Tag Archives: anger issues

Growing Up in a Warzone: Childhood Trauma and Adult PTSD

It’s no wonder I don’t know how to express anger. The anger in my family of origin was shown to me as a dangerous weapon. My father raged and the entire family cowered. I was four when it started. In these times, the war times, as a four-year old kid, what you need is a comforting adult to pick you up and soothe you. “Everything is going to be all right.” Except, in our family everyone was triggered and afraid. There were no adults in the room. And when my father drank in addition to raging, all hell would break loose inside our house. It was during these times that I escaped to my stick and stone fort up in the hills behind our house.

I was building forts and stocking them with stick guns and rocks. And I would take refuge in the hills whenever things got to hot in the house. And this happened often. And again, what a little kid needs at this point is a parent to come and find him, hold him, reassure him. What I got was relief from the roaring house and isolation. I was a lonely little boy. None of my friends could understand what was happening at my house. Sometimes I was afraid to have them over to play, because I didn’t want them to experience the war zone.

As an adult this coping mechanism is still triggered. And honestly, most adults suffer from isolating behaviors, even if they weren’t born into the anger zone. I think those of us with depression just find deeper and darker silences than most. So as an adult under major stress I head for my fort in the hills. I keep my mouth shut. And I huddle alone waiting for someone to rescue me. The rescue that never comes. The rescue that can’t really come, because I have to rescue myself. No mom or sister is going to come and find me. And even if they did the relief would be temporary.

The fear and isolation are inside me. And in my childhood I learned to be a wonderful performer. I made straight A’s, played all the sports, and even became a profession magician at 12. I was doing magic tricks all the time to keep the family happy. Of course, it didn’t work. I was sad. My family was sad. My dad was rageful.

It is such a familiar feeling when I retreat back into my isolation. It doesn’t feel good, but it feels familiar. My broken and alone self is one I identify with. I have been broken for a large part of my life. I was broken at the age of four and the trauma is still deeply hidden. Of course, the body does not lie, and that trauma comes out at shame and lack of self-love. I’m really horrible to myself. My internal voice often says things so mean I wouldn’t say them to an enemy. I’m working on that one, big time.

Still, growing up in an unsafe and hostile family home trained me to be hyper-vigilant. I guard against anger and disappointment, by trying to be a better person. I’ve learned some of my weaknesses and I’ve learned to compensate for some of them. It’s a long process of growth and recovery. Today, however, I’m happier than I’ve ever been. Even ending a 2.5 yo relationship, I find myself in a “sky’s wide open” future mindset. Today I could go anywhere, do anything.

The path for me now is to be still. I often rush into things before I am certain of the answer. Today my higher power is in charge of the next steps. I’m going to live my life with joy and grace and see what opportunities step up to meet me.

image: anger, creative commons usage

What’s Underneath the Pain?

I’ve been working with my therapist a lot over the last few months, trying to get underneath my major complaint: overwhelming sadness and regret. Sure I am sad and anxious. Those are real feelings. But where is the anger? I have no access to my anger. And this is a problem for me. I avoid anger. I’m scared of anger. But anger is your friend.

I learned at an early age the destructive power of anger. My dad, the alcoholic, had rages that scared the crap out of everyone in my family. I was 5. I learned from then on that anger was not safe. And like my father during his sober times, I learned that anger and disappointment were best kept inside and never exposed to others. I learned dysfunction. I learned to hide my feelings. And most of all I learned to avoid conflict at all cost. I learned to lie to diffuse tense situations. Even if the lie was not in my best interest.

This plays out in my relationships like this. A girlfriend says something really mean to me. A little time later she says, “I hope that didn’t hurt you. I was just telling you how I feel.” “No,” I would lie, “It didn’t hurt me.” But in that lie I was discounting my real feelings, I was not standing up for myself, and I was accepting unacceptable behavior towards me from someone I loved.

It’s no wonder that anger is hard for me to find inside myself. I’d rather avoid anger, conflict, disagreements. But anger is also energizing. And it’s that energy I was missing in my efforts to recover from my lingering depression. And I don’t think my therapist had the tools or experience to handle what I was going through. Sure, he tried to get me to express anger towards him for failing me in my treatment. But he was also my lifeline. He was the only one I was telling most of my fears to. And flipping to anger towards him, no matter how I felt about him, was too hard. So we struggled together. But I’m afraid I could’ve used a less passive engagement. So I’m seeking new counsel.

