Category Archives: anger

A Good Man in a Storm, Even After Divorce

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LOVE.

LAUGH.

LET GO.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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The Training and Education of a Reluctant Divorcé

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It does not matter if you are the parent who says, “I want a divorce,” or the parent who is surprised by the fracturous disclosure, your life and the lives of your children will be forever changed. You can’t walk that one back.

For me there was no mystery that we were in trouble, the admission came during couple’s therapy, but the form and bluntness of the admission was even more devastating. Something she was saying, in response to a question from the therapist gave me a hint that all was not well. I struck with some sort of defensive instinct. I asked, “Have you already been to see a lawyer?”

That second. When she blushed and nodded. That second began my training to become a divorced dad.

In many ways I went under the bus with a quiet gasp. I agreed after several sessions more that working together required both of us wanting to be married. One of us didn’t.

The separation of divorce is not horrible. The divorce may actually be better for all parties involved. It is our reaction and past-history with divorce that becomes the issue.

I cried and wailed, but mostly to my individual therapist. And mostly I was crying about my parents divorce. I did not ever want to inflict that kind of pain on my kids. And at the outset of our divorce planning I was determined not to repeat the bitter struggle that defined my 3rd grader through 8th grader experience of life. Yes, my parents divorced over a long and extended battle. But it wasn’t so much about custody. It was about money.

We didn’t have a lot of money to argue about. We had debt, which would come into play later. And we had two kids, a house, and two cars. What we had from the start, and what we continue to put at the front of any of our discussions is the “best interest of the children.” Now, this phrase may come back to haunt you, but there are ways to get over your own pain and continue to be an awesome divorced parent.

It was early on that we agreed to do our divorce cooperatively. We would focus primarily on the kids and the parenting plan. We’d get a divorce accountant to help us “run the numbers.” And we’d agree to not fight with lawyers. We got through all of those agreements pretty quickly, once I agreed that divorce was the only course of action.

I sometimes try to play the higher/lower game where I blame my ex for the divorce. “It was her idea.” But the reality is, I was just as angry and frustrated by our relationship as she was. It was my parent’s divorce and the devastating aftermath that kept me terrified of divorce.

Newsflash from the present me to the just divorcing me, “It’s actually going to get better after you divorce. It might take a while. You’re going to have to do some work on yourself. But the divorce is the best thing for your situation.”

It’s no mystery that an unhappy marriage and angry parents breeds some pretty unhappy kids. Had my parents stayed married my life would’ve looked a lot differently. And while it’s easy for me to see how their divorce distanced me from my father’s alcoholic demise, I could not understand or cope with the loss when I was 8 years old.

Things are very different now. Most of my kids friends have divorced and remarried parents. It’s not a stigma for them. It’s *us* the parents that have to get out of the way and let the separation not be a horrible, awful, most destructive thing. Let me say that again for emphasis.

The separation of divorce is not horrible. The divorce may actually be better for all parties involved. It is our reaction and past-history with divorce that becomes the issue. I had a hard time with the divorce. I hated the idea. I fought to keep things together. And in the end I fell into a depression over the loss of my 100% parenting role. All these antics and struggles I needed to go through, I suppose, to finally break down enough to let go.

In the end, divorce is about letting go. But we’re letting go of the things that don’t work. We let go of the pain that comes from being in bed with someone you love and feeling more like surfing Facebook than making love. We let go of the fantasy that we had when we started the marriage and parenting journey, where we claimed, “We will be different. We will win. We will never divorce.”

The biggest transition in my life happened when I lost my marriage. The amazing thing is, out of the other side of this wreckage that I became, I also re-emerged as a writer. The plays and novels I had been trying to write, suddenly spilled out in blog posts about divorce and parenting.

What my divorce gave me was the freedom to become who I wanted to be all along. The roles and constraints of my marriage had strapped me into a course of action that was killing me. At my high-paying corporate job I was gaining weight, developing high blood pressure, and feeling pretty crappy about life. Sure, I came home to the picket fence and the smiling kids, but the wife was not so happy, and dinner was rarely in the oven.

Thriving as an artist, even if I don’t make a penny from it, is also part of my gift and my message to my kids.

The parenting dream and the American dream and the artist’s dream are often set up in opposition. If I can’t make a living as a writer or musician, I’ve got to find ways to make a living and hope that I can keep my creative passion alive in the fragments of time I have left. And parenting was the biggest responsibility I had, and have. There is nothing more important that my kids… Wait a minute. Let’s back that one up a minute.

