Category Archives: money

Hold On! The Information You’ve Been Given About Divorce is Wrong

See if you can spot the lie:

  • The woman is the primary care giver.
  • The mom always gets primary custody.
  • Dads usually make the most money and spend more time at work, this situation is important for the continuity of the family after divorce.
  • The kids should be supported in a lifestyle they’ve grown accustomed to.
  • Women are usually the emotional ones in a relationship. They are the emotional center of the nuclear family unit before the divorce and should be given consideration as such after the divorce.
  • Dads are often distant, unengaged, and aloof in relationship to parenting.
  • Girls really need their mom’s more than their father.
  • Boys need their moms when they are young and their fathers later in life.

They are all wrong. Or at least misperceptions about how it is. Every case, every family, is different.

In my case, I’d go as a far as saying every one of these statements was actually the opposite of what our family was like. But as we headed towards negotiating our co-parenting relationship, I started being fed these outdated ideas as truth. Though they didn’t fit in our case, I was assured that the courts had done enough research and the experience to say “what’s best for the children.”

For your kids, divorce is the biggest trauma they’ve experienced in their young lives. The dad is often given the boot as the little group attempts to maintain some semblance of routine without him.

In our case, as in 90% of divorces in Texas, the split was divided along 1970’s traditional divorce wisdom. Moms are the primary caregivers, dads are the primary breadwinners, and keeping this balance is what protects the children from the harshness of divorce. That’s the party line.

The truth is, there is no protection from the harshness of divorce. However, not giving 50/50 consideration to the father in the family does everyone a disservice. Kids need both parents equally. If you can’t stay together for them, at least split up in the way that serves everyone’s need.

Can the father’s needs be tossed out at a court’s whim? Sure. It happens daily. But it’s not “in the best interest of the children.”

Divorce is hard business. And for your kids, divorce is the biggest trauma they’ve experienced in their lives. The dad is often given the boot as the little group attempts to maintain some semblance of routine without him. This is what you will be told is best for everyone. Well, everyone except the dad.

We’ve come to view the stereotypical male as detached and unfeeling. And that preconceived idea no longer holds water. Today the lopsided divorce, while all to common, is coming being challenged more frequently.

The situation: someone in the relationship has decided to break up the family, why shouldn’t it start with the assumption that the split is going to be a 50/50 on all counts?

If you are about to enter into divorce negotiations or a divorce war, please consider the needs of both parents in addition to the children. If, for some reason, it is determined the balance should be less than 50/50 make sure you understand the reason.

My dad was an aloof man. He was also the only breadwinner in the house. And my mom was, in fact, the emotional center in the house. That’s typical of that period in time. But the working mom revolution came along and changed everything. We’re more aspirational with our parenting, and in my case, we voted to split the details of parenting as closely down the middle as possible.

While I don’t blame my then-wife for “going for it” and asking for everything she wanted: the money, the house, the custody, I don’t think she was thinking beyond her interests. And we can all cite studies about mothering and nurturing, but today, just as many modern studies show the dad is of equal importance in bringing up healthy kids. The situation: someone in the relationship has decided to break up the family, why shouldn’t it start with the assumption that the split is going to be a 50/50 on all counts?

In my marriage, that’s how we agreed to have kids, as equal partners. What leads the woman to think she’s entitled to more? Why does more time with the kids also equate with more money to be paid by the father? It’s flawed math. Worse, it’s really flawed psychology.

As I was preparing to leave the house, she wanted to make sure I got a pet to be with me. She understood where her emotional bonds were.

I didn’t have the option to fight for 50/50 parenting once the divorce was in motion. By agreeing to a collaborative divorce, I was waving my right to sue my then-wife for terms. And while this also precluded her from suing me, somehow we started the negotiations with the old imbalanced split.

There’s no going back for us. The decisions that were made have run their course. My son is now 15, he was 9 when his mom asked for a divorce.  My daughter, who was 7 at the time, is the one I still feel the most pain about. She didn’t understand. As I was preparing to leave the house, she wanted to make sure I got a pet to be with me. She understood where her emotional bonds were.

