Category Archives: love

relationships, breakups, divorce, single dad

What My Breakup and Recovery Have Felt Like

4 weeks ago I lost my best friend and lover. I moved out of her house and promptly fell apart. But then again, I didn’t fall apart like I thought I would. I was certain that deep depression was in my near future. I was certain that I would give into the pull of isolation and shut everything down and everyone out. That didn’t happen.

Here’s what I did. I put my mind on the next step. Heal. Grieve. Get my shit back together. And move on. I kept my exercise routine in place, every single day. And I found support in Al Anon. I did not isolate. In fact, I was less isolated than I had been in my partner’s house. I kept my chin up and felt the overwhelming sadness and kept going.

I also shut down 100% of the communication between us. This was advice from a brilliant book Getting Past Your Breakup by Susan J. Elliott. They called it NC, no contact and I believe it was essential to push me into the longing and loss I was feeling. I tried to find things to make me cry and I cried. I tried a new therapist along with my current therapist. I knew it was going to take some time for me to even feel normal again, much less able to consider a new relationship. The NC was key for me. Everything I wanted to tell her I wrote in letters I knew I could never send. I found my anger. I found out how much I missed the little things we did together. I dug into the tears and kept saying, “Goodbye” over and over until I believed she was gone.

I’m not saying I’m over her. I’m not. But at least I’m not thinking about her every single day. In fact, deep relationships you may never get over fully, but they take on less weight as time goes by. So in some ways time does heal all wounds. I wasn’t going to take the passive approach. I went after my grief with a vengeance.

And something good came from all this. I no longer felt constant anxiety about losing her. She was gone. I no longer pined for us to be together again. And I started to think about other women in my life. I contacted some old friends, mainly women, just to be around different women. And yes, I got on the online dating sites, but I’m not really looking for a relationship. Too soon. I’m just looking for some ways to talk to and be near women. And it made me feel hopeful that some women seemed to like my profile and want to talk to me too.

In Susan’s work we say “Do the work. Feel the feelings. Make peace with the peace.” And that’s what I’m still doing. I might always feel the prick of a finger every time something reminds me of her, something we did, something we talked about doing, anything really. But the prick doesn’t have to derail my day. Sometimes it only takes about 30-seconds before I redirect my wandering mind back to something more positive.

I’m not saying I’m over it. I’m not saying I’ve moved on. I’m saying I’m happy by myself for the first time in a long time. And I like it this way. I’m exploring new horizons and new options. From here I can go anywhere.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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Divorce Lessons: If What You Want Is Love That Lasts

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

What I Learned in My First Marriage

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

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

What I Learned in My Second Marriage with Kids

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

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

What I’m Learning Before My Third Marriage

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

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

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

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

There Is Hope

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

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

Back to Dating After Divorce

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I Believe In Marriage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

Back to Dating After Divorce

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Fierce Love – What You’re Looking For

Screen Shot 2016-09-06 at 5.56.38 AMLove is complex and relationships are a disaster, unless you find someone who can mirror back some of your favorite qualities. What you are looking for (what I was looking for and found) in your next relationship is fierce love. A love that never gives up. NO. MATTER. WHAT.

When you find it you will know. My fiancé and I professed our intentions to be in a relationship, not “date,” early on in our courtship. And one of the qualities we first noticed in the other person was a tenacity, a desire to BE IN A RELATIONSHIP, and one that will last. We’d both been married before. (She without kids, me with two.) And after our first weekend together, aside from the sore muscles, we noticed how our faces and abs were tired from laughing all weekend.

Sure the initial bliss cannot last. After 6 months or so the burning desire was fulfilled and we settled into something more realistic, more like real life. And as we talked about what we wanted we were lucky to be surprised by our similarities. And one similarity stood above all others. In our previous marriages we had both been the partner who fought for the relationship.

Imagine being in a relationship with another person who was going to fight to keep the relationship healthy and moving forward. Imagine.

Nothing is easy in relationships. (After the honeymoon phase the mundane sets in and that’s where you get your real tests.) You take each other for granted. You do things that piss the other person off. You have to compromise in ways you had forgotten were necessary during your “single” period.

Fierce love says, no matter what, I’m IN. I’ve done this before, I know what I’m looking for and you’re it. But you’ve got to let me know you’re in it for the long haul as well.