More important than your kids is YOU. In order to be a good parent you have to survive. Depression and soul-crushing workloads are not acceptable. And more than survive you have to show them how to thrive, even under the circumstances that seem dire and depressing. In becoming a stronger person, in showing them how I could roll with the punches and get back up as a man and a father is one of the most important lessons I can transfer to them.

Thriving as an artist, even if I don’t make a penny from it, is also part of my gift and my message to my kids. You need to know what you want. From there you can rebuild from any set back and regroup, reset, restart.

The divorce was a hard reset for me.

The gift that I was given by my then-wife’s admission, was the gift of my creative soul. If I had aligned myself towards corporate work and being the good dad with the nice house in the nice neighborhood, I might have really suffered a death. My own creative death, and ultimately the death of many unhealthy white professionals who struggle along with little joy or passion.

I had the joy and passion in spades. I had a mis-aligned marriage which generated two wonderful kids. Today I have reset myself towards a creatively fulfilling life. I hope that my children learn from my example. That even in the darkest of times we may find the answer we were looking for all along.

My divorce was also my rebirth as a writer and musician.

My new relationship came to being out of an alignment with my dreams and hopes for the future, and hers as well.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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What You Can’t Tell Your Kids After Divorce

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Dad’s tend to have a different experience of it, as we are usually the one’s asked to leave the house. The rest of the crew sails along as if we’re just on an extended business trip.

I’ve never been able to tell the kids how much I miss them. I can give hints and warm hugs when they return to me on my 30%-of-the-time weekends. But I cannot tell them that the divorce was not my idea or that I am sorry at how I didn’t keep it together for them. And maybe some of this is for the better. And certainly, the way things were going in the marriage, we were a long way from pulling ourselves back into the loving couple that asked for these marvelous kids. But still.

There is so much you can’t tell them.

  • How their other parent does these really irritating things to get back at you for something that still stings.
  • How the weekends without them, in the beginning made me question why I was living, oh, and then they’d return and the world would seem okay again, for a few days.
  • How you fought for a 50/50 schedule, but were read the “divorce in Texas” bill of rights and given what was to be expected.
  • How I fought with their mom, who asked me to simply walk out of the house, two months before the end of school, and how I struggled to stay civil and optimistic, and sane during those two months as they finished up 3rd and 5th grades.
  • How I cried when their mom told me she wanted a divorce, not for me, but for them, for the painful look that I knew would cross their faces, as it had mine when my dad left the family.
  • How I’d still like to have a 50/50 schedule, but negotiations with their mom has broken down so many times, I’m beginning to give up on the idea.
  • How I miss them every Monday morning as I’m dropping them off at school and won’t see them again until Thursday night, for a dinner-only date.
  • How closing up their rooms when they are gone is part of my process for keeping those sad feelings inside, where I don’t have to look at their things, or their beds, and feel it all again.

Divorce is huge for everyone. Dad’s tend to have a different experience of it, as we are usually the one’s asked to leave the house. The rest of the crew sails along as if we’re just on an extended business trip. We dads, on the other hand, struggle with finding a new home, a new community of friends, a new job with more money so we can actually afford a place to live and make our child support payments. While they go on without us, we are left to fend for ourselves.

Schools don’t really understand the divorced dad. We struggle to make sure we’re on the mailing lists from the kid’s teachers. We make sure we’re invited to the parent-teacher meetings. We’re seen as the “dad,” a creature who was probably the cause of the divorce, and not very good with kids either. The dad jokes about how the kids are dressed, how the daughter’s hair is done, or not done, about the state of the packed lunches from Dad’s house. It’s a hard bit of single parenting reality. Mom’s are nurtured and supported by their community of women. Men are left out in the cold, to our own devices and failings. And often we fail, just as expected.

My investment and interest in their lives has multiplied even as my time with them has been divided.

I started hitting tennis balls with a new friend a few weeks before my then-wife asked for a divorce. As we were hitting and talking later, I told him she’d asked for a divorce. “Oh, man! You need to talk her out of that shit. You know what’s going to happen, right? She’s gonna get the house and you’re gonna get the payments.”

He was right.

I lost his friendship a month or so later when I moved out of the house and out of the neighborhood with the tennis club. But I still see him around. He’d been through it before. But by the time she told me she was considering options, it was already a done deal in her mind.

