Category Archives: SDSG

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

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reference: The 5 Love Languages  by Gary Chapman

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The Kids are All Right: A Dad’s Divorce Reflections

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There’s a hard truth I have to swallow. My kids have done okay without me. Not without/without me, but with only 1/3 of me. As the worst happened, divorce, I was really worried about my kids, even more than myself. Everything I did was to support them and even their mom during the transition.

I think most of my devastation was about me and my loneliness. I didn’t want to be alone. I wanted the house, wife, and kids back. But that’s not what happened.

Well, the transition, it turns out, was a lot easier for them. See, they stayed in their home and went along with life much like it would’ve been if I had gone on an extended business trip. They kept their rooms, their routines, and their mom. But they lost me. And I’m sort of mixed when I say, “So what.”

So, you’re getting a divorce. In my life it was the worst thing I could’ve imagined. And even as I valiantly fought for 50/50 parenting I was awarded something much less. Something called the Standard Possession Order. (SPO) And in this miraculously skewed document I was given every other weekend (on some odd 1-3-5 schedule) and a single night during the week off. It works out to about half as much time as my now ex-wife. I was devastated.

But I think most of my devastation was about me and my loneliness. I didn’t want to be alone. I wanted the house, wife, and kids back. But that’s not what happened. And I’m here to tell the truth about it: my kids are happy and well-adjusted teenagers. Even without my presence for a majority of the last 7 years, they are still stellar kids.

Now, a good chuck of that appreciation goes to the adversary in all this, my then wife who argued against 50/50 parenting. She has worked harder than she would’ve had we stayed together. She’s provided the lion’s share of first aid, doctor’s appointments, and school pickup and delivery. It’s not the way I wanted it, but it actually worked out okay for my kids.

What did I miss?

I’m mostly sad for the things I missed. The events I would’ve liked to have been part of in stead of only getting a phone photo of. The daily grind of being a parent was a privilege. Even if I was tired and distracted, nothing brought me back to life like my kid duties. I lost the routine of “being a dad” that had become my modus operandi. I lost over have of my dadness. And I missed a ton of activities, school projects, and events in my kids life. So what.

And really that’s the answer. So what. They are okay, and that was the big concern. The effect on them was pronounced, they had a lot less of the happy parent in their life and a lot more of the responsible one. Perhaps they will grow up to be responsible adults. And my ex does have a better handle on things like schedules and doctor’s appointments.

But the sadness I feel at the divorce today is more about the loss of their childhood, and the long years I suffered alone.

What I missed is gone. What I miss is the connection when they are away from me. And that was the rub then as it is now. Even as they are troublesome teenagers I miss every day they are not with me. Sure, I have other things to do. I have a fiancé, I have a band, I have my writing. But I’d rather have them. The sad part is, the kids I really long for are the one’s I was asked to walk out on.

Today my kids are much more like little adults. They need us parents, but it’s more for things like “rides to the mall” and “money for a movie.” The parenting roles have changed quite a bit. And in this parenting role I’m actually happy for the SPO. It’s not that I don’t want MORE time with my kids, it’s really that the time with them is very different.

We all lost in the divorce. My son is less like me than he could’ve been. Maybe that’s not all bad. But the sadness I feel at the divorce today is more about the loss of their childhood, and the long years I suffered alone. Their triumphant personalities are the reward of our low-conflict divorce. Sure, she’s done some contra-indicated things in our 7 years, but the proof is in the kids. They are fine. They did good without me. Different, but good.

Taking What You Got

Today I have more energy and joy for them when they are with me. I’m happier in my life than I was in the later years of my marriage. My kids are seeing me living my life to its fullest. And when they are part of my life, I get to rub off on them as much as I can. If joy is my MO then perhaps some of their joy is from me.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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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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The Hero’s Journey of a Divorced Dad

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A lot of hardships come at a man in the throes of a divorce. There are plenty of opportunities to get mad, get vindictive, get even, especially if the divorce was not your idea. But the higher road is to rise above the blame and anger of the divorce, and to think about your kids. First and foremost, think about them and the love that created them. That transformation that took place the moment you became a parent is still the most important focus of your life.