Well, we’re both fighters. Imagine our optimism when we’re both fierce about fighting for our relationship to work. Sure, we go through out rough patches, a disagreement, an angry word, but we come back stronger and more committed each time. There is no growth without risk. And if you have the risk of your relationship covered up, you can grow and expand the boundaries for both of you.

That’s what we want. Ascendant love. Moving ever higher together. Fearlessly attacking the discord as it arrives unwelcome and unbidden. And we move through it with the other person, knowing they are going to stick around.

Be fierce in your love and fierce in your anger. They are two sides of the same coin. And when you are committed, the fierceness becomes the glue that keeps your relationship together.

Sure, we’ll have challenges tomorrow. And we’ll procrastinate and avoid for a little while, but we’ll come back together with a fire and rage that says, “You’re mine.”

Fierce is good. If love is what you’re looking for, look for the one with fierceness in his/her eyes. Always.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

Back to Positive Divorce & Co-Parenting

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Back to School Time as a Divorced Dad

Let’s catchup a bit. I’ve been depressed. Yep, sorry to admit it. And more sorry that I couldn’t keep my promise of blogging through it. Wow, what a summer. And what lessons I learned.

The kids went back to school last week and I’m happier than I’ve been in months. All good. And last night’s “back to school” night for my 8th grader got me thinking about my divorce, my kids, my limited custody arrangement and where I am in my life at this moment.

  1. Divorce – I didn’t want it, and still sometimes find myself angry that my ex decided for all of us to end the marriage. Things might have been different if she knew she was giving up 50% of their time, but she knew she’d get 70/30 as is typical for uncontested divorces in the year 2010.
  2. My kids – how can I complain? They are doing great. While I can see the things that would’ve been different in their lives had we stayed married and had I been able to continue to infuse their life with joy and optimism that is a bit lacking on the other side… but again, water under the bridge.
  3. Custody – Again back in 2010, even if I had gone to court, it would’ve taken unusual circumstances to get 50/50 custody if my ex wanted something else. It just didn’t happen in Texas without extreme justifications. I couldn’t to that to my kids or my ex.
  4. My life now – Happier that ever. I’m engaged to a very different woman. I’m learning so much about being in a committed “no matter what” relationship. I thought that’s where I was in my relationship to my kid’s mother up until the moment she let me know she’d been to see an attorney.

So you get what you get, and you don’t throw a fit.

I’m sad sometimes about the amount of time I have lost of my kids childhoods. I long some days for them to be 5 and 7 again and be loving, cuddling, little beings. But they are teenagers. They need other things from me: cash, a ride somewhere, cash, a shopping spree. Ho hum. That’s the way it is, sure, but it could have gone gone differently.

What if we’d gotten 50/50? What if my kids had retained my influence in equal measure to their mom’s? It was my intention and my dream but it’s not what happened.

One thing that would be different if I had my kids 50% of the time, or 70% of the time like my ex-wife has… I would not have been able to move as deeply and solidly into this new relationship as I have. (2 years and counting.) I have M-W nights off every week. And every other Th-Sun weekend. So I’ve got a lot of time without my kids.

In the early days of my recovery I was depressed. In the next phase of my divorce I was healing and positive but still alone. In the current moment phase of my life I have been focused more on myself than my kids. (70% of the time) And thus I have lost weight, spent time putting a band back together and playing tennis, biking, and cycling with my new fiance. I would say, I’m okay with those percentages today.

I would gladly take my kids back 50/50 but it’s not something that has been offered without some heavy conditions and ultimately she has backed out of every offer. Okay. So this is my life.

  • Happy
  • Sharing my happiness and self-confidence with my kids
  • Missing them all the time – but going on with my life (perhaps a lesson they have learned, that even though they’ve had most advantages of an upper-middle-class life, things were not always going to go as planned) they lost me too.

In my parent’s divorce it was the single most devastating event in my life. When my dad left the family I was 8 and he began a rapid descent into full-blown alcoholism that ended his life when I was 20. I didn’t get much of my dad’s attention until he was dying of cancer and the meds made him unable to drink. So guess what happened. He sobered up.

