie to you than fight you, about anything. (Kinda wimpy, right?) Well, these parts of me also caused me to lose the three primary relationships in my life in some form or fashion.

In both my marriage and my recent relationship my depression was really the crushing factor that caused the other person to opt-out. And I get it. I don’t blame either of them for their instincts towards their own personal preservation. I was a wreck. And I had no idea when or how I was going to get out of it. I was hopeless and it made them hopeless too. And two hopeless people can only be together so long before something breaks. It’s terrifying and heartbreaking at the same time. And both times I was asked to leave. I get it. I honor both of them for taking care of themselves. That’s all we can do in life, take care of ourselves. Even if it means ending a loving relationship.

This same DNA will form the future of my relationships as well. And the clearer I get on the issues and the solutions, the easier it will be to keep a relationship. It’s not 100% up to me. But my actions will determine my own course of action, even if that means getting fired and losing my shit and falling into depression. I hope that doesn’t happen, but I know the depression will rear its ugly head again in the next 50 years. It’s not if, it’s when. And the rest is up to me and my care team. Gross. It’s a disability that is part of loving me. And it’s one I have a hard time loving about myself. But I get over it.

And the drugs, in my case, do work when they work. They also poop out and leaving me a shivering fearful wreck. And really, we know that pharmapsychiatry is a dark art. They have no idea what they’re doing. The simply rotate the same handful of drugs until they find one that seems to make things better. serotonin, Dopamine, norepinephrine, the chemicals in my head, are simply concepts about what’s really going on. But most of the time even my psychiatrist is scratching his head, discussing with me options when things aren’t working. He doesn’t know anything. And all we have is my 10 year history together, and a lot of trust.

Depression aside, the most powerful work we can do on ourselves is to get straight with our family of origin. It may take a lifetime, and you may not be able to fully rid yourself of the unhealthy influence, but you’ve got to keep trying. So ask yourself, “What did mom give me?” and “What did I learn from dad?” And listen to what comes back. You might need someone else to talk to in order to gain some objective feedback.

If there’s anything I can do to help you on your journey, let me know.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

image:  unhappy family, creative commons usage allowed

Facing My Personal Dragon: Depression

It’s a bit risky, all this talk about depression. By writing about my struggles I might, for example, give anyone googling my name access to my personal medical history. I might be limiting the future of my career. I might be scaring away potential employers, lovers, friends. But I can’t stay in my darkness alone. Depression is a disease of isolation and fear. I have courageously embarrassed my illness, though I’m not ready to admit to the actual diagnosis that is now part of most job applications. I have a disability. Hard to swallow sometimes, but real.

In my teens I experienced this major depression for the first time in my life. Sure, I’d been a moody kid, but a lot of that mood had been creatively fueled optimism. But when I moved away from home to attend a prep school, my foundations crumbled under the intellectual rigor of the school and swept me into a hopeless and airless place. I could no longer think straight. I was failing Spanish for the second time. And I was depressed and beginning to self-medicate with marijuana. Not a good period of my life.

Since that first breakdown I have struggled 4 or 5 times with utter and complete darkness. A darkness so dense that is wrecked every project, job, relationship in my life. And I know I will be depressed again. It’s a crippling diagnosis when you hear your therapist or psychiatrist say, “You will probably deal with varying stages of this your entire life.” How would you to share that with a potential girlfriend or employer? Hard to stay positive in most circumstance.

While the discussion about mental illness has come a long way, the real darkness and power of depression is not well depicted in our popular culture. Sure TV shows have “manic” or “depressed” characters, but seeing actual depression is nothing like the worst show’s scenes and conflicts. Quite simply, when a person is depressed, even if they “want” to write about it, purge it, let is come out creatively, it’s as if a power switch has been turned off in your creative brain.

Going into my last depression that was triggered by the loss of a new job, I knew I was headed into a depression, but I was powerless to stop my slide into despair. I could see it was coming. I asked my talky  doctor and my meds doctor for help. I pleaded for help. I committed to writing it out, and staying present with my sad ass self. It simply was not possible. Stringing a few sentences together while in full-blown depression is… well… nearly impossible.

So, headlong I went, tumbling, into despair. I was fulling conscious of what was taking place as my creative and emotional faculties diminished. I was front and center as my 2.5 year relationship crumbled under the weight of my illness. And ultimately I was left to face my dragon alone. Utterly alone, homeless again, and defeated. And yet, not defeated. Somehow, I kept going. I kept walking 5 – 7 miles a day. I kept eating and sleeping well. I kept making and keeping appointments with my care team. I kept going in spite of feeling like ending it.