In most cases, like mine, you are going to have to come up with an additional $1,200 a month, even before you get to pay for a new apartment or try to afford a new mortgage.

First order of business: finding a place to live. In most states the dad is the parent typically asked to leave the family home. Even if you’re planning on selling, the dad is often the parent asked to move out. The idea is that moms are more nurturing and that young kids need their mommy more than their daddy. While for very young kids (breastfeeding for example) this might be the case, but in most other situations this is just the status quo, and not the reality of the relationship or parenting roles.

Second order of business: finding additional income. Again, in general, if you’re getting divorced and you’re the dad you will be asked to pay child support. In some states if you argue and win 50/50 custody the child support can be based on a percentage of income, but that’s an ideal outcome. In most cases, like mine, you are going to have to come up with an additional $1,200 a month, even before you get to pay for a new apartment or try to afford a new mortgage. Starting over, financially, after divorce is one of the biggest hardships facing a dad.

In spite of the anger and resentment, you’ve got to drop your psychological work elsewhere. Your kids don’t have any skills for dealing with your sadness or anger, and your ex has got better things to do.

Third order of business: taking care of yourself in the “off” times. Typical parenting splits give the mom twice as much time with the kids. That means for most of the week nights and every other weekend, you’re going to be newly alone. At first this might seem like a great thing as you attempt to jump back into the dating pool. But eventually, the loneliness begins to become an issue. The joy and playfulness that was your life as a parent, now has a hard boundary, and most of your hours you will not have access to your kids. You’ve got to decide what else you’re going to do with your life.

Forth order of business: reconnecting with your kids when they are back with you. If you get your life together fairly quickly and find a place to live where you can have your kids over for the weekend, you can begin the process of reconnecting. It’s hard. Kids want to be close, but they don’t know how to talk about what they’ve been doing at school or at home. You’ve got to work it out of them. Or just be satisfied at being with them and not so concerned about what you do or talk about. If you can establish some outdoor activities (we got a trampoline) that you all like to do, that’s a great way to drawing them back into your life.

Final order of business: how you negotiate and deal with your ex-partner. In spite of the anger and resentment, you’ve got to drop your psychological work elsewhere. Your kids don’t have any skills for dealing with your sadness or anger, and your ex has got better things to do. So it was important for me to seek out professional counseling while I was going through my divorce. I talked to this person as much about me and my life as I did about the divorce. It helps to have someone to rant to, cry to, laugh to, and who will challenge your old destructive patterns.

Even when she’s being harsh and unreasonable, I can choose to response with the love and kindness I have for my children. She is irrelevant at this point.

The journey is hard and long. But in the end, if you keep your head above the fray, you can make a better life for your kids. Regardless of whose idea the divorce was, and regardless of who wins the custody or house battles, your kids are the most important and most critical part of being a divorced parent. Anytime you think of being mean to your ex, just think of how it might hurt your kids and don’t do it. It’s never worth it.

I had anger issues. I liked to trade sharp barbs via text occasionally, just to let her know she was being mean. But as I got more clear on my own issues I could see that it didn’t do me any good. In fact, by engaging in pointed banter I was giving my anger and resentment more fuel.

One day, just before I started this blog, I decided I was done with the negative responses. Even when she’s being harsh and unreasonable, I can choose to response with the love and kindness I have for my children. She is irrelevant at this point. My relationship and responsibility lies with my kids alone. What issues I have with my ex-wife can usually be handled via email, and that’s an easy format to keep clean and balanced.