I will never get back my kid’s youngest days. I will not be able to make up for the 65% lost time with them. What I can do is tell others about my experience. I can encourage, even moms, to consider the 50/50 route in compassion for the kids and also for the other member of the equation, the dad.

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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Artists In Love, Parenting, and Divorce

WHOLE-withguitar

Preamble

Since an early age I have been able to express my love for others in a very open and direct way. And in my second marriage I learned, as things were falling apart, just how much of “that loving feeling” I was generating on my own. I thought I understood what it meant to be loved by someone, but I hadn’t really experienced it since the death of my older sister. I was manufacturing most of the warmth and connectivity in my family. Sure, I could tell my then-wife loved our kids and loved me, but it was a strained expression of love, not an open and on-going expression.

We loved our kids, that was obvious. Everything we did hinged around their wellbeing. But in that process of giving ourselves over to parenting, we pulled back from each other.

Of course, I hadn’t gotten the frame of the Love Languages yet. As I went down the dark rabbit hole of depression after the divorce I was lucky enough to join a recovery group. Over the course of ten weeks I met on Thursday nights with 15 other men and women going through the same process of letting go, rediscovering, and rebuilding. And in that class I learned a new language of communication as well. I learned about how to be in a relationship in the present moment, and let go of the expectations of what was to come. As I excavated the relationship in this group to examine what had gone wrong, a distinct picture emerged of our different creative responses and reactions to the stress of becoming parents.

Becoming Parents

See, when you have kids everything changes. Our young relationship was transformed by the mysterious and sacred event. And there was an urgent and searing love that burned away all of our doubt and differences as we came together as parents. But somehow it still wasn’t a loving relationship between us. We loved each other, but only one of us really knew how to express it.

Over the course of the next 9 years or so we drifted into more of a partnership than a loving relationship. It was not a dramatic shift, it was a gradual wearing down of our mutual adoration. I kept punching through with outpourings of love and affection, but over time the glow that was created was overwhelmed by the stress and weight of the routine of being parents. Parents who were both working hard to keep their own emotional lives together while still maintaining a warm and supportive home for our two growing children.

We loved our kids, that was obvious. Everything we did hinged around their wellbeing. But in that process of giving ourselves over to parenting, we pulled back from each other. And I’d be deluded if I tried to put the blame squarely on her shoulders. We had both wanted children. We both wanted to continue on our paths as creative adults. But we were also struggling with unmet expectations about how things would be once we achieved the goal: Two kids, a nice house, a few pets, and …

We dealt with the reality of life not quite working out the way we envisioned in different ways. She went jogging around the neighborhood. I went into my music studio. And together we negotiated our chores and kid duties. All the while we were good at celebrating our children. The milestones flew by as they moved from pre-k to “big kid school.” But while they were thriving, somehow our relationship to one another was not.

Parenting Demands a New Approach

The kids had become our relationship. And our own journeys turned inward rather than towards one another.

Little by little I began working in my studio more at night after the kids went to bed. Somewhere deep inside I believed that my craft would eventually provide for some relief from the hard times. But I was also moving away from her in ways that would only become clear much later. Our creative lives either find new outlets once we have children or we become frustrated artists. I dove into my music as a way to connect to my own inner passion and creative drive. And even as I became more energetic and hopeful, my then-wife became less so. I’m not sure if it was the lack of creative joy in her life, but I do know that’s how we met each other, full of joy and art. Our weekend routine before kids had become a series of check-ins around our studio time.

In the transformation of becoming parents we both changed. While the joy and fascination around the kids was the center of our lives all was well. The kids fulfilled some part of our creative souls in a deep way. And for a while, the children became our joint art project. But over time, they became a bit more autonomous, and the reality of the mundane set in again. Chores and bills and shuttling little friends everywhere causes additional strain that can wear on the most solid of relationships. In our transition from uber-connected-new-parents to parents-who-are-once-again-looking-for-their-own-path-in-life we lost the fascination and adoration between us. The kids had become our relationship. And our own journeys turned inward rather than towards one another.