There is no time to slay the dragon. The dragon is your friend. — Reshad Feild

Somehow, I have been forced to accepting my fatal flaw. I cannot escape my own demons, I have to live with them. I cannot fight with the dragon when the dragon is a part of my DNA. As crushing as it is, I have to befrind my own depression, learn to accept my limits, and continue to work on forgiving myself for succumbing to the madness that is depressive illness.

Let me describe for a minute the experience I had three weeks ago, as a new medication came on-line and vanquished my depression. From the pits of isolation and self-pity, I kept working my program. I kept taking the meds and demanded of my psychiatrist that we try something new. I was not satisfied with survival. I was going to thrive again. And while I wasn’t confident in my plan, or in my doctor’s ability to offer me a fresh torch inside my deep cavern of shame and sadness, even in the absence of confidence, I had to walk on.

And then an amazing thing happened. It always happens. I always come out of it. But this time it was so dramatic, this switching back on of all my facilities, this return of hope and confidence, that everyone around me noticed the change. My inner power source was lit again. I began blogging immediately, even though I was dealing with a major breakup AND depression. This new drug, somehow, lifted the sleep-like fog that had suffocated me and my loved ones for the last 6 months. Like night and day, I was writing, contemplating new songs for my band to rehearse, I was imagining myself back in a relationship, with a good job and plans for the future. I was reborn.

And that type of swing is scary as shit. It’s horrifying for the people arround you to see the lights go out and their happy friend vanish into some abyss of sadness. In depression my thoughts become so heavy, my very existence becomes so tentative, that I simply STFU (shut the fuck up). I can’t tell you how I’m feeling, so don’t ask. If I told you it would freak both of us out. I can’t express my utter rage and disappointment with my life or my illness that seems to routinely rip all the joy and hope in my life. So I get real quiet. And for someone who writes, and someone who loves to talk and laugh, this transition becomes obvious and dramatic for everyone around me.

Okay, so I have this illness. I have this diagnosis that isn’t ever going to change. I might have long periods of stability and progress, but in the shadows is ALWAYS this prospect of losing it all in a wash of bad chemicals in my brain. It’s no joking matter. My family and a very select group of friends knows or have seen my loss. For everyone else around me, I just seem to disappear. Sure I”m still ON Facebook but I’m not posting anymore, I’m lurking and feeling sorry for myself that so many of you are going on with your normal, amazing, everyday lives. I’m stuck in the asylum of my mind, struggling to get out of bed in the morning, struggling to stay out of bed in the afternoon, and struggling with the simple tasks like shaving and dressing in normal clothes every day.

And, once again, I’m hopeful. Once again I have confidence to look for a high-powered marketing job. Once, again, I’m open to looking for a new relationship, even though my last one was crushed under the weight of my sadness.

That’s the part that I’m more in touch with than ever. Okay, doc, so I’m going to go through cycles of this the rest of my life? I’m not sure how to plan for that, or tell prospective mates that they might lose me at any moment, but I’m willing to take the steps to keep moving forward. The dragon, my depression, is with me. He’s not going anywhere. And to fight him is to fight and destroy myself. So instead, I’m going to love and befriend this dragon of mine. And while the beast has the fire power to destroy my life again, I have hope, I have confidence, and I press on with the believe that understanding will make the cycles less potent., the depression less debilitating. Still I’ve got to talk to any prospective mate about this dragon before we begin making future plans. And while I’m not ready to check the box on job applications that says I have a disability, inside I know I do. Inside I know the fall is just a slight tweak of my brain chemistry in the wrong direction.

Keep the faith, and if you need someone to talk to, check out my coaching page.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

image:  my temporary tattoo, creative commons usage allowed

The WholeParent Mission: Positive Single Parenting Year Four

Here’s the starting mission statement written back in Sept. 2013.

My unwavering and immutable mission:

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

I thought I would give pause and reflect, update, muse, on what’s been going on here and in my single-parenting life.

One way I’ve wavered from the original missions, is the 100% positive part. I realised that not letting any of the anger, conflict, and struggles out was not painting a very accurate picture of being a single dad. So, while I try to keep the focus on myself and not others, I am sure I have let a zinger or two fly here. I think it’s more important to be real.

I do believe that my kids come first. The marriage is over, but my parenting never ends. If I can stay focused on their wellbeing I can get over any frustrations I have with their mom. I am committed to being the best dad I can be, in spite of troubles, depression, anger, flights of fancy.

And the final mission, “honest feelings” is the glue that makes this entire adventure work. I think that’s what keeps this blog going even when I’m not contributing to it. I went on a year or more hiatus from writing here and the blog was still getting 100 – 200 reads per day. That’s pretty exciting. So, it seems like my voice is resonating with some folks. I’ll do my best to continue, even in the hard times, even in the blissful times when I don’t feel like writing. Most of all I will continue to be the best single dad I can be. And if I can give you a glimpse of what my life is like, struggles and all, then I have done my best for you as well.