He sobered up and realized he had missed his relationship with his 4 cool kids for most of their lives. My two sisters moved back to town to spend time with him, but we only got 9 months of remission and when he went he was gone in weeks. He was lost to us completely.

So I lost a good portion of my kid’s childhood. Okay. There’s nothing I can do to get that back. And there’s nothing I can do to make them not teenagers and not rebelling and acting out in some “normal” way at this time in their lives. And I can’t help but miss them every time I see their picture, or get a text or Snapchat. It’s okay. We all get along. Even the ex and I are talking about getting my son a car in the next 6 months.

And so it goes. Another year begins. My daughter is on to Volleyball, Basketball and Track/Tennis. And we’re all back to our 70/30 routine. And I’ve got nothing to complain about and plenty to be grateful for. So that’s where I am. Happy to be out of the depressing summer and happy to have my kids this long weekend.

And I’m happy and in love.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

Back to Positive Divorce & Co-Parenting

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8 Lessons from My First 2 Divorces

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Divorce is a hard learning curve. What you don’t know going into marriage (first, second, other) is what variables will change and how those changes will affect your life. But as you go through the entire process, marriage-to-trouble-to-divorce you learn some things. I’m going to try to highlight the big ah-ha moments I had in both my marriages.

Marriage #1

But if one of you is having major emotional issues, no amount of goodwill, good behavior, or good intentions will fix things. If you are waiting for the other person to change, you are in trouble.

We were young. I allowed her beauty and my passion to blind me to some of the issues we had early on. We had both just graduated from college and it felt like the thing to do. I was madly in love with her, but I didn’t know enough about her. I jumped into my first marriage on sexual chemistry and gut instinct. I thought if we were this happy then we’d be just as happy after getting married.

Lesson 1: Weather some storms before you tie the knot.

The first unhappy moments arrived my marriage on our honeymoon. I was suddenly seeing a very unhappy and angry person. Something, even in those early days of bliss, registered a big red flag. My thoughts as my new wife raged at me was, “Uh oh. I think I made a mistake.”

Lesson 2: As time goes on things that are not working are liable to get worse not better.

You cannot count on the other person changing to please you or make things easier. If you both agree to therapy, you can move the needle a bit. But if one of you is having major emotional issues, no amount of goodwill, good behavior, or good intentions will fix things. If you are waiting for the other person to change, you are in trouble.

Lesson 3: Rage and abusive behavior is never okay.

Aside from forging a new level of commitment, kids change the chemistry of the relationship as well. Overnight there are 200% more things to do. Chores become an issue.

It took me three tries to end my first marriage, mostly because I didn’t want to be the person who gave up. But when anger becomes abusive, there is very little left to work on. Therapy was helpful, but you can’t go to therapy for the rest of your life. When the therapy ended so did the positive behavior modifications. Ouch.

Marriage #2

I recoiled from my divorce for a while. I stayed out of the dating game for a year or so while I tried to recollect my own center and sanity. But I wouldn’t say I was healed when I ran into my second wife at a local coffee shop. We had gone to high school together, so we had an immediate connection, and from the initial reaction to seeing me, we both had some interest in exploring the possibilities.

Lesson 4: Pay attention to early things that don’t feel right.

There some initial miscommunication that later turned into huge problems. But during the early days of my courtship, I was unaware that she not only had a boyfriend, but that she was living with him. I think this secrecy on her part hurt us later on when other issues began to arise. Again, I fell passionately in love with her before any “issues” came to light. And when they did, when she told me about the other guy, we broke off the lunches. But I should’ve run for the hills. After a month or so she called me up and said she was done. I think my loneliness and the magnetism caused me to jump right back in.

Lesson 5: Kids change everything.

Aside from forging a new level of commitment, kids change the chemistry of the relationship as well. Overnight there are 200% more things to do. Chores become an issue. Exhaustion becomes an issue. And as you both slip into the overwhelm of raising kids some deeper level of personality comes out. In an overwhelming situation you’re either a happy camper making due or an unhappy camper complaining the whole way. I was generally happy.

Lesson 6: Trust is the foundation of a relationship.

There seemed to be a lot of trust issues in the last half of our marriage. It seemed that I was always in the process of doing something wrong, or covering up something else I had done wrong. In fact, I’m not sure I was doing things wrong, but the unhappy camper was certain that their unhappiness was due to me. I don’t think another person is responsible anyone’s happiness. And even therapy didn’t sort this one out. When the trust was broken the repair was difficult and ultimately failed.