This pain that is underneath the sadness and loneliness is something we all struggle with to varying degrees. Some people try to deal with it head on, with therapy, 12-step groups, or journaling. Some people choose to avoid or cover it up with alcohol or drugs. The first group is trying to get through the struggle. The second group is trying to mute it, escape it, forget about it. But the second group is doomed to more of the same feelings they are trying to cover up. Alcohol is a depressant. It’s not a sleeping med. It’s not a way to relax. It’s a way to forget.

In conscious healing, an individual uses all the resources available to deal with what’s going on in their lives. In my case, the cognitive therapy was unable to counteract the bad chemistry in my brain. No amount of counseling, no amount of journaling, was going to pull me out of my depression. And as the meds continued to fail, I went through long periods of hopelessness. Even in the midst of a privileged life I was thinking about killing myself. Even with two great kids and several family members who were close and close by, I was cowering in my beautiful house trying to figure out how to painlessly off myself. But it was the bad chemistry speaking. And I knew enough to laugh at my suicidal thoughts. Sure I thought about it, that’s called ideation, but I NEVER made a plan.

If you ever find yourself making a plan, call 911. Your brain is trying to kill you.

I have a lot of pain underneath my current sadness. And I have a long way to go to get more comfortable with conflict and releasing my anger in a healthy way. For now, I’m still stuffing some of my feelings, and I’m still scared about some other things that feel out of control. In fact, most of life is out of control. All we can do, all we can focus on is ourselves and our program of recovery. We cannot wait for the other person to change. We cannot cajole them into recovery. We have to let them go, to find their own way, to seek their own higher power.

Look underneath what’s bugging you. Is there anger there? More sadness? Then get some help. Write about it. Reason things out with someone else. Because until you begin to uncover what’s going on inside your head and heart, you will continuously be driven by things that don’t serve you.

Yes, I have lost everything for the second time in my life. But I still have so much to live for. And, for now, I’m as happy as I’ve ever been. I’m still digging into and talking about my anger resistance. But everything seems to be moving in the right direction in my life. I’m putting in the work on myself. I’m striving for success rather than just survival. Oh yeah, the meds kicked in a few weeks ago and it was like I was a different person. I came out of some sleepy depressive fog, and I could tell my old jovial, engaged self was back.

Take care. If there’s anything I can do to help you on your journey, let me know.

Always Love,

John McElhenney

image: sad clown, creative commons usage


Focusing On the Other Person is a Trap


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

Back to Positive Divorce & Co-Parenting

image: dancing, creative common usage

Are You Receiving Me? When Not Listening Turns Towards Divorce


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

back to Positive Divorce & Co-parenting

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image: the smoking couple, silkeybeto, creative commons usage

Getting Good At Blameless Breakups


If you’ve been dating again since your divorce, you’ve hopefully had a couple relationships. (Relationship – def: a monogamous dating experience that lasts more than a few months.) And unless you are still in the relationship you’ve also experienced a few breakups. Let’s look at the fine art of breaking up well.

When you breakup well a few things go differently than you remember in your youth, perhaps.

  • You’re not bitter and angry with the ex-boyfriend.
  • You don’t stalk them virtually or in real life.
  • A text from them does not automatically mean they are looking for a hookup or to give you a piece of their mind.
  • The breakup is more about compatibility than “you done me wrong.”
  • You can walk away from the relationship without an extended recovery period.
  • You might really believe the statement, “I hope we can eventually be friends.”
  • You actually do become cordial with your ex.
  • Their Facebook connection remains in tact and you don’t feel the impulse to check-in on them.

And the ultimate indication that you broke up well,

  • You are happy for them when they find another relationship. I mean really happy, and not the “dang it, why don’t I have another relationship” kind of grimacing happy.