Anger breeds anger. Resentment and sharp jabs only builds more need for retaliation. If you can focus on the love and support of your children you can forgive and forget your ex-partner all together. As they fade into the back ground you can give your attention and energy to the loving support of your kids as the path ahead for your hero’s journey.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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Focusing On the Other Person is a Trap

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We are only responsible for our own happiness. Taking another person’s inventory is not beneficial for either party.

She’s still certain that I have done her some major injustice during the year or so that I was unemployed. And she’s got the big, state enforced debt to prove my fault. But it wasn’t supposed to go that way.

In recovery we learn that focusing on another person’s problems is really none of our business. We can only be responsible for our own recovery (from alcohol, sex, drugs, pornography, whatever). It’s called taking someone else’s inventory. In a marriage it begins to happen if you don’t guard against it. I think I was pretty good at looking at and working on my own shit. I think my then-wife often looked for reasons that I was the cause of her unhappiness.

Now, seven years later she’s still unhappy with me. She’s still certain that I have done her some major injustice during the year or so that I was unemployed. And she’s got the big, state enforced debt to prove my fault. But it wasn’t supposed to go that way. It’s the way the law is written, and it’s the way she chose to “enforce” it that became the issue. But had we been cooperative, or 50/50 as I asked, we would’ve cooperated and negotiated my economic hardship just as we do things like medical bills. No one expects them, but they come up. And together you deal with the issues.

When I told my ex-wife that I was going to be a bit late on one of my child support checks she got furious. I explained the situation, and the prospects for new clients. She was unfazed and threatened taking action with the attorney general’s office. The second month I still did not have an exact answer for when I could “catch up.” And after a few more threatening emails she stopped talking to me. She wouldn’t even meet with me over the Summer when school was starting up again. “When and how much?” became her standard response to any request for parenting discussion time.

We withdrew into our fighting corners. She threatened. I pleaded. I looked for new business for the company I was working for. I struggled to make my mortgage and keep the lights on. I was burning through my retirement to make child support payments and when that ran out I ran out of options. She was mad. She was mad like she had been mad when we were married. It was my fault that she was mad. I was the reason for her pain and anguish. All of it. Except we know that’s not the way anger and anguish work.

I am not responsible for my ex-wife’s happiness. The debt I owe her, money I did not make and therefore did not have to give her a portion of, is not going to make her happy.

Even at this time I could only focus on myself and my issues. I was working contract jobs for a small handful of clients but was not making money to make my mortgage and/or child support payments. My employer had lost a primary client that had kept me on the payroll. Nothing I said or did, short of delivering a check to her, was enough for her to relent or even discuss options with me. She was done and she let me know she would deliver our decree to the AG’s office by the end of the Summer. And that’s just what she did.

Now, about three years later, she is still owed this debt. The money I should’ve been making during our divorce, and the payments I should’ve been paying her, and now the debt I owe her has become a lien on my credit account. Yes, she has transformed me, a good-natured, honest, and transparent dad, into a deadbeat dad, in the eyes of the state and the credit bureaus. This new black mark on my record killed more than one job opportunity in the last few years.

This past week, when we reported to the AG’s office to reset the child support payments based on what I am actually making, she was still pissed about the money I “owe” her. I’m still her biggest problem. If I’d just pay her all the money I should’ve paid her, from money I should’ve been earning, then things would be just fine.

I tried this same kind of logic while we were married. If I could just get enough money in the bank she would relax. If I could get more of the chores done, hire a made once a week, and do the dishes every night, she would be happy. If I could get everything done and get an activity for the kids to do maybe then she’d entertain the idea of sex. Except there was usually a reason or two, an issue or two, that I had not anticipated or taken care of.

See, she was waiting for me to change. She was depending on me for some happiness that simply was not inside of her. Another person cannot make you happy. Sure, their actions can make you madder than hell, and sometimes their actions can be pleasing to you, but happiness is more of an internal thing. Happiness is a personal responsibility. That my ex-wife is still focused on me as part of her unhappiness just shows how much she still has to learn about compassion and self-improvement.

