Super Judo Warrior Dad in Divorce

WHOLE-judo-dad

It’s not easy to talk about money. Even when you are married to the other person, often there are disagreements and frustrations about money and how you handle it. When you are in the early stages of divorce negotiations, it gets even more difficult. Even with the help of counselors, accountants and attorneys, often the money issue is a difficult negotiation. Both of you want what you’ve always wanted, a fair decision that supports the children.

But what’s fair?

In the training and philosophy of judo we learn something called the loving respect for your attacker. In this concept you love the attacker by lovingly stopping their attack, while preventing them from hurting you or themselves. It’s this love and respect for the other person, even when they are attacking you, that served me well during the early months of my divorce.

Both my then-wife and I were wanting to make this as easy as possible. Within reason.

In our case, once the decision was made to divorce, we both moved towards cooperative divorce. How could be separate with the least amount of damage to each other, and how could we keep the divorce about the kids and not about anger or frustration or despair.

In our case, we engaged a well-paid divorce counsellor, a Ph.D, who was very gentle in easing us into the ideas of divorce, “in the best interest of the kids,” and the joint development of a parenting plan. Both my then-wife and I were wanting to make this as easy as possible. Within reason.

Early on in the discussions I declared that I wanted 50/50 parenting. I had read a bunch of divorce books and even presented a couple 50/50 schedules that I thought would work for us and our kids.

And here’s where my judo training, had I started it, would have come in handy.

When my then-wife expressed her desire to do the SPO plan, and be the primary custodian, we were at an impasse. Now, in my opinion, this was the heart of the matter that the counselor should’ve worked with us on. Instead she said something to both of us that I will never forget.

What we were paying for was an impartial counselor, to help us through this most difficult time, and to help us facilitate what WE wanted. After all, we were both paying her 50/50.

“If you go to court, she’s going to get primary custody.”

All the previous talk about cooperation, and all the discussions about what was “in the best interest of the children” evaporated in this one statement.

Had I known what I know now. Or had I had a good judo move for that moment, I could’ve deflected the disappointment and frustration back at an answer or a negotiation. What happened, instead, was I sadly agreed to proceed from that starting point and I dropped my dream of having the same 50/50 parenting we’d shared as a married couple, except now as a divorced couple.

There might have been several reasons for our counselor’s quick response to our disagreement, but none of them hold water when you remember that we were paying her PRECISELY SO WE WOULD GO TO COURT. What we were paying for was an impartial counselor, to help us through this most difficult time, and to help us facilitate what WE wanted. After all, we were both paying her 50/50.

I did not contain my sadness or disappointment at the time. And over the course of the next few weeks of meetings, I gently raise the idea again, but it was never considered again. We moved quickly to the mechanics of the SPO (standard possession order) and our custodial and non-custodial roles and rights. Overall, in the eye of the law, we did what 80% of Texas divorces do. We gave the woman the primary custody and put the child support burden on me, to support the kids in the house they grew up in, and in a lifestyle they had come to expect. I wanted that for them. I even wanted that for my ex-wife. I was sad, but I didn’t fight. That was the point. We weren’t fighting.

However, things did not go according to plan. We completed our parenting plan and custody schedule for the coming year. We agreed on the financial split of assets. And we divorced at the end of the first summer.

This time she mentioned just “turning the whole thing over the Attorney General’s Office and let them deal with it.”

And as a self-employed digital marketing consultant, I was forced to live with my sister while I looked for more gainful employment. And life went on as best as it could, given the circumstances. And we did okay. The kids kept their house, their mom started working a more full-time schedule and we negotiated the transfers and flexibility pretty well. Clearly we were both trying to make the best of a bad situation.

Then in January of that first year of divorce I got a killer job at a local startup. I moved quickly to establish my credit standing and within a few months of my new gig I purchased a small home. It wasn’t exactly the perfect house for my family, since the kids would share a bedroom, but I was confident that with my new income I could afford to close in the carport at some point, and turn my re-starter home into a family home.

For anyone with a family, reestablishing a home is a critical part of the rebuilding process. So I was proud and hopeful when I moved us all into the little home near the lake. And that first summer we swam and played and compromised on the roommate situation for the kids, with my daughter setting up shop in my bedroom most of the time she was staying with dad.

The business I had joined, however had different plans and by July they had eliminated the entire consumer portion of their business model and thus my position. With two-weeks notice I was unemployed again. Except now I had a mortgage and child support payments. Needless to say, I struggled mightily to keep things afloat. And with some timing flexibility from the ex, and some freelance jobs, I cobbled together the next few months as I reapplied for jobs and looked for consulting work.