I can’t tell my kids much about that time. It was hard for all of us. While they were adjusting to me not being around, I was living at my sister’s house, trying to find a new job that would give me enough money to keep me out of a shabby apartment. And I was depressed almost immediately, at the loss of everything I had worked my entire life to produce. They were the primary loss for me. Every night without them in my life has been a loss.

You can’t replace or redo the lost time. But you can grow back into your full self, into a whole parent, and be even better when they are with you. My investment and interest in their lives has multiplied even as my time with them has been divided. And we, their mom and I, have kept the discord and “adult” discussions out of their purview. That’s the way it is. Adult stuff is for us adults.

Someday, my kids will know how I fought for them and their 3rd and 5th grade Spring semesters. And I’m not sure what they will get from the information, but I know my tenacity has given me a lot of strength throughout this entire path to becoming a happy and hopeful father again. I tried to never let them see the other dad, but you can’t lie. They knew when I was down. But we talked about it, and my sadness, as something I was working on. It had nothing to do with them, or their mom, or the divorce. It might have had a lot to do with all of those things, but those are the parts that you never get to tell them.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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Divorce Recovery Journaling: The Life You Write Is the Life You Live

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The best revenge is living happy and seeing your family happy.

Journaling your way through your divorce is a great way to gather your thoughts, get your sh*t together, and just reset and re-gather your thoughts. Everything begins coming at you rather quickly the moment your partner says, “I’ve been to see a lawyer…”

It’s not important that you blog (as I did) but writing down your experience can really help you gain some clarity in your mind and confidence in yourself as you move forward. Some questions that are going to haunt you are:

  • Could I have done more to keep my partner interested?
  • Did I stick it out too long? Should I have spoken up sooner?
  • Have I done the right thing?
  • Will my kids hate me?
  • Am I going to be alone for the rest of my life?
  • Will I ever be happy again?
  • Am I lovable?
  • After this, how am I ever going to trust again?
  • With everything I have to do now, as a single parent, will I have time to date?
  • Do I want to date?
  • Where have all my friends gone?

Writing about these things, in the moment, as they come up, can help you gain some perspective on what happened and why. But can also give you ideas about what needs fixing in your life, and what you want to leave behind.

I would not have made the full and swift recovery had I not been processing the feelings through my writing.

In my case, I started an anonymous blog almost immediately, after my then-wife said she wanted a divorce. I knew that I would be processing a lot of anger and confusion. So I kept that blog under wraps. Even today, I’d rather my two kids (12 and 14) not stumble upon my anger letters and love poems to new and potential women in my life. But the writing was the thing. I chose to write it out loud, since I already had experience blogging for social media. And that early feedback and support came in handy for me.

You don’t have to do your divorce alone. But most of the experience of it *will* be very alone. All of the processing of the emotions will be alone. But if you journal out the feelings you can become better and quicker at identifying things like negative self-talk, toxic anger, revenge, depression, loneliness. When you can identify and label what’s going on in your heart, you can begin to heal the parts that are broken.

In my process of divorce recovery, I spent the first year confused, sad, and angry. I spent the second year hopeful, depressed, and lonely. In the third year I felt excited, sexy, and optimistic. By the fourth year of my divorce, I had launched this 100% positive single parenting blog, and come a full 360 about my divorce. I would not have made the full and swift recovery had I not been processing the feelings through my writing.

In the emotional recovery from your divorce there are a lot of aspects that you need to identify and actively manage. Here’s my short list of priorities.

Parenting – how can I show up 100% positive and real for my kids?

Self-care – how can I keep away the depression and keep moving forward on my goals and aspirations?

Cash Flow – you’re going to have a lot more bills, and you won’t have a partner to split the bill paying duties.

Health and Fitness – even when depressed you have to move and get out of the house.

Friendships – old friends need to be rekindled, and new friends need to be sought out.

Whatever you do in your emotional recovery process, however you plan to manage the rebuilding of your life, please give yourself some time alone to re-find *your* center.

Dating – how can I possibly be attractive to any one, and when would I ever be interested in letting someone into my life again.

Sex – yep, sorry to say it, sex is a fundamental need, at the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy. We need it, we want it, but it’s not all that easy to get it and stay clear of potential emotional vampires.

Entertainment – You’re alone a lot. What are you going to do with yourself to stay balanced? (Read, watch movies, go out dancing, have coffee in various breakfast places around town during the week.)