I am not responsible for my ex-wife’s happiness. The debt I owe her, money I did not make and therefore did not have to give her a portion of, is not going to make her happy. She’s not happy. She’s still unhappy about the way I’m treating her.

For me, I have moved on. I am dealing with the stress of the AG’s lien. I’m in a new relationship and feeling as happy and centered as I’ve ever been in my life. See, I know my happiness begins and ends with me and my thoughts. Even my ex-wife’s rage and antics don’t bring me down. She lost that power over me years ago when she decided to divorce me. And of course, I was learning that she never had that power to begin with. By focusing on my own issues and my own faults I am responsible for my actions. I am responsible for how I wake up each day and attack the hill with joy or anger.

I’m a happy climber. And I’m in a relationship now with another happy climber. There’s always going to be hills in life, and it is your attitude about your own work ahead that makes the difference.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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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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The Big Three Marriage Issues and the Hope of Counseling

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Was it marriage counseling or divorce counseling?

Chores are the root of many arguments and most of the resentment. She always felt she did most of the chores. Even though our agreement tended to validate that premise, it still made her mad.

It’s all in your approach to therapy. In our case we started hitting the couch before we thought there was a deal-breaking problem. We agreed that things were stressful between us and we could use some communication skills to help us work through the hard stuff. Maybe even a moderator while we dug into topics like money, chores, and sex.

Those are the big three. MONEY. CHORES. SEX. And couples therapy can help you unravel the details, but probably won’t fix any of them. Let’s look at them one-by-one.

Money

Either there is enough and you are both negotiating the balance of power, or there’s not enough and you are negotiating who’s going to work more. It’s a hard discussion to have without outside help. Loosely our relationship to money was I would work more she would work less so we could raise the kids with an active parent. For that trade, I would do contribute to the chores, but the lion’s share, during the day, while I was at work, would fall on her to-do list. That was our “spoken” agreement. The reality was a bit more obscure. Often I was being hammered for wanting to nap on the weekend when there were still chores to be done.

MARRIAGE MAXIM: There will always be more chores to be done. Your happiness will be a direct ratio to how okay you are with undone chores. I was okay with them, she was hardly ever okay with them. Money can help, you can hire a maid once a week. But money will not fix the issue. We had a weekly made and money in the bank and still, I was not doing enough to “help.”

CHORES

Sex with two people who are open and feeling is a magical thing. Sex with only one partner in the “open” mode is a different experience all together.

Ah, the root of many arguments and most of the resentment. She always felt she did most of the chores. Even though the spoken agreement tended to validate that premise, it still made her mad. And this imbalance made her mad most of the time. The problem is, she was prone to be mad anyway. She had some-kind of built-in “mad chip” on her shoulder. And chores were one of those things. I could be in trouble even before I knew what was wrong. I’d look around the house on a Saturday morning and think, “Things look great.” She would wake up and give me hell. Oh yes, men and women deal with chores very differently. Perhaps that’s part of the Mar and Venus thing.

SEX

Sex is the unspoken killer of a marriage. Men typically want more. Women typically want to be bothered about it less. Unless they are in pursuit of a baby however, then libido takes a back seat to purpose and intention. When my wife wanted a baby we had sex all the time. Once we had the baby, sex became a negotiation. That’s okay, until the negotiation becomes so lopsided that you’d rather have sex with yourself then approach your partner. And sex was one of the topics we rarely reached in “couple’s therapy.” Because there were always one hundred other issues, from topics 1 and 2, that I was not doing correctly. It was almost like she chose to inflame the first two issues so we didn’t have to look at the underlying distress: intimacy.

MARRIAGE MAXIM: When sex goes the relationship is not far behind.

Sex with two people who are open and feeling is a magical thing. Sex with only one partner in the “open” mode is a different experience all together. I always hoped for open sex, but occasionally settled for “whatever” sex. The sex you could take or leave, even after it’s done. “Meh Sex.”