Still, most of the negotiations between my ex-partner and I were pretty favorable. We were conscious of our dependance on one another for the care and flexible parenting of our precious children.

Soon, but not soon enough, I got some additional work, and resumed my mortgage payments and my child support payments. And we experienced a good Christmas and spring. And as we headed toward the long summer vacation things began to get difficult again. And that’s when things went south in a hurry.

I’m not proud of the next part of the story. Bear with me for a minute while I cover the details, you’ll have plenty of time to pass judgement in the last part of the story.

In the following summer (Summer #3) my employment was cut in half by the loss of a primary client. The small business I was working for assured me they would make up the loss with some new prospects they had on the books, but… Nothing materialized. By late July I was writing an email to my ex-wife explaining why I had not given her the child support check for July. I was behind. She was not pleased.

It is from this position, flat on my back, on the mat, that I have a number of options before me. As a super judo warrior dad I’m going to do what’s best for my kids.

I understand the frustration. And I felt the impact of my failure even as I scrambled to look for more work and more contracts. And in my applied judo training I assured her that I was not trying to skip out on any of the payments, nor was I trying to stall or hide money from her. She agreed that this was true, as she saw it. So we limped into August.

At this point, the small business was apologizing and the next round of work was not materializing and I was heading up to the first of August, where I would essentially be a full month behind, and with the current situation, I was not going to be able to pay August right away either.

I pleaded with my wife for flexibility. And again she rattle the war sabers at me. This time she mentioned just “turning the whole thing over the Attorney General’s Office and let them deal with it.”

And it’s at this point that I can see her point. I know that she was struggling without the July payment, and that looking at August too was going to put an additional strain on her budgets. And I am certain she was acting with the best of intentions, “in the best interests of the kids” when she continued to mention in the AG’s office. She had her reasons. She had her own fears and issues. And at some point, she decided to pull the trigger and turn me over to the State of Texas for handling.

I was horrified. Ashamed. And nothing I could do would prevent her from taking this action. I had been applying to jobs daily, calling old clients to see if they needed any additional work, I was scrambling at this point to make my mortgage payments as well. And I tried to reason with her. “Don’t you think I deserve to have a place to live as well?”

That’s all water under the bridge at this point. She filed. I ducked and covered and the dialogue had never resumed about what’s fair or what’s best for our kids. She is owed the money. That’s clear. And she is entitled to the money. And here’s where the next round of judo moves comes in.

All the way back to the earliest negotiations about our parenting plan, she got primary custody of our kids because she demanded it, and the counselor sided with her in the discussion and didn’t ever seriously consider my 50/50 proposal. OUCH.

And now, we’re much further down the road, and guess what? I lost the house. At least I was able to sell it rather than get foreclosed on. But I would’ve been able to restructure the debt had my ex-wife not filed with the AG’s office. And when I tried to negotiate an agreement with her, proposing a legal contract for the debt she was owed, she said, “It’s with the AG’s office now. And they specifically told me I could not talk to you about money.”

OUCH #2.

This summer, I am getting up off the mat again, to find compassion and caring for everyone involved.

Moving forward to the present moment, I am on the verge of landing a lucrative full-time corporate gig. And I have assured her that I will resume full child support payments with the first pay check. And of course, she is going to get all the past due amounts too. It’s the law. But it didn’t have to go this way.

And what I had set up, that I thought was comfortable and manageable with my modest house and self-employment, became unmanageable when things got off track. There was never a need to file, in my humble opinion. Just as there was never a need for the counselor in the earliest negotiations to assume that she would get primary custody of the children and I would pay a healthy amount of child support payments to her. There was no reason for us to jump to that conclusion, when we were paying the counselor to help us negotiate both of our goals and desires.

But the side of the law is often with the mother. And in Texas it’s 80% of the time that the mom get’s primary custody and child support orders from the father.

I actually had to hire my first attorney to keep the AG’s office from filing against my credit report. But the damage of the AG action and the inflexibility of my ex-partner led me to lose my modest house, my plan, my sweet little setup. And now I’m back to square one.

It is from this position, flat on my back, on the mat, that I have a number of options before me. As a super judo warrior dad I’m going to do what’s best for my kids. And I’m going to protect my attacker from damaging herself as much as possible. But I had a chat with my attorney again today. I didn’t even remember his name, so that’s good. And we talked over a number of potential solutions. And since I am the only one paying him, he is supposed to take my side and give me options that benefit me AND my kids, but may not be exactly how my ex-wife would like to see things work out.

This summer, I am getting up off the mat again, to find compassion and caring for everyone involved.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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image: Kim Jaeburn Gold Medal 2012 Olympics – Judo, republic of korea, creative commons usage

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