Perhaps, I could’ve fought more for the marriage and demanded, in a masculine way, for her love and passion to return. I could’ve stood in more with the chores and tried to meet more of her demands for help. I’m sure there are things I could’ve done differently and better, but I’m not clear that my efforts to become a better husband would’ve healed the imbalance that seemed more fundamental. I’m not sure I could’ve woken up her inner artist again.

While the creative kernel continued to burn inside of me, I spent more and more time in the music studio after the kids went to sleep. There was even a good bit of my output that I fashioned into love songs and poems meant to rekindle, or at least affirm my love for this wonderful woman. Something between us had broken. She would point at my “lack of responsibility” for the reason she was angry a lot of the time. She would say the house was too dirty, or the money in the bank account was insufficient for her to relax. But somewhere in there, she had dropped her own creative song, and had begun to resent mine.

The Artist’s Journey is a Solo Path

My music became a symbol of the disconnect between us. What drew her in during our courtship, became something she fought against. My songs fell on deaf ears. My music seemed to represent for her why we didn’t have the money that would’ve allowed us to be more comfortable. But I think the real struggle was more internal for her. Her own art had transformed and thrived for a while around the birth of the kids, for a while her own internal song had not been silent. Somewhere along the path towards becoming a mom she reoriented her life exclusively around parenting.

When this played out in my marriage, my survival as an artist appeared to come (at least to my then-wife) at the expense of being a responsible father.

When the kids began to gain more momentum out and away from the two of us our closeness began to separate as well. As they grew and developed passions and interests of their own, perhaps she failed to rekindle the creative love inside herself. That was also the part of her that I fell in love with. As I was sputtering and struggling as a parent AND and as an artist, she was alone without her craft, and in some ways without me. She was focused on all the practical things. She began to see my creative endeavors as threatening rather than supportive. She wasn’t interested in the love poems I was writing. My childish creative spirit that had enraptured her early on became a symbol of my immaturity.

As artists we experience life as part of our creative path. Our outputs enhance and celebrate our ups and downs. Our creative voices can begin to get trapped under the rough business of bills, health insurance, and mortgage payments. The process of becoming parents turns up the intensity. Part of the artist’s struggle is how to continue finding time, and more importantly energy, to stay with it. Many parents drop their artistic ambitions in favor of their children’s wants and needs. When this played out in my marriage, my survival as an artist appeared to come (at least to my then-wife) at the expense of being a responsible father. The struggle became both internal (my energy and vision) and external (a threat to my marriage).

The fracture and collapse of my marriage ultimately became the emotional firestorm that uncorked my artistic voice. In my own individual struggle to survive, I found my release through writing. After the divorce, as I thrashed and fell apart during the months following my separation, I wrote to make sense of what was happening. And now, over six years later, even as the writing matures, the music and songs are beginning to come back as well.

An artist struggles through all of life’s conditions and requirements just like everyone else, but they tend to leave behind a story, or song, or image. This is my magnum opus.

My hope is that my song is not about divorce and trouble, but love and creative passion. As both of us struggled under the amazingly complex and overwhelming changes in our lives, I turned towards my craft as a way to cope, to organize my feelings and thoughts, and explore both the happy and sad parts of the journey. As the journey continues, my voice grows stronger here on the blog and in other areas of my life. As an artist, the crushing blow of the divorce stripped the band-aid off the pain I had been trying to express.

Today, my creative discipline and output has become an integrated expression of who I am. This song I sing becomes more of how I present myself in the world. My music and writing sets a creative example for my children as they pursue their dreams. I’ve shown them how it looks to recover from setbacks and disappointments.