Ex-partner Drama – it’s bound to happen. It happened when you were married, and now there’s less incentive to keep things cordial between the two of you. Take the time to get the care you need around this. Your ex is hurting too, but that won’t prevent them from taking a shot at you to make their pain or their guilt seem less painful.

When I began my other blog I was confused and bitter. But through the years, you can see the transformation in my writing. I wasn’t really writing for anyone but myself, but I did take heart when a reader would say, “me too” or “great job.”

Whatever you do in your emotional recovery process, however you plan to manage the rebuilding of your life, please give yourself some time alone to re-find *your* center. And you need to find your center ALONE before adding someone else into the mix.

Stick with it, your growth and recovery is the most important thing you can do for your kids, yourself, and even your ex-partner. They old saying is the best revenge is living well. Well, I’d re-frame that a bit.

The best revenge is living happy and seeing your family happy.

The life you write is the life you live.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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The 3 Immutable Laws of Positive Co-Parenting

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You have to release them both, your kids and your ex, and let them fly.

My ex-wife and I don’t see eye to eye on a lot of things. But one thing we’ve kept relatively clear over the last 5 years of divorce is THE KIDS COME FIRST. Always.

We’ve had issues between us, and I think two people in a relationship will always have issues, but we’ve kept them out of our parental relationships. So many divorces before us, I’ve seen angry divorced mom’s trashing their former partner in front of her two kids while waiting on the school bus together. And the incidence of Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS) is also real. I can’t imagine using your kids as a chess piece to get back at your former spouse. Yikes.

Attachment parenting is about letting your kids know, from the moment they are born and for as long as they live, that they are loved and supported regardless of their choices.

But when you’ve agreed to disagree over things like money and custodial vs. non-custodial role, you can still agree to keep the kids clear of any of the disagreements between you. In our case, we used a divorce therapist to help us split the baby, so to speak. And in her office we could talk about things like “in the best interest of the children” while still arguing about our own wants and needs. It’s not about what’s fair, at that point. It’s about what situation would support the kids.

Right, the goal of “less disruption for the kids at this difficult time” was hard to me to argue with. And in typical fashion I was shown the door, given a less-than status and a substantial child support payment, and I said “thank you,” at the end of it. Even today, I’m not happy about the current parenting schedule and financial burden I’ve been given, but I’m not fighting about it either.

Today, “in the best interest of the kids” means something very different than it did five years ago. Today my kids are 13 and 15. They have their own agendas. And we all find our way forward with as little conflict as possible, both the kids and their mom. Even while there are some big issues and big questions in the legal and financial part of our relationship, the devotion to the kids, and their conflict free child hood, remains our guiding principal.

At the core of it, I know we are both doing the best we can. Giving her the benefit of the doubt, even when I’m mad as hell at her, is the only route. And making sure my issues are cleared up before I am with my kids, that is my responsibility.

How easy it would be to spout off the, “well, your mom…” But we don’t. At least I don’t think she does, but it’s never gotten back to me about any snarks about our situation. And we’ve been through some tough scrapes. Money has occasionally been an issue for both of us. “Somehow we just keep working it out. We will get there,” she wrote to me in a text message.

If you can remember the flight and joy of your children as the goal, you can forgive, forget, and move on nearly any personal issue or frustration with your ex-partner.

And you can tell how well you are doing by your kid’s energy and enthusiasm. In the first few years things were a bit moody with all of us. But even in that hard slurry of depression, we, the four of us, kept encouraging each other, in spite of, and through, the hard parts. That’s what we are now. Cheerleaders. We’ve got other responsibilities too, like leadership, morals, and guiding them towards a happy career path, but mostly, at this age, we have the role of cheerleader.

And in someways, I’m also a cheerleader for their mom’s success. In her 2.5 year relationship, regardless of my feelings about the guy, I have to cheer them on. My daughter likes him. And my ex-wife seems a bit more relaxed since they’ve been together. So, sure, I can be a “rah rah” co-parent for them. I’m glad my kids have another adult who cares about their welfare. And he’s a good influence on all three of them.

When your partner’s partner comes to your daughter’s volleyball game at the end of a workday, you’ve got to give them kudos. I’d be just as easy to “work late.” But he shows up. And they sit together. And my daughter makes sure she hugs and says goodbye to both of them. That’s a WIN WIN. A win for my daughter. And a win for my ex-wife.

Let’s find the win in our divorces. Even before we’ve found a win, or a relationship in our lives, it’s important to show our kids how well we still support and champion the other parent.