Lesson 7: Intimacy does reflect a lot about a relationship.

It seems the biggest marker for success is the general outlook of the other person: Happy camper vs. unhappy camper.

Love Languages does a great job of marking out different ways people have of feeling love. And for sure, my 2nd wife and I had very different languages. But there’s a balance, even if you’re languages are completely different. And when touch is taken out of the equation for any length of time the entire relationship can begin to change. We are animals. And sex is a base-level need. When sex goes, the relationship is soon to follow. It reveals some deeper dysfunction.

Lesson 8: Even in cooperative divorce you need to get a lawyer.

As we parented 50/50 I was certain in our early divorce negotiations that we would end up in some 50/50 parenting in our divorce. So when the therapist we’d hired to guide us suggested starting at something much different I was upset but I did not stop and fight. I know today that I was whitewashed into accepting the Standard Possession Order and the non-custodial parent because it was what my then-wife wanted all along. We agreed to cooperate but right off the bat I was handed a non-cooperative ruling. In hindsight I should’ve stopped the process and lawyer-ed up and fought. But I’m conflict adverse and I listened to the reasonable therapist and my in-the-best-interest-of-the-kids wife. I was railroaded.

Upward and Onward

That’s a lot of water to pass under the bridge and still want to get married again. So I’ve got to take the time to learn from these experiences and check-in on all the points before getting married again.

It seems the biggest marker for success is the general outlook of the other person: Happy camper vs. unhappy camper. In my second marriage I thought we had a match, but the stress and change brought on by having kids sort of flipped her mode. In my current engaged status I have the opportunity to see and understand my partner in new ways. There’s no hurry between us, and even that’s something we agree on.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

Back to Positive Divorce & Co-Parenting

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reference: The 5 Love Languages  by Gary Chapman

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Laws of Attraction and the Opposite Sex

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We are programmed to admire the opposite sex. It’s part of our DNA. Maybe more for men than women, but “we all look.” I was wondering about this a few days ago as I was walking around the lake with my fiancé. Still it’s so fun to look. What is it about voyeurism that’s so enticing? Or is it something more animal?

When a Lamborghini drives by I do my best to get a look at it. Something about the curves, the exotic nature, and the power of that car. 

I like to people watch. Most of us do. But I don’t think of myself as a hound dog. I’m not cat calling or overtly staring. And I’m not trying to hide it from my soon-to-be-wife. We both admire the stream of runners and walkers as we walk together.

Am I sexually attracted to them? Am I looking to cheat on my fiancé? Or is it more of a fascination thing?

One similar situation I compare this phenomenon to is fancy cars. When a Lamborghini drives by I do my best to get a look at it. Something about the curves, the exotic nature, and the power of that car. And I could stand next to one and not grow tired of admiring the engineering.

Perhaps that’s a similar response when looking at a particularly attractive and athletic person. You want to observe the lines, the muscle, the curves. But it’s not like I want to sleep with them all. It’s just that I can appreciate god’s handiwork and the attractive power of the opposite sex. I don’t really want to drive a Lamborghini, but they sure are fun to look at.

I also noticed the other day is how we are programmed to see youth as a beauty as well. And with today’s media obsession we are even more trained than ever to admire the teen shape. The zero body fat, zero age lines, race-ready bodies that go flying by almost have a glow about them. Again, it’s not sexual at this point. At least sexual in the physical sense, the sexual power is more of an animal instinct.

As I’ve grown older and more aware of my own aging and changing shape, I have become more aware of our how media-driven tastes have been focused on the youth. Except in my world, I am no longer interested in youngsters. I have a teenage daughter of my own. I’m more interested in appreciating the lines and burnished look of people my own age, or even older.

Holding hands with my fiancé on the running trail doesn’t diminish my enthusiasm for watching. I’m affirming my joy and connection with this woman, as we go about the dance of living together.

How beautiful to see a gray-haired lady smiling and cruising along getting her 5-miles in. I’m less interested in teen-looking athletes and more interested in people who are happy in their own skins, people doing their own lives with style and grace.