I’ve had exactly two relationships since I my divorce 4.5 years ago. And I can say that I’m “friendly” with both of them. And it’s this ability to break up well, that indicates a good healthy attitude about dating and relationships in general. It’s important that you are okay with dating, checking things out, and not forming a relationship too quickly. It’s part of the territory. If you date you are going to break up. If you break up well, you can go into the next potential relationship with a positive and healthy attitude.

It’s a lot like your divorce. If you’re still spouting vitriol about your ex, you might need to have that looked at before you start courting new women. They are going to pick up on your negative vibe right away. And it’s easy to spot a bitter person a mile away. And dating is the same way. If the drama is high, the bitterness and anger will tend to come out in any “So tell me about your recent relationships” discussion. It’s an essential question and one that you should ask while paying close attention to their answer.

Bitter breakups cause a chain reaction.

  • There is a mistrust from the beginning, because either one of you is afraid of being hurt again.
  • The baggage from the previous relationship (breakup or divorce) still hangs heavy in the mind, and will color the openness and joyful potential.
  • It’s not a long shot to imagine the few terse words for the previous ex will be brought to bear on you should you “do them wrong.”
  • Unfinished anger work comes out in present relationships.

You want to start the next relationship with a clean slate. The new partner is not evil, nor do they possess the ability to fix/heal/transform you into a happy person again. The joy you bring into the next relationship is equal to the joy you have in your life. If you’ve got some of your resources tied up in bad mouthing your ex, or even if you don’t talk about it, but feel it, you’re going to hold back in your next relationship.

Here’s the test.

  • Can you see the new person without any preconceived judgements about their motivations or intentions?
  • Are you able to stay present when they are talking about themselves, or do you keep jumping forward into future “scenarios?”
  • Does your heart genuinely open when you are with the other person? Or are you feeling protective and cautious?

It’s not about getting it right 100% of the time. That’s silly. Finding your next relationship is a matter of trial, error, and breaking up with the ones who don’t work out. And until you find the next “real love” that’s all of them. And if you’re planning on the “date” to NOT be the one, you are going into the new relationship with a defensive attitude, one that will not show you in the best light.

Before entering into the next relationship make sure you are clear of the last one. How healthy are you on a scale of 1 – 100? If you’re anywhere below 90%, take a break. You’ll just do more harm than good by trying to “date” before you’re really clear on what you want. And as you enter a relationship with old baggage you will end it with more baggage. The bad stuff seems to compound unless it’s dealt with.

Here are some ideas for how to breakup well next time. (This list assumes there was no egregious freak out or infidelity on either partner’s part, for that, requires a lot more work when it happens.)

  • Don’t make it personal. Make it easy and simple. “It’s just not working out.”
  • If you care about them, let them know that you do.
  • Give some pause between the statements and let each partner have a say in what they are feeling.
  • If you think you can be their friend tell them that. If you don’t think you can be friends right away, let them know that as well. “I do think we will be friends eventually, but I can’t be around you right now, while I’m processing this.”
  • And then wish them well in both word and in your heart. By giving them the benefit of the doubt and assuming that they are a good person who just needs a slightly different person, you can honestly wish them well.
  • If drama begins to break into the conversation, either find a way to shut it down (“Can we not get into that right now?”) or take a break and try again later. (“I’m sorry, this is too much for me right now. I need to go now and come back to talk about this later.”)

The goal is never to blame the other person for the breakup, even if they were the reason you are breaking up. Always take your responsibility for the miss. And make it about the chemistry, the mix, the overall relationship and not about them or their poor behavior. Remember, you are leaving the relationship, not trying to teach them a lesson or educate them.

If you can execute a blameless breakup you can walk away as friends and hold your head high in search of your next positive experience: starting a relationship and eventually ending it. If your goal is always to end well you can start with the same positive outlook. Who knows, maybe that’s the key to finding your next keeper.

Always Love,

John McElhenney

back to Dating After Divorce

Reference: How to Win a Breakup – the Atlantic

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Divorce Lessons: 8 Critical Choices In Making a Positive Split


You’re entering into the first WTF discussions with your partner about divorce. I’m sorry. There are a few things you should know, mom or dad, that will make your transition to a divorced couple more manageable. Again, I’m sorry for your loss, perhaps there is something better on the other side, but right now you need to attend to the details. Maybe I can help. Here are the 8 critical points of maintaining a positive divorce approach in the days, months, and years ahead. Your relationship may be ending, but the road of divorce never ends.