Keep the faith, and if you need someone to talk to, check out my coaching page.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

image:  recent pic of me, creative commons usage allowed

Never the One to Quit

In my last two relationships, heck in most of my relationships that lasted more than a few weeks, I was not the dumper I was the dumpee. I have been left or asked to leave. Even when I was confident we still had a chance, that things would get better (but I’m an overly optimistic child), I was shown the door. Both times, in my marriage and in my last engagement, I was on the receiving end of a dear John letter. And now, looking back, both women were right in kicking me to the curb. Sure we might have done things a different way, but… I was also so unhappy, but also so conflict adverse that I stayed loyal in the face of huge betrayals and huge red flags that should’ve been grounds for ME breaking off the relationship. But I stayed.

One thing this did for me, in my mind, was give me the higher ground. I still catch myself saying, “But it wasn’t my idea,” still. UG. Victimhood feels so crappy. And I’m not a victim. But still, “It wasn’t my idea.”

I wonder about both women if they sometimes wonder, “Did I do the right thing?” And I get some sick satisfaction imagining that their answer is “No, I want him back.” But I’m dreaming silly thoughts. And thoughts that are not helpful in getting on with my healing. In answer to that question, to both women, I would say, “Yes, honey, you did what you needed to do. And I was just to scared to do it myself. So, thank you.”

But there’s no need to have that conversation. I am not on the higher ground. I to am 100% responsible for my part in the failing. That’s the part that I’ve got to accept and own. Avoidance is never a winning strategy, in business, life, or relationships. But I avoid like hell because I want everyone to be happy and to like me. I’ve always been this way. Seems to me, this has to do with the chaos in my early childhood where I was trying to soothe everyone while our home and family was going to hell.

I’m still learning. And while I’ve partially recovered from the grief of my last loss, I know I’ve still got work to do. We all do.

I think one of my biggest challenges is trusting myself, my feelings, and my anger. But anger is very scarey for a conflict-avoidant person. I have to own my sadness. I have to expose my anger. And I’ve got to learn to (sounds corny) love myself as much as I love others. I give myself a harder time than I would give anyone in my life. I’m downright mean. And it’s part of my depressive illness. When it gets out of hand I start falling away from reality and falling into some despairing hopelessness, that tends to overwhelm and freeze me. It sucks.

But they say awareness of the problem is the first step. So today, I admit I am powerless over my destructive coping mechanisms. And I’m turning my life over to the care of a higher power. And this takes place first thing in the morning, and many times during the course of the day.

In both of these devastating losses, I was still clinging to the hope that things would get better. And while I thought I was working to make them better, in both cases I was as unhappy as they were, I was just too dependant to admit it. Thank you to both these beautiful women, I loved them when they said it’s over, and I love them still. But I love them for breaking the toxic pattern and letting me go. Letting me fall back onto my own path. It was never their responsibility to take care of me, or make me happy, or do anything but be honest and live their own lives. We’re all on this journey, but it’s a singular journey. We may feel that a relationship gives us protection from loneliness and isolation, but it doesn’t. Everyone is doing the very best they can. We have to remember that at all times. About ourselves and about others in our lives. Nobody is trying to fuck things up. Give them and yourself a break. Take it easy. Take a step back. Then you’ve got to take action to preserve yourself and your journey. No one can do that for you. You’re on your own.

I hope you find your path to healing as well.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

image: breaking up, creative commons usage allowed

In Divorce: No We Can’t Be Friends

whole-dontkissme

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

Back to Positive Divorce & Co-Parenting

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image: don’t kiss me, creative commons usage

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

Back to Positive Divorce & Co-Parenting

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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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image: positive thinking, creative commons usage

Responsible Separation Is Harder than it Sounds

My ex and I tried to have a low-conflict cooperative divorce. Only problem is, she got an attorney, I didn’t. As cooperative as we were, when it came time to draft the decree we left it up to her attorney to set up the fair separation of our financial and parenting duties. It wasn’t fair and balanced. It was “responsible” for sure, because we agreed not to sue each other, but I was given the SPO (standard possession order) and the child support payments, just like 80% of other men getting a divorce with children in the early 2010s.

What she was doing was going outside the marriage, and outside our therapeutic relationship with our counselor, and consulting a divorce attorney to see what she was going to get should she choose to take further action.

What my then wife did, by seeking counsel before she mentioned it to me, by consulting with an attorney to understand her options, was she loaded the deck in her favor. By the time the “idea” of divorce was broached to me, she already knew what she wanted, she knew how it would likely go down, and she was fine with the consequences of her actions. Regardless of how those actions affected my kids and me, she was prepared for her “best case scenario” and I sort of gave it to her.