Maybe the fact that we’re all on a running/walking trail is a bit of a filter. Everyone out here is active and working on staying that way. That’s what I look for in a partner (one that I have in spades) and that’s what I look for as I see these beautiful women passing by along the trail. Sure, the occasional gazelle is pretty to see leaping along, but I’m no gazelle. I’m looking for people of my tribe. And part of that tribe is mid-life and going strong.

Holding hands with my fiancé on the running trail doesn’t diminish my enthusiasm for watching. I’m not limiting my opportunities by selecting and being selected by a mate. I’m affirming my joy and connection with this woman, as we go about the dance of living together. You’ve got to stay active to maintain an active lifestyle. And if you’re both into the task you can both enjoy the journey.

Today I’m not really people watching for attractive young women. I notice the allure and draw of their energy and physical form. No. More I am looking for the energy of life in all its active forms. The thing about a Lamborghini that makes it so fascinating is the rarity of seeing one and the knowledge that it goes fast. Same thing with my fiancé: a rare beauty that goes fast. I exercise next to her so I can keep up 15 and 20 years from now.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

Back to Positive Divorce & Co-Parenting

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The Joy of Divorce and the 3 Gifts of Breaking Up

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While we held it all together for our family, it was not all that ideal. But I was convinced that life was not ideal, and that for the comfort and future joy of my kids I would stick it out, no matter what.

As it was happening the divorce was the worst experience of my life. I was the one who wanted to work on things, but was told, “It is over.” I struggled with my own sadness and the imagined sadness that I knew my kids would experience. I tried to entice my still-wife back into the idea of staying together. I tried to bully her into realizing how bad things were going to be without me. I tried to convince her that she was wrong. I did everything I could think of to save the marriage.

Here’s the rub. The marriage was hard. Outside of the first few years of parenting (including the global crisis of 9-11) things in the relationship were not ever easy. We had very different styles of housekeeping, very different ideas about what made up a perfect weekend. And while we held it all together for our family, it was not all that ideal. But I was convinced that life was not ideal, and that for the comfort and future joy of my kids I would stick it out, no matter what.

My then-wife, on the other hand, decided for us both that “no matter what” was over. And though we said, “’til death do us part” we really didn’t mean it. She decided for us that it was over. And all the second person can do at that point is go through some of the Kubler-Ross grief stages.

But the gift of the divorce was bigger than I could imagine. Looking back, now seven years, I can say it was the most transformative event in my life. What cracked with the fracturing of my marriage was my own protective shell. The heart that was suddenly in so much pain burst forth from my chest and I started writing about it. Writing like I’d never written before. Writing, in some ways, to survive the crisis I was in. And I’m still writing.

Even alone, I was happier than I had been for the last few years of my marriage. As I began to discover the activities that gave me joy, I was able to include my kids more regularly in those activities.

The first gift divorce gives you is time and solitude. It’s painful. It was lonely. But in the hours and days of my loneliness I had to search again for the things that gave me joy. I no longer had the family group to mingle and play with, I had to find my own happiness. My alone happiness.

I wrote. I started playing my guitar more regularly. I walked the neighborhood endlessly to get into shape. I rejoined a tennis team. And I allowed the sadness and aloneness to transform me. I began to find happiness outside of being a parent. I got to discover my life’s joy in the times when I could not be with my kids. It was a moment of crisis that turned into a moment of self-discovery.

The second gift divorce gives you is the perspective on love and life. During the throes of divorce I was not able to see how this was ultimately going to be a good transformation. But as time wound on, I was able to reflect, first to myself and then to my kids, about how things were actually better now. I had a conversation with my daughter one morning before school that went like this.

“I know this divorce thing has been hard on all of us, but you do see how somethings have gotten better, right?”

She did not look convinced. “Like what?”

“Like how you and I are playing tennis together now. When I was married to your mom it was harder to find time to do stuff like that.”

“Okay…”

“And you can see how happy I am, right?”

“Yes.”

“Well, maybe it wasn’t going to get any happier with your mom. Maybe she was looking for something different. And even if I didn’t know it, maybe I was too. But now, as we’ve all gotten a little time away, can’t you see that we’re all a bit happier?”

“I guess so.”

The biggest gift of my divorce was the release to become a happier, healthier, and more loving partner to a new woman. I bring my joy and my affection, and this time, the rules of engagement are very different.