Towards the end of my marriage I believe my wife was navigating us towards divorce rather than reconciliation.

But boring sex is a symptom of some deeper intimacy issues. When a woman is feeling resentful or unheard she will shut down sexual options. It’s her nature. When a man feels unloved and stressed he might turn to sex for affirmation and affection. When the two competing needs don’t match up, the woman becomes used to not having sex and the man becomes more adept at pleasing himself than his wife. Bummer.

Sex is hard to talk about. So talk about it before and after you’re having sex, but don’t try to cover emotional topics or “new ideas” during sex, unless you are prepared for a quick change, reset, or no. The best discussions about sex happen within the post-coital glow, the few hours after sex where you are both still feeling warm and fuzzy.

“I loved it when you rubbed yourself during sex, and I could feel it too.” Pretty racy statement, but great information for better and more mutually pleasurable sex. Still hard to say. But easier to say when you are both feeling optimistic about the relationship and the sex you just had.

DIVORCE COUNSELING

Towards the end of my marriage I believe my wife was navigating us towards divorce rather than reconciliation. She had completely shut down the sex channel of communication. She was angry 95% of the time. And her single word to describe couple’s therapy was CYNICAL. Yep, she was already dooming the relationship while still agreeing to engage in the negotiations.

As it turns out, we were not in “couple’s” or “marriage therapy.” We were working with a counselor who worked with a system that attempted to get you and your partner communicating on a very clear and simple level. What you attempted to strip away in the therapy was the projections, and regrets and simply deal with the present. It worked so well, that over the course of a few weeks my then-wife went to see an attorney to understand her “options.” Now it would’ve been more helpful had she brought that up IN therapy BEFORE going and meeting with the attorney, but she didn’t.

MARRIAGE MAXIM: Couple’s therapy only works if both partners are honest and genuinely want the relationship to continue. If one partner is opting-out there is little hope that a therapist can repair the damage.

Something in our communication was telling her, “It’s over.” So she planned accordingly. Had she wanted to work on the relationship the only honest thing do to would’ve been to bring in the idea, “I’m thinking of seeing an attorney about a divorce,” BEFORE she actually did it.

Once she met with the lawyer, the divorce strategy was planted in her mind. The encouragement from the attorney who wanted the new business, might be too hard to resist. The fact that she did it before talking about it in therapy… Well, that says, I’m done, and I’m doing this therapy to help you feel better about what’s going to happen.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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Two People In Love Spread a Message

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I know it when I’m radiating love. I know it when I’m with my lover and we’re both in the glow. I know that I was seeking a new partner for six years after my divorce, and THIS TIME, I knew I had met my match.

She read my blogs which laid out the simple roadmap to my heart. And then she joined. She laughed. She slid up beside me and never left.

This relationship is different from any I’ve ever experienced. (Do we say that about every new love?) It’s based on a very different set of rules than my previous marriages. This one has nothing but desire holding us together. I’ve got kids, she doesn’t. I’ve got debt, she’s got some money. I’ve got a creative fire that warms us both. She’s got an athletic passion that pulls us both along to healthier lifestyles.

When you’re around us, you know, you feel, that you are with lovers. We have an easy and playful way of being together. Even when we’re in disagreement we find ways to laugh about the differences. And that’s how our relationship started. I was living in my mom’s house. (Embarassing moment.) And she says, “You must be writing some hilarious stories about that.” She was right. But she was also letting me know she saw through my present situation and was still bright-eyed and bushy-tailed about getting us together.

She had a plan. She lured me in with tennis. She read my blogs which laid out the simple roadmap to my heart. And then she joined. She laughed. She slid up beside me and never left. It was an easy join and an even easier period of getting to know one another. Now, a year later, we’ve both become even more comfortable together. We let the disagreements roll off our backs. We move onward with our own agendas and plans. And then we return to our side-by-side connection. And we cherish that connectivity.