Again, let’s step back and take a snapshot of the days before my then-wife let me know she’d consulted with a lawyer to understand her options.

  1. We were not happy.
  2. We were not having sex.
  3. The money coming in from my full-time job was adequate, but we’d really need to discuss both of us working to get ahead.
  4. We focused on the kids as a way to not focus on our relationship.
  5. We were both seeking support and comfort outside the marriage. (Not an affair on either side.)
  6. We were living like roommates.
  7. I was beginning to express my dissatisfaction with the status quo and asking for changes.

And while I was doing my best to be an adoring husband, the lack of intimacy was wearing on my soul and my physical joie d’vivre. We were in couple’s counseling, but it always seemed the focus was on something I’d done wrong, like not tell her about a speeding ticket I got over the summer.  We never got around to talking about the relationship, or the lack of intimacy. Always some crisis of faith, some test of my “trustworthiness” was on the line each week as we meet and attempted a joining of the hearts and minds.

There was no join to be had. The sessions were cold. She was very guarded and withdrawn. She used the word “cynical” to describe our therapy at that time. I’ve never considered it any other way, but perhaps she was using the therapy to let me down easy. Anyway, she didn’t come out and tell me, I had to grill it out of her.

“Are you telling me you’ve been to see an attorney?” I asked during our penultimate session.

“I was just gathering information.”

Actually what she was doing was going outside the marriage, and outside our therapeutic relationship with our counselor, and consulting a divorce attorney to see what she was going to get should she choose to take further action. I was stunned in the session. I was hurt. I was furious.

“How could you not bring that up in here BEFORE going to see a lawyer?”

I was lead to believe that the kids needed their mom more than me, that a mom’s love is somehow superior, or more comforting than a dad’s love.

I pounded her via email over the next few days asking her for a decision. I had been in the cuckold box long enough. This moment of truth was either a time for us to regroup and join together again, or for us to work out the details of our divorce. While I was fighting during those first few days, I believed I was fighting for my marriage. What I didn’t know at the time, is I was fighting against the divorce more than for anything. See, I wasn’t happy either.

Responsible separation in the case of Laura A. Munson meant fighting for her marriage. Fighting against her husband’s depression and mid-life crisis, and fighting FOR the relationship. She simply didn’t buy her husband’s claims of being bored in the marriage. “Nope,” she said. “That’s not good enough.”

I wish I had been stronger. I don’t know that the outcome would’ve been any different. We would probably still be divorced. But I wished I had been able to question her about her motives for breaking up our marriage. Was it greener grass she was seeking? Was she asexual because she was no longer attracted to me? Was there someone else in her life that gave her joy?

What her move did, by going to see an attorney before discussing it in therapy, or talking to me about it, was it put the divorce into action before we had a chance to really map it out. She’d already done her due diligence. She knew what to expect from the court system in Texas. And she knew, like any mom in Texas filing for divorce knew, the mom usually get’s the kids, the child support, and the house. BINGO.

It’s unfortunate that the Bingo, or win for my ex-wife, had to be such a simple open and shut case. In several forums I was told that my ideas of 50/50 parenting were simply not realistic. I was made to question whether I could provide the love and care for my kids half the time. I was lead to believe that the kids needed their mom more than me, that a mom’s love is somehow superior, or more comforting than a dad’s love.

I lost 70% of my kids life in that split second in the therapy session when she said she’d seen an attorney. She knew she’d get the custodial parent role and approximately 70% of the custody. She knew she’d get the house, nearly paid for. And she knew she’d get a healthy monthly stipend that would allow her to keep the house without too much stress. She also knew she had to get a full-time job to divorce me. So she did.

It’s odd how the entire year leading up to the big fail in therapy, she’d been “looking for a job” that suited her sense of self. We’d been down several career changes together. I was supportive even as the bills were threatening our house, because I wanted her to be happy. The last year before we got divorced her income was actually a negative number. She was demanding I get the full-time job again, and she was apparently unable to get a job herself. Until she wanted the divorce.

Responsible separation would be 50/50 parenting, just how we did it when we were together. Responsible separation would mean not attacking the dad for being a second-class parent so the courts would rule in favor of the 70/30 standard possession order that is common in most states.

She knew what she was going to get. She placed her bets and altered the course of all of our lives to meet some new agenda she had cooked up alone. Or, if she had counsel, it wasn’t from me, or our couple’s therapist. He was as shocked as I was that she had seen an attorney.

The business of divorce took place over the next few months. I gave in on most issues. I was too depressed to fight. At that point I wanted to end the fighting and pain and get on with whatever was next in my life. I’m still sorry she chose the course she did. And I’m sorry the state of Texas still rules in mom’s favor 80% of the time, rather than in the favor of the kids by granting 50/50 custody.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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image: couple, creative commons usage