Granted, she was eight years old then, and not really processing all that I was saying. But the message was this. Even alone, I was happier than I had been for the last few years of my marriage. As I began to discover the activities that gave me joy, I was able to include my kids more regularly in those activities. About six months after that conversation I had standing tennis games with my daughter on the weekends they were with me. It was a peak moment to be on the tennis court hitting balls with someone I loved so much. I had tried to get her mom interested in tennis, but it wasn’t meant to be.

The third gift divorce gives you is the freedom to go forward in your life and find someone to love again. And, if we’re lucky, and if we’ve done our homework on what broke down in the marriage, maybe we will find someone who we can truly love and who can love us back.

The biggest gift of my divorce was the release to become a happier, healthier, and more loving partner to a new woman. I bring my joy and my affection, and this time, the rules of engagement are very different. There’s something about a post-divorce-with-kids relationship that sort of puts things in perspective. The divorce taught me how to be alone and happy. The divorce gave me two great kids that are dependent on me for love, support, and encouragement.

And then the divorce gave me the time back. The time to be myself and discover my core talents again. And this is the me that my new fiancé fell in love with. Independent. Joyous. A dedicated father. And a creative madman. And this creative whirlwind came from the trauma and transformation of my divorce. As I was losing everything I discovered a larger me, a meta man who could rise above the distortion and anger and love in spite of everything else.

What I do best in life is love. And that I have been given a gift for sharing that experience via writing and music, is one of the major wins in my life. This new lease on love is another. May you find what you were looking for. May you find the happiness that comes from within so you can share it with others. The divorce gave me back my joy and freedom and allowed me a second chance to find life-long love.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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image: with kids at enchanted rock, creative commons usage

Seven Strategies for Winning Divorce

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The real win in divorce is more of a judo move. Waring parties are prevented from hurting each other and the negotiations happen with as little bloodshed as possible. So it’s not so much a win as a neutralizing the other person’s anger, entitlement, and narcissism while protecting yourself and your kids. I know that sounds harsh, but the elements of rage and victimization are present in any relationship. Divorce just makes the relationship a lot harder. But divorce does not end the relationship if you have kids.

If you want 50/50 parenting ask for it. If it’s worth going to war for, then fight for it.

Strategy One: Never respond to anger or frustration in-kind. Ever. Just don’t do it. It might feel good to unload a good blast from the furnace, but do it to a therapist or a friend, not to your ex.  Any temporary victory you would feel in belittling, or showing your ex-partner for their trivial issues, is lost in the frustration that will then be spread around to your kids. A swipe at your ex is a swipe at your kids happiness too. Do not do it.

Strategy Two: Come to an agreement around money and then stick to it. Be open if you are having financial trouble. And if you are co-parents, take turns providing the expenses of your kids upbringing. That’s not how legal divorce happens in the US. Here, the woman gets primary custody and a fat paycheck about 80% of the time. And the man, if he chooses to fight, must be prepared to prove his worthiness. Until the laws are changed, live within them. Negotiate your deal, then get out. Lawyers will take more money than you can ever provide to your kids. Give it to your kids.

Strategy Three: If you want 50/50 parenting ask for it. If it’s worth going to war for, then fight for it. I opted for the cooperative divorce and then accepted the 65-35 split offered. It was a bad deal. It was not how we entered the agreement to have kids, but it’s what the ex wanted. So she knew she could get it if we went to court. If you are doing a collaborative divorce “What she would get in court” is NEVER the right response to a 50/50 request.

Strategy Four: Deal with your own shit on your own time. Your kids do not need to be therapists, confidants, or friends during your divorce. They need to be kids. The more you can do to take your issues outside, the better the relationship will be with them and your ex. Never talk bad about you ex. You can say “she does things I don’t agree with,” but her decisions cannot be challenged in-front of your kids. They are not a sounding board.

Now is my chance to get on with MY living as a dad, as a boyfriend, and as an ex-husband.

Strategy Five: Find engaging activities that you love to do with your kids. This is hard one as your kids get older. But your efforts will pay off with huge dividends: their conversation.  My son recently discovered playing cards, so I play with him. And he beats my ass. Cool. But the real winner is me. During the game play, I am just a friend, I am just his dad, I am just an opponent in a game of cards. He talks about all kinds of stuff while we’re playing cards. I’m still looking for the “activity” with my daughter that doesn’t involve shopping at the mall.