A reader sent me an email about one of my posts, a week ago. She was concerned that I was going to share my ex-wife’s transgressions with my kids.

I responded, about why I’m writing this blog.

“No, it’s important for me to know, that eventually the whole story will be told. But today, it’s all about positive parenting for me. If they read the book of the divorce in five or ten years, when they are adults themselves, that’s fine, but that’s not my intention.”

Divorce is a bitch. And compartmentalizing your anger and sadness is a difficult process, but an essential one.

She replied. “That’s great to hear, because my parents were real assholes to each other after the divorce. And all it did was make me and my siblings want to get as far away from them as possible when we left the house. None of us are close with my parents.”

And there’s the crux. Attachment parenting is about letting your kids know, from the moment they are born and for as long as they live, that they are loved and supported regardless of their choices. And in divorce you have to keep that objective in mind. If you attack or belittle their other parent, you are breaking one of the fundamental rules of co-parenting.

The Three Immutable Laws of Positive Co-Parenting:

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

And from that position of strength and cooperation, we can manage anything, together, both the kids and my ex-wife and her boyfriend. And my girlfriend too. (grin)

If you can remember the flight and joy of your children as the goal, you can forgive, forget, and move on nearly any personal issue or frustration with your ex-partner. That’s your responsibility, not your kids, nor your ex-partner’s. You have to release them both, your kids and your ex, and let them fly.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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Inviting the Dinosaur Into Your Divorce

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You’re heard the metaphor of “the elephant in the room,” right? This a little tale about the dinosaur in the divorce. While I work to keep every post on this blog tilted in the positive direction, there have been moments in my relationship to the mother of my children that have been less than stellar.

“The bad part about her inviting the AG’s office into our financial affairs is that it really doesn’t coerce me into paying more or faster.

When my ex-wife got mad two summers ago she threatened me when I got late on my child support payments. I had just lost a job and was in the process of replacing my income, but it was hard times. I’m sure it was hard times on her side of the equation too, and so I try and give her the benefit of the doubt every time. Even when things were bleak between us, I tried to forgive and move on, just as she was trying to convince herself that I would make good on my promise of payments.

After a few months of job hunting I had not produced a new stream of income for us to base our shared parenting financial obligations, so in a fit of rage or an act of self-preservation, she filed our divorce decree with the attorney general’s office in our great state of Texas. In effect, she was throwing up her hands and saying she was tired of hearing my unfulfilled promises of payment, she’d rather have the state’s attorneys take over the matter of the cash flow. She used the terms “enforcement” and “in the best interests of the kids” a lot. Actually she still uses those concepts today, with different language. She’s still pretty sure the AG’s office is the only reason she’s gotten paid recently.

I had to remind her, “Um, the reason you’ve been getting paid since November is because I had a job. No cash flow, no money for either of us.” She didn’t like that answer a few summers back and she doesn’t like the logic today. Still, we have our divorce decree and we have the AG’s office tracking my every move.

The bad part about her inviting the AG’s office into our financial affairs is that it really doesn’t coerce me into paying more or faster. Sorry, I’ve never defaulted or delayed a payment when I had the money. I even exhausted my retirement account to make payments when my income was not matching my expenses.

“Your ex-wife on the other hand, might have other ideas,” he said. “But the dinosaur is equally hard to push from her side as well.”

It really doesn’t matter now, as it stands we have the AG’s office in bed with us, for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, until both our kids are 18 years old.

Today I met with my family attorney and he said, “The AG’s office is like a dinosaur. Once you invite the big beast into your affairs it’s really hard to get rid of them.” I liked the analogy. Yes, that’s what it feels like sometimes, like a great big stegosaurus is sitting on my chest with a dumb smile and a “feed the children” necklace on.

Truth is, my kids have never gone wanting for anything. My ex-wife has never missed a house payment. And my commitment to pay and continued efforts to do so has never wavered. Well, except for that time a few summers ago. When she began to rattle her AG’s saber at me, I pushed back with the only idea I could come up with. I told her (this was a dumb idea) that if she “did in fact file with the AG’s office” I would ask for a recalculation of all that I have paid, and all that I should’ve, paid based on *actual* income rather than *theoretical* (which I had yet to achieve since the divorce). I had agreed to pay child support based on a job that I no longer had, but in the duress of the process I agreed, even before I had the replacement job. Another bad idea.