Each parent is responsible to keep their own emotional upset out of the kids lives.

1. Kids. If you’ve got’em, everything you do from this point on should revolve around making their lives a bit less tumultuous over the next few years as your and your ex figure out the routine and cadence of co-parenting. Everything, and I mean, everything should be about the kids. All of your needs come second. Period. (Since this is my situation, most of the rest of this post deals with the kid-first issues of divorce.)

2. Money. A friend told me during my practice divorce, “If you can rub money on it, let it go.” And this is fairly clear. If it’s a material object, there is no sense fighting over it. (Embittered or contested divorces notwithstanding, don’t sweat the little things.) After the kids the money is the main negotiation in divorce. You have assets and you have debts. And as you separate your money issues, you will each get portions of both. If you have a house you are going to have to decide who gets it. Do you keep it? Do you sell it? If the kids would be better served by not being uprooted at this time, maybe you need to consider how you can best keep them in their home. (Notice I said their home. Yes, it’s your asset, as parents, but the home, the feeling of home, the safety, security, and love that was established in this home, is really all about them.

But money doesn’t stop with the house and things. The next issues is the sticky wicket the stalls a lot of divorce negotiations.

3. Child Support and the noncustodial Parent. This is the one I was completely uninformed about when we entered into our divorce planning. It was my hope and intention that we would work out the divorce with the same care we took in planning to become parents. We were a 50/50 family, all the way. But something happened on the way to the counselor’s office where we began drawing up our parenting plan. This is the core schedule that will run your lives and your kids lives over the next 10 – 15 years. It is the most important part of the divorce, but maybe not the most important part of the custodial negotiations.

If you stay on the positive divorce route, you will help your kids keep their positive opinions of both of you.

Back in 2010 when I got divorced, the state of Texas had a pretty clear judicial record on divorce. 85% of all divorced awarded the mom primary custody and the dad noncustodial status. It’s still called joint custody, but don’t be misled by the title. Here’s the part I didn’t quite understand, even as I was reading divorce books and making my own strategies about putting together a fair 50/50 schedule. The noncustodial parent pays child support to the custodial parent. No negotiation. The state has a formula based on your income (it works out to approximately 19% of your after-tax take home) and you (the noncustodial parent) will be asked to pay for 100% of the kids healthcare insurance. Okay, so get that straight. If you go the path of least resistance, as I did, and cooperate to the best of your abilities, you are still likely to be given the noncustodial role and the big monthly bill.

This is the major sticking point in a divorce. I didn’t know this. I agreed move on after I was told, in no uncertain terms, that my soon-to-be-ex would get this anyway if I fought in court about it. That wasn’t our deal, that wasn’t what we were doing, we were jointly paying a pricey divorce counselor to help us make these decisions together, but that’s what I was “going to get if I went to court.” So I folded my 50/50 plans, and was politely told my 50/50 schedule was nice, but that’s just not how this cooperative negotiation was going to go.

I should have gotten an attorney at this point. The problem is, back in 2010, I would’ve gotten what I got. So we avoided that pointless fight, and moved on to the plan.

4. Parenting Plan. Here’s where the non-financial work goes. This is the real meat of the divorce, at least as far as the kids are concerned, and remember that’s what we are focusing on here. Kids first, adults and our wants and needs second. So, along with the noncustodial parent role I was shown something called the Standard Possession Order or SPO. In Texas this means the dad gets the kids one night a week, plus every 1st, 3rd, and 5th weekend. (I’ll get to that 5th weekend in a second as well.) That’s the deal. That’s what’s going to happen “should you go to court” so you’d best be prepared to start there. Again this is the counselor talking. What I was saying is, “Why not 50/50? It looks like the books all say if the parents are cooperative and equally committed to co-parenting, that 50/50 parenting actually works better for the kids.” That’s not what you are likely to get if you end up in court, so “even negotiated” that’s likely what you’re going to end up getting if you try to keep the divorce planning in a cooperative and gitterdun mode.