This past weekend we were vacationing in Canada and it was apparent the joy we were spreading as we walked around the freezing city. People recognize two genuine lovers. People feel warmed in the glow of our friendship and joy. Perhaps we are giving a gift of our love to others. Or perhaps it’s the gift of hope. That someone is out there.

We’d both been through divorces. We’d seen the things we didn’t want to do in relationships. And we set out on a mission to secure someone with more like-minded sensibilities. And when we connected the YES YES YES came through us loud and clear, like and electric current, or a magnet. And we bonded within  weeks and were living together within a few months. And the rest… they say…

We are choosing, every day, to be together. We are respecting each other’s space and energy, every morning when we wake up and make coffee for each other.

Well, we both know the rest is ahead of us. We are not looking too far forward from the present moment. We are fully committed and fully alive. And at the same time, our love allows us to be flexible and ambitious within the relationship. We are choosing, every day, to be together. We are respecting each other’s space and energy, every morning when we wake up and make coffee for each other. We look into each other’s eyes and say a blessing.

Can we stay in puppy love forever? I don’t know, but we’re doing pretty good.

Love is a gift. By sharing your joy with others they too are reminded of love in their lives. You must go for 100% love. Settling in this department will not serve you. Perhaps those little warning signs we had in our marriages should’ve waved us off. So far, for me, there have been no warning signs in this relationship. Some things I don’t like, sure, but we’re wide open about those too.

Love is letting the other person be whole and complete without your influence or supervision. And then in love returning to hold the other person in the highest regard because you want to, because you can’t help it, because love fuels every muscle in your body. That’s love. This is love. May you feel it in your life, as I have found it in mine.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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Transformational Divorce

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Everything that happened from the moment my then-wife said she’d been to see a lawyer, has delivered me up to be healed in a way that would not have been possible had we stayed together.

I wouldn’t have wished for it, but I now see, looking back, that my divorce was the best thing that ever happened to me.

My entire world (kids, wife, house, work, neighborhood, sports, money, creative life, play) exploded into tiny pieces. When the business of divorce had been done I got what 90% of divorcing dads in America get: 35% of the time with their kids, the non-custodial parent role and a big child support obligation, and no house. It’s as if I went from Pleasantville to homeless in a matter of weeks. And the homelessness is no joke. The financial and psychological drains on a father in the midst of divorce are immense. I was barely able to stay afloat. And more than once I wondered if I was going to be able to stay alive. Perhaps my large life insurance policy would be better for my kids than me. WOW.

I’ve been working on selling my “Whole Parent” story as The Positive Divorce, but maybe that’s too tame. What happened after my divorce was life altering for me, my ex-wife, and my kids. And the Phoenix from the Flames has been my creative power caught fire, my writing found a deeper voice, and my audience, here and on several other blogs began to grow. I wouldn’t have wished for it, but I now see, looking back, that my divorce was the best thing that ever happened to me.

Sure we were making the best of it, but we weren’t happy. We had very different ideas about what the other person “should” be doing. Well, I’d say she liked to “should” on me all the time. I liked to “should” on myself, but was primarily a pretty happy-go-lucky man. I liked my kids, I liked my job (except when I hated it) and I did my best to support my loving and beautiful wife through every aspect of our relationship. But something was always wrong. Something never met her expectations. I couldn’t figure it out, but I learned that I couldn’t fix it either.

Lesson #1 before the transformation: I could not make her happy. I could not fix her. I could only keep myself focused on myself. (An old AA concept: never take another person’s inventory. You can only manage your own.)

Lesson #2 before the transformation: I am responsible for my happiness and the support and caring of those around me. But no one else can make me happy. If I struggled with depression, it was only me who was going to be able to bootstrap my way back to joy.

Lesson #3 before the transformation: Kids are the center of the universe, but kids will not save your marriage or make your life worth living. Kids are a lot of work. The most amazing and rewarding work of all, but still… The stress of having kids really toppled some balance my then-wife had kept together for our entire courtship. She went from happy and self-satisfied to exhausted and angry. That wasn’t really the kids, it was a tendency in her, that only she could deal with.

