Grief is Underneath: A Divorce Fable

Grief is Underneath: A Divorce Fable

“I sat with my anger long enough, until she told me her real name grief.”

In the beginning, starting out on a relationship journey towards love and parenting, things are optimistic and enthusiastic. And then life sets in. There is a lot of work involved in keeping your relationship healthy while managing two growing children. The financial strains begin to wear on the marriage. Who is going to work full-time, who is going to stay at home, and “how much is child care again?” It’s more complicated than you imagine in the early days of courtship, mutual love and respect, and “we’re all in this together.”

As my marriage with children progressed certain aspects of my relationship with my then-wife began to change, first in subtle, then in dramatic ways. By the time she asked for the divorce, she had been contemplating her exit for over a year. Yes, she had been telling me, “I’m unhappy. You need to pay attention to what I’m telling you.” It wasn’t like she was keeping her anger and frustration a secret.

But, what could I do? Work more? Love her more? Bring home more money? Do more chores around the house? Nope. I tried all of those things. I became the uber-dad, uber-husband, uber-lover. Always offering to “pick up dinner on the way home from the office.” Always accommodating when she wasn’t interested in sex. Always happy to put the kids to bed while she took some time for herself. I’m the accommodator. It may be a weakness in the end, not a strength.

Accommodations didn’t suffice. When I was laid off from a large tech firm, with a healthy severance package and health benefits, I thought it would be a good time for us to rejigger the arrangement between us involving money, housing, employment, and what we BOTH wanted to do. She didn’t want to have the same conversation. She was adamant and a bit angry. I should find the next big job so we could continue on our present trajectory.

It wasn’t working for me. The corporate life of high-pressure stress was wearing me out. I was 20 pounds overweight, I had high blood pressure, and I was depressed as I pointed my car out of our cozy neighborhood to drive the 45-minute commute to a job that was kicking my ass. I wanted something to change.

What changed was our relationship.

She went into some sort of defensive mode. I didn’t really understand what was happening. Yes, she was telling me how unhappy she was. Yes, she was trying to find a career that felt more fulfilling to her. Yes, she was not going to work until she found that next passion. And I was supposed to just “get a job.” It’s what men do. It’s what real men, productive, responsible, men do. Just get a job.

I landed a few jobs in the next year, but nothing worked out as either of us had planned. The stress of her zero-income year and my “freelance and working on it” year was enough to flatline our relationship completely. We didn’t see eye-to-eye. She always seemed to be angry at me. And she froze all intimacy until my morale and productivity improved. Somehow, I’m sure she was trying. And, somehow, she was manipulating the situation towards a solution that involved her not having a full-time job and me having a well-paying full-time job, no matter the cost. The lean year was excruciating.

And even as I was hopeful about an eventual repair between us. Hopeful that the marriage and our children meant more to us than a bit of a rough patch. Hopeful that a better job was on the horizon, maybe for both of us! Even as I was, hopeful, my then-wife was not hopeful. “Cynical,” was the word she used to describe her attitude at the time, as we were talking on the way to marriage counseling.

It was at this time that she went to see a lawyer about her options in divorcing me.

I was in therapy to fight for my marriage, for keeping a home together for my sweet children, and I was hopeful that our mutual love would win out over cynicism and doubt. I did not know she had gone to see an attorney. She failed to mention this level of crisis in therapy. She failed to bring this up at all.

Today, 8 years later, my ex-wife is still angry with me. It’s obvious in every interaction I have with her. She is bitter and unhappy. Hmm.

Today I was struck by this simple phrase, shared on Facebook. “I sat with my anger long enough, until she told me her real name grief.”

Underneath that rage at me, must be sadness. I feel it when I touch the anger inside myself about how I’ve been treated since the divorce. I’m sad because we were so close. I’m sad because we still share two wonderful children that are affected by such rage and unresolved anger. I’m sad because while I was still loving this woman, and trying as hard as I could to hold the marriage together (therapy), our family together (working and looking for work), and our relationship (not placing too many demands on her for being close) she was seeking other options for her happiness. Her happiness trumped all the effort I was putting in. And in the end, a divorce is a turning away from the other person and claiming “I believe my life will be happier without you in it.”

As parents, we never get to fully say goodbye to our co-parents. And in my anger, I can sense that there is still sadness underneath it, about the dream we had for being parents and loving each other into our twilight years. I don’t have to understand her anger anymore; I can see it is really sadness.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

Back to Positive Divorce & Co-Parenting

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