The parenting plan also covers things like holidays, which Christmases they are with who. How you’re going to divide Spring Break and Summer Vacation. Those are the routine details of the plan.

5. The Dating Clause. One other part of the plan, that I think is essential, is the dating clause. In our plan, any parent who is dating, cannot introduce their dates to the kids until it has been a serious relationship for over 6 months. I think this saved us some real heartache in the early rebound days, and I was glad to have it in place. As it turns out, I still haven’t made it to 6 months with anyone. My ex has been dating for two and a half years, so the kids are familiar with him and like him. The idea is this clause keeps the kids (especially younger kids) from becoming attached or involved in any relationship that might be temporary. It’s a good idea, and I have felt that the way it slows down the pace of dating and moving into a more serious relationship, for me, has been beneficial.

6. Your Attitude. This is the core emotional piece of the divorce that you might spend more time on than you think. If we start with a few assumptions we might see the benefit of positive divorce more clearly.

  • Divorce is painful for everyone.
  • Each parent is responsible to keep their own emotional upset out of the kids lives. It’s fine to let them know or see that you are working through some stuff, but your promise has to be to not work it out in their presence. Get help for yourself outside the walls of your house.
  • Your kids will learn how to respond to this major life event by watching how you cope. You’re the role model that will provide the guides for their future upset navigation. By keeping your attitude positive and keeping your issues about your ex between you and your counselor, you can show your kids how to continue a loving family, even as your ex now lives somewhere else.
  • Anger is part of the grieving and growth process. But anger should not be worked out in front of your kids. Do whatever you need to do, but keep the frustrations and conflicts with your ex, OUT OF THE KIDS LIVES. There is not one angry thing that is appropriate to say about your ex. Not one. Your kids are not your little confidants and they should not be included in your bitching sessions. And take care to notice when you are doing this over the phone, those little ears are *so tuned* to every nuance of what is going on, that your anger, even in another room on a phone call to a friend, should be considered risky. Grieve, get mad, get support, but don’t let off steam in front of your kids.

7. Positive Divorce. If you stay on the positive divorce route, you will help your kids keep their positive opinions of both of you. You will give them healthy examples of how to cope with crisis and difficulty, that will provide a strong framework for them to grow with later in their own lives.

You still have loving kids between the two of you. Keep their loving attitudes in your hearts, and when you’re getting off track, focus on them and their needs.

You may never want to be friends with your ex, but you must maintain friendly relations in front of the kids. Even if money, or schedule conflicts are raging off scene, you’ve got a commitment to your kids that supersedes any and all issues. Yep, it’s hard, but keep that powerful pain out of the family.

Nobody wins in divorce, but we can keep either side from losing, if we stay present and positive in the coming months of negotiation and planning. And keeping things out of court and out of conflict, as much as possible, will go a long way to keeping the coming years on the cooperative side. Believe me, you need your co-parent, sometimes more than you did when you were married. As a co-parent some of their help is voluntary. It is okay to say, “I’m sorry I can’t help with that.” But it is so cool to be able to say, “Hey, I have plans, but let me see if I can move them so I can take the kids for you.”

The second sentence works like magic. You still have loving kids between the two of you. Keep their loving attitudes in your hearts, and when you’re getting off track, focus on them and their needs. That’s what it’s all about.

Always Love,

John McElhenney

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image: yes, peace, mark farlardeau, creative commons usage

The New Dance of Anger: Men and Our Legacy (part 2)


This is PART TWO. The first part is here:  Men and Our Anger Issues: The New Dance of Anger

  • ONE: We all learn about anger at a very young age.
  • TWO: Relationships with Dad 
  • THREE: Anger In Unhealthy Families 
  • FOUR: Old Defense Mechanisms
  • FIVE: We’ve all got anger issues.

Screen Shot 2014-07-29 at 10.54.52 AMToday as I was entering this post into the Huffington Post publishing platform I was surprised to see this result in my keyword/tag research:

What was surprising is there were no topics/tags that started with “men.” None. Zero. Wow. I mean I know HuffPo was started by Arianna, and she’s not at all anti-men… but still I do notice if you look at the “divorce” section, where most of my content gets posts, there is exactly ONE male featured blogger. All the rest are women. Okay, moving right along…

We left off yesterday, partially due to exhaustion and partially due to my own overwhelm at writing about anger. And some other stuff… So today we are going to pick it back up when we start discussing how a man (or woman) today can begin to understand their anger, and transform it into energy and change for the better.