If you minimize the war with your ex-partner, you can give the kids a hopeful and optimistic outlook on life, even when things don’t work out as planned.

Lesson #4 before the transformation: therapists can be good or bad. A bad therapist can enable and encourage poor behavior. A bad therapist can coddle a depression. A bad therapist may do more damage to your relationship than no therapist. My then-wife has a personal therapist who allowed her to bury her feelings and not deal with issues until they became HUGE. My therapist allowed me to let her go even when I knew it was the hardest thing I would ever do.

Lesson #5 before the transformation: before the divorce you have no idea how you are going to survive. The time without your kids. The depression and loneliness. All the darkness of the divorce, brought me to my knees. And that’s when I learned to pick myself and my needs back up off the floor, dust them off by myself, and put a plan together to get what I wanted next.

Lesson #6 before the transformation: love seems like a long shot when you are losing the love of your life and your kids. But the transformation will burn away the sorrow at some point. The love you are letting go of will transform into power, direction, and clarity as you reach out for what you really want, now that you know.

Lesson #7 before the transformation: the kids seem to suffer, but they will be okay as well. My two children were 5 and 7 when the transformation happened. Today they are 13 and 15 and they are two of the happiest, most well-adjusted kids I know. While they know the price we all paid in away time, they seem happy and well-directed in their own lives. While I didn’t know if I could survive divorce, I was more worried about my kids.

If you minimize the war with your ex-partner, you can give the kids a hopeful and optimistic outlook on life, even when things don’t work out as planned. None of us would’ve wanted the divorce to happen. But as I talk with my kids today, we all agree that things are better now. I’m happier. I’m with a woman who makes me happier. Their mom seems to be happier. That’s the goal, happier and more centered in life, for all of us.

The transformation took about 4+ years for me. I have mapped it out.

transformational-recovery

YEAR ONE: It’s time to let your guard down and grieve. You’ve just gotten a divorce. Let that sink in. Miss your kids and allow that longing to penetrate your ego. Get angry. Find new things to do with your energy. Find new hobbies and activities.

YEAR TWO: As your life stabilizes a little you begin to refocus your priorities around the kids. Without the marriage as a focus you can pour your energy into your children. You will also need to begin your own healing process. Start a martial arts class, join a divorce recovery group, begin journaling. It’s time to work on YOUR recovery.

YEAR THREE: You begin grasping terms like co-parenting. You are now working more as a team. You may not agree with your former spouse, but you can agree on what’s best for the kids. As you begin feeling stronger and more yourself, you might begin to date again. Don’t start dating too soon, you’re liable to end up in another failed relationship.

YEAR FOUR: As your life begins coming together you can leave relationships that don’t serve your future goals. It’s easy to make your kids a priority, but you’d like to have a companion along for the journey too. You realize the job is a means to an end, not the meaning of your life. The “off parent” hours are spent doing things you love and perhaps finding another person to love.

In four short years my life went from shambles to aspirational. I learned that I was not going to settle for half-ass again. I had overlooked some early warning signs at the beginning of our relationship and marriage. I won’t make those same mistakes again. After the transformation you can reset your priorities.  You are being giving another chance to do it better, to get it right.

My divorce was the transformation I needed in my life to get back on track. I learned what made me happy. I learned I really needed to be with someone who shared the same sense of joy and wonder at the world, that I could wake up with every morning and say thanks to the universe for. I was looking for a WE that made my life bigger and better. My marriage provided a lot of growth, two wonderful kids, and the transformational experience that reoriented my life completely.

I give thanks to my ex-wife for releasing me back into the universe. I needed to grow and re-find myself and what made me happy. Then I was able to seek out a more like-minded partner and setup our long-term relationship on mutual goals and mutual adoration.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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