This artistic me is the foundation of my new relationship as well. This time I am more confident and self-assured. I believe it was this confidence that allowed me to attract a mutually compassionate person to express and receive love and adoration with a similar playful and creative flair. In finding my deeper creative voice, I’ve also called in a partner who glows, and pings, and hums with her own distinct yet familiar buzz. Together we resonate and reflect back even more energy.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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image: on stage, kristy duff wallace, used by permission

Celebrating 2 Years of Being The Positive Divorce Dad

WHOLE-songwriter

You never leave the family, you just leave the house.

Two years ago I started this journey, finding the Positive in my divorce. My life was changed by the act of trying to reframe everything in a non-adversarial mode. Even when she would be mean, I would never respond in-kind. Ever. Having this blog, this Positive folder to put stories into made me more aware and more conscious of creating love and connection between myself and my kids. And in not riling up their mom, giving all of us an easier life, post-divorce.

As I have continued to weave my Positive Divorce story in the public eye, I have learned many things.

The angst of divorce is our own. The trauma of divorce is held within all of us. If I can behave in ways that support my kids in every interaction, I can remember to be kind, be slow to react, and be thoughtful of our continuous future as a family unit.

Things started two years ago with this post.

dad's gang

A Return to Wholeness After Divorce

There’s no way sugar coat it. Divorce is the single biggest event that has happened in the lives of my family, ever. As amicable as you want to make it (and we tried) things get rough, sad, hurtful, complicated, and confusing. And while we as adults can only fathom that chaos from our own perspectives, the churn in our kid’s lives will shape them forever. I know my parents divorce, and the subsequent loss of my father’s love and influence, had devastating effects on my life. I’m a survivor. I’m here to talk, write, and grow even more from the experience. But it sucked.

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And along the journey to now, I have discovered many things about myself, about my kids, and about this process of divorce and recovery from divorce. The goal, when you separate is to maintain a civil relationship and do what’s best for the kids. It’s a lot easier to say that than it is to actually do it. Your ex will do stuff that baffles your mind. You will want different things. You will do the best you can. And it will be a challenge sometimes, but I learned that when I was able to hold up the positive white flag of surrender, I was able to set the tone for my experience of the divorce.

I also wrote the manifesto for what I was doing. It has been updated several times, but the core mission remains the same.

Becoming The Whole Parent, author, John McElhenney

About Becoming a Whole Parent Again, After Divorce

My unwavering and immutable mission:

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

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In the second month I met Arianna Huffington at a tech conference. When she gave out her email and asked for ideas I was typing the message and including my post from earlier that morning.  All Available Light: Positive Parenting Energy Is Never Lost. I think that post really turned a corner for me. I was hitting stride and developing a different voice that would grow stronger the more I wrote. Arianna emailed me back within hours and I became a HuffPo blogger. See my archive: John McElhenney on the Huffington Post.

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It was at this point, a good three years into my divorce journey that I hit on my home run post. (Still getting the most reads of any page on my blog.)

What A Single Dad Wants In the *Next* Relationship

Rules for dating a single dad. (I’ve got two kids and a full-time job, but I’d still like to find time to be with someone.)

  1. Let’s not rush into things.
  2. I’m Looking for 100% Pure Connection
  3. I’m Into Moms

There’s more, but you can read it in the post.

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And next was the 2nd post divorce relationship and first experience with navigating another person’s resistance and dysfunction. All the while, learning to let it go, take it easy, and keep my focus on the present moment and not wondering and worrying about where we were going.

Screen Shot 2014-04-23 at 7.55.42 AMLearning About Sex and Dating As We Go Along

Dating is not marriage. In fact, dating (which I admittedly don’t know much about) can be shut down by getting too serious or too future-plans oriented. As my schedule and future is quite flexible, I was surprised how quickly my “relationship” concepts changed yesterday when confronted with a challenging dilemma. On one hand I had met and “dated” an amazing woman. One the other she was telling me how our closeness and chemistry was freaking her out.

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And then I was able to open up a bit about post-divorce depression, which is common for us empaths.