Strategy Six: Move on with your life. Too many divorced parents stay in “divorced parent” mode for too long. Get to the business of healing yourself. Certainly stay alone until you’ve worked through some the issues that landed you in the divorce court. (Yes, they were on both sides of the aisle.) And then move along back into the mystery that is modern dating. Try it all. What do you have to lose?

Strategy Seven: Get good at doing what you love. I love tennis and playing music. So I started taking weekend workout sessions. And I reconnected with some friends and started playing music again. Then when you begin to meet interesting people you’ve got a few things to start with. First dates are a lot more interesting if they involve walking around the lake, or hitting a few tennis balls. Bars and coffee shops are not our natural habitat.

You can win at divorce, but only by staying to the high road in all interactions. Sure, things didn’t go the way I wanted, but that is life. Now is my chance to get on with MY living as a dad, as a boyfriend, and as an ex-husband. Let me do the best at all three.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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Love is the Goal, Discover Your Own Path

Screen Shot 2016-03-08 at 6.45.22 AM“In love lies the seed of our growth. The more we love, the closer we are to the spiritual experience.”–Paulo Coehlo

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A simple quote and image on Facebook today triggered a thought I’ve been nurturing for quite some time. Love is the goal, yes, but LOVE as a state of being can happen at anytime and over some fairly trivial things. The point is to notice when LOVE enters your life and do more of what makes you feel those warm fuzzy feelings.

Crave them when they are not with you. Enjoy and savor them when they are with you. And feel the complete fullness of life when you have been satiated by them.

I wrote a post yesterday about my perfect breakfast. What was interesting, was how much I love my breakfast. I crave it in the mornings. That’s a good indication that my body is getting some benefit from the combination of yogurt and low-sugar granola. But the experience of longing and fulfillment that happens each morning, is a teacher. I enjoy the craving. I enjoy the act of eating and savoring the meal. And I enjoy the warmth I get from being satisfied with my meal. It’s a perfect relationship.

That’s sort of how we want our relationships with people as well. Crave them when they are not with you. Enjoy and savor them when they are with you. And feel the complete fullness of life when you have been satiated by them. And I’m not just talking about sex here. Satiation comes from the ritual of the morning as you wake up together. Make sure you appreciate your partner just for being there. Celebrate what you have, getting ready, making coffee, eating breakfast. Celebrate the time you are together.

It’s the longing that can get us in trouble. We long for our connection and we turn to other things. I really like ice cream. But my craving for ice cream is different from my craving for my fiancé. They are also similar. I can sublimate my desire for love in many ways. By eating ice cream I get that fuzzy feeling during and after, but I don’t get any of the other warm fuzzies that true caring and nurturing can bring. Ice cream is a hollow craving. And ice cream bears no love for me.

Make sure you celebrate each other. Find the things you love to do together and do them. Make time for those things. Discover new things you might both like to do.

My mate, on the other hand, lights up with my attention and affection. What I give in love I receive back in laughter and kisses. This is the space we’d love to live in. And then… there’s all that other living we have to do. Parenting, if you have kids. Earning a living, to make the ship go. Exercise, so you have a long and healthy life. And chores, the struggle to stay one step ahead of entropy.

As we can remember our beloved during the day, we can remind ourselves of our deep love and craving of that other person. And this is not obsession, this is healthy desire. I don’t want to control or manipulate her, I just want to be beside her, touching the small of her back, whispering my joys into her ear. And you can do this with little connective texts throughout the day, “You crossed my mind and stayed there.” Little competitions between you, “How far have you walked today?” And little messages of caring, “I’m stopping by the store, is there anything you need or desire?”

Just letting the other person know you are thinking about them is a great first step in connecting for the long haul. Make sure you celebrate each other. Find the things you love to do together and do them. Make time for those things. Discover new things you might both like to do. And get out there and do them. An active love is much better than a sedentary love. If you love doing activities together, you get a double boost, love and endorphins. Go for it. Stay connected and celebratory as much as you can. There is plenty of time for the mundane, but it’s tapping into the extraordinary that’s the key to a long-lasting love affair.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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