A few rules in dealing with your co-parent:

  1. Never threaten your ex about anything.
  2. Remain optimistic, but don’t count on a job, or a miracle, or mercy from your ex when they are angry or under stress.
  3. If it’s in the decree you will continue owing the amount until you sue your ex to change the amount of child support . Regardless of your employment status, or the economic climate, your child support bills continue to arrive and your debt, if you can’t pay, will continue to grow.
  4. Once in your lives, the AG’s office will never leave.

Today, my attorney went on with the metaphor. “And getting the dinosaur to change or do something on your behalf is very hard. You can push, yell, ask, write letters, and it’s very likely that if they move at all, the dinosaur will move because of some random reason and not as a result of your request.”

He continued, “The AG’s office is really run by computer programs. When the computer kicks your name and account out because you are behind on your payments, the staff just sends out the letter. What we want to avoid is getting the dinosaur mad. If you keep paying what you can, and keep paying something, when the computer spits out your name, the dinosaur will consider you a friend and not just bite your head off.”

“Your ex-wife on the other hand, might have other ideas. But the dinosaur is equally hard to push from her side as well. You are both just kind of stuck with it, like herpes. Once you have the dinosaur in your divorce, you can never completely get rid of him.”

I’m gearing up to start a new job so that I can get some money, but more importantly, so that my kids will get some money. And yes, the dinosaur will be fed and happy in the next month.

The good news in my case is I got a new job that starts in two weeks. I’ve been paying her 25% of my income since my last corporate job, but it’s never quite equalled the *theoretical* job that I was supposed to land in the first few months after the decree was signed. And I will dutifully contact the AG’s office and they will dutifully withhold the child support payments from my take home pay.

A few things I didn’t know about this process.

  1. Your ex does not pay taxes on any of the child support income. It’s like free money to them. You, however, pay the taxes and lose the money at the same time. (Makes it really seem like a double whammy. I work, I pay taxes, then I give her $XXX.)
  2. The AG’s office will set an additional payment, on top of your support payment, when you are behind. I called to tell them, “I’m just getting back on my feet, can we reduce the extra payments just a little?” I was told in no uncertain terms, by one of the dinosaur’s minions, that I could file a petition to change the support order. So I’d have to sue her? Okay, pass.
  3. The dinosaur randomly sends out letters to beneficiaries and asks, “Would you like us to review your account?” Like a bill collector, on their side, the simple check mark in a box on a return post card sets all kinds of painful examinations in motion.

I’m lucky. I have been employed or working under contract for most of the time since the divorce. And today I’m gearing up to start a new job so that I can get some money, but more importantly so that my kids will get some money. And yes, the dinosaur will be fed and happy in the next month.

One of my main goals is to keep the dinosaur from kicking out a random request to put me in jail. But according to my attorney we’d hear the roar via at least one letter of intent before the patrolmen showed up at my door.

Always, No Matter What, Put Your Children’s Lives Ahead of the Emotional Issues You May Still Have with Your Co-Parent.

And, always love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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As a Nice Guy, My Cooperative Divorce Was Not Fair Or Balanced

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I felt like I had a pretty good idea of the way the divorce was going to go, once I agreed to actually get a divorce. We went, eyes wide open, into the negotiations about parenting rights, money, schedules, and I also felt like I had a cooperative soon-to-be wife who was not going to try to destroy me. The first part was true, the second part, well… Let’s see how the story goes.

Cooperative divorce is not for everyone. Some couples will have fights about money, kids, things, houses. Some couples may be able to part as friends. We decided we would put the kid’s needs above ours in every matter. That was the spirit of the start, as we began the road towards getting a divorce.

She had met with an attorney before we began these talks and she wanted what she knew she would get if we went to family court.

It just so happens that a lot of our individual desires can be expressed as being “in the best interest of the kids” when in fact they are just requests and preferences. AND the traditional divorce has always favored the mom-as-caregiver and dad-as-breadwinner and the legal system and precedents have all been set up with this in mind. I did not know this going in to our initial discussions with a divorce therapist, who was engaged to help us through the process of setting up a parenting plan, and staying focused on the kids needs rather than our issues or frustrations.

And again, I was imagining that I had a good perspective on my own feelings and needs. I did not. I knew that I was depressed about the divorce, but I didn’t know how this would affect my negotiations and participation in the process of divorce. I thought I was going to be able to hold my own. I was not.