WHOLE-thekissHow Long Will it Hurt? Divorce Recovery, the Road Back to Happiness

Today, over four years after my divorce was finalized, I was still struck by a pang of sadness as I was dropping my kids bags off at my ex-wife’s house, the old house, our old house. I wondered, “How long will it take before I feel nothing?” But I immediately knew the answer. I will always feel a loss when dropping my kids bags off at my old house. The rest, what I do with those feelings, is up to me.

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Everything seemed to fall into place after I wrote this important post.

WHOLE-prayerPrayer for Single Parents, and My Ex

“I wish you happiness in your new life, I always want to see you shine, you are the other half, the partner in this parenting journey we accepted together. Your joy is joy for our kids. Your peace is their peace, and mine. As we walk separate paths we are blameless and grateful for the gifts we’ve been given. And to you, my dear ex, I give the deepest respect and love. Thank you for where we’ve been, where we are, and where we are going, still a family, still parents, still blessed.”

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And from that point on, this blog became as much about relationship building and dating as it was about divorce and difficulties. Rounding the 5th year after divorce, things began to change for me.

I was invited to do a few interviews:

I began to identify my core relationship needs and decided drop online dating as distraction. I put the intention out there for what I wanted, and started working on myself and my joy rather than pursuing a relationship.

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I wrote The Deep Space Divorce Saga which began with

My Little Rocket Ship of Hope and Love WHOLE-rocketship

I am hilariously ashamed, and… Laughing at my situation, because if I didn’t laugh at it, I’m sure I’d be freaking out, depressed, or drinking. Something to escape my current grounded state. Ready to laugh? Me too.

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And it was right at this time, January of 2015, that an amazing woman showed up in my life and changed everything.

May I Fall In Love With You?

Do you long for the intoxication of love again, like me? I can feel it in my bones, growing stronger daily, as I grow stronger and more confident. And the more clear I get about 100% or nothing, the easier it is to make decisions about my time and efforts. Dating and a relationship will be a core part of my life again. Today, not so much.

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The new non-dating attitude and honest reinvention of myself had called in the perfect woman. I could not have known it at the outset, in January, when I wrote the post above, but within several months there was an entirely different thread being woven on this blog.

whole-bw-coupleAn Amazing Thing Has Happened

She arrived in my life in January of this year.

In February of this year my life fell apart, due to my own emotional tides and I slipped into a depression. I did not see it coming. I was on top of the world, and boom, I was freaking the hell out. And then the most amazing thing happened. She stayed close and connected.

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And the rest, as they say…

Thank you for staying on this journey with me. The outpouring of love and support has been vital at times. My positive attitude continues to get stronger and project itself into other’s lives, through this writing. I am learning. I am growing. And I hope, I am becoming a better father, ex-husband, and lover. Let’s see where we go from here.

I think my latest post shows a continuing search for meaning in all of this love stuff. And I’m very excited to be back on that path again. This time for good.

WHOLE-runner

The Care and Feeding of Your Lover

Pray for your lover’s health and happiness, then let go and let them pursue it however it best suits them in the moment.

 

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Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

Note on the intention behind this post and this blog: Yes, divorce is hard. Trying to whitewash every single detail of a co-parenting relationship in some fantasy land haze would be of benefit to none of us. I am committed to owning my part in the divorce, always. And I am hopefully clear on my self-awareness when it comes to my own struggles with money, depression, communication breakdowns, and disagreements with my ex-wife. What I hope, is that this post doesn’t come across as a humblebrag, but as a celebration of the progress I’ve made in navigating the last two years of being a single parent and co-parent. I always appreciate comments and feedback.

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The Training and Education of a Reluctant Divorcé

WHOLE-umbrella

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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image: father and son, creative commons usage

Inviting the Dinosaur Into Your Divorce

WHOLE-dino

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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Are You Receiving Me? When Not Listening Turns Towards Divorce

whole-smokingcouple

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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