In the first weeks of our “planning” we started discussing schedules and what each of us wanted. My first mistake was assuming that we both wanted a 50/50 balance in our divorce. We had decided to have children as a balanced decision. We parented them to this point in a very 50/50 style, though I would be the one making the most money to support her time with the kids. But this was a choice we made together, not just a stereotypical marriage.

Since accepting the fact that I was getting a divorce, I had been reading a lot of great books about balanced parenting, and fair divorce. When we were asked to bring in our schedule ideas I lead with a 50/50 split that had been recommended by one of the progressive books I was reading. What I didn’t know was my still-wife had gotten other advice. She had met with an attorney before we began these talks and she wanted what she knew she would get if we went to family court.

She wanted the traditional split in Texas (80% of divorces follow this structure)

  • Mom gets the house (so the kids can stay in their family home
  • Mom gets child support to keep the kids in the lifestyle they have grown accustomed to
  • Mom gets primary custody, which awards her some significant rights in the eyes of the state
  • Mom gets a significant amount more time with the kids in the two-week cycle (something known in Texas as the Standard Possession Order, or SPO)

She knew this is what she could expect to be awarded if we were to go to court, so this was her starting point. This was her “best interest of the kids” scenario, as backed up and supported by the State of Texas Attorney General’s Office.

If you are a dad and you really want to be there as much as you can for your kids, FIGHT.

Now, I give my ex-wife a lot of credit for being organized, for planning ahead, and making great decisions both financially and about the kids. In this case I believe she was acting out of her own best interest as well as the kids, and I believe she was well prepped by her lawyer to enter the cooperative negations with this significant advantage on her side: she knew that if things didn’t go as she wanted, at any time, she could pull out and we could go to court and she would get exactly what she wanted.

When our high-paid counselor dismissed my 50/50 dreams with this statement, “That’s what she’s going to get if you guys go to court,” I should’ve been clued in to my mistake. I thought we were negotiating from a balanced perspective. I was sad. I wanted to get out of this “fight” with as little bloodshed as possible. I did not fight when this statement effectively tossed my 50/50 schedule in the trash.

It is at this very moment, if you are going though a divorce, that you should really know your goals. I was too emotionally wrecked to put up much of a fight. Even though I had a lot of good books and experts on my side, my idea of 50/50 parenting was dismissed within three sessions. Again, I didn’t want a divorce. I didn’t want to give up my time with my kids, and I didn’t want to agree to anything less than 50/50 parenting. But when push came to shove and the counselor started telling me to give up on that idea, I accepted defeat. This moment was the darkest in the entire process of divorce for me. What I feared most was losing time with my kids. And even thought I was paying half of the counselor’s fees I was given my starting point to be a lot less than I wanted.

If you are a dad and you really want to be there as much as you can for your kids, FIGHT. I did not fight because I was depressed, because I was the nice guy, because I wanted to avoid conflict. And while I don’t think my kids have suffered as a result of following the example set by the State of Texas, I do think I have lost a significant amount of time with my kids. Time I should’ve had as part of a more equitable split.

Today’s research about divorce and parenting shows that BOTH mom and dad are equally important in kid’s lives.

It turns out, I’m going to have to go to court now, six years later, and sue for balanced custody and a 50/50 schedule. Turns out that if she’s making more money than me she should be paying me some support. Perhaps this would’ve been a better plan in the beginning. Perhaps this would’ve been better for my kids. It’s not what happened, and I’m not sad about it, but today, knowing what I know, I would’ve stood my ground.

My son would’ve had more of me standing up for him as a young kid. He might now be more courageous to try new things. My daughter would’ve had fewer nights missing me. I would’ve had fewer nights missing them.

Today’s research about divorce and parenting shows that BOTH mom and dad are equally important in kid’s lives. So if you’re heading into divorce, and you parented in a balanced way, please take the time, make the effort to fight for what you know is right. By all means, if you don’t want 50/50, you can relax and let the standard deal get established. I didn’t have all the facts in front of me, and I was at a disadvantage. So I lost.

Today if I want to reestablish a 50/50 plan it’s going to cost me money and necessitate a legal fight, if all goes as planned she’s ready to agree to the 50/50 idea anyway. But you never know with my ex-wife. She’s got plans and ideas of her own. Stay tuned. And if you’re in a divorce planning phase, stay frosty. Don’t miss out on getting the time and closeness you want.

Stay positive. Love your kids. Respect your ex.

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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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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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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image: the smoking couple, silkeybeto, creative commons usage