SIX: Uncovering our own anger.

First, you have to acknowledge that you have anger, that there are things in this world that make you angry. Second, you have to let yourself feel angry. You actually have to get angry and let that frustrating energy begin to bubble up inside you. Then, at this very moment, you need to examine what you are actually angry about? It turns out that we often have “anger triggers,” things that make us start feeling angry. And if the upset is minor, that might be all we get, just a blip that says, “that sucked” and we move on. BUT… Often the trigger will connect with something else, something from our past, some unresolved issue perhaps, that is re-energized by the trigger. When we get angry at someone, for forgetting to pick up the laundry, perhaps, and we find that an hour later we are still angry at them, there might be more to the issue than the laundry. Chances are you have connected with something else in your past that needs to be examined and, if possible, released. But anger work is difficult. And if you find yourself with anger issues,  it is recommended that you do this type of discharging with a trained therapist.

SEVEN: Accepting the anger of others, and learning to respond without heating up.

The truth of the matter is that people get angry with us as well. And in the healthy display of anger, this is a good thing. By voicing their anger we get new inputs about what is pleasing or unpleasing to them. This is how we learn. However, if we are anger-adverse, someone else’s anger is very frightening. The second someone close to us bursts into anger, it can cause some of us to head for the hills, both emotionally and physically. More common, however, is the mental exit. When someone shows you their raw anger, the typical response is to shut down. To clamp down on your own internal reactions so you don’t give away your feelings. If the anger was coming from a parent, the repercussions and withdrawal responses could be ten-times more powerful. When your dad yelled at you as a child, your entire world could be consumed by fear and regret. When your boss yells at you, you might be ashamed and afraid, but hopefully you can recover enough to carry on. If the person behind you at a stop light honks and flashes the finger at you, you can take evasive action to get out of their way, and not be the target of their frustrations. Finally, if your significant other is angry at you, there are additional levels of “will I be loved” and “will I be abandoned” that come into play.

For the most part, if you are comfortable accepting the anger of others as theirs, you can weather most storms. When the anger is repetitive and relentless, over the course of several days or weeks, for example, there is probably a lot more going on that the surface triggers that keep popping up.

EIGHT: Anger in relationships.

So your relationship is a very deep connection. Any disruptions in this closeness can result in fear, anger, jealousy, rage, depression. When the anger comes out in your primary relationship, you want to pay attention and see if you can hear what the core issue is. If you are too triggered yourself by the anger of your partner, you need to ask for a timeout and get help. The worst thing you can do in a relationship is try to deal with someone’s anger by shutting down or mentally exiting the relationship. This is how affairs and ultimately divorce happen. Anger is hard. But it is essential for healing the trust between to people. If your partner gets angry about the dry cleaning, but stays angry all day, even after you’ve gone back out and retrieved the dry cleaning, there’s something else up. Go get some assistance to help you both uncover the core issues that keep causing minor triggers to become huge “relationship issues.”

NINE: Anger and our children.

We are always teaching our children, even when we think they are not watching or listening. Like little telepaths, our children are acutely aware of the signals in our relationships. They are still much closer to that empathic system that allows them to read a person’s attitude merely from tone and facial expressions. That’s how they go along as infants, before they even understood our language. So when you are your partner are having a spat, believe that your kids are absorbing all of the information they can to help in their own survival. If you or your spouse has anger issues and begins to yell and threaten, you can imagine that the impact on a young child, would be even more dramatic. They don’t have any other options, in their mind. This is their entire world, and somehow something is very wrong.

So as parents we are doubly responsible for managing our anger. And even if we think our kids are sheltered from the storms, they are tuning in much more than you can imagine. So, as you experience triggers it is important that you and your partner have healthy ways to resolve the “issue” quickly and without drama or yelling. Triggers, and even anger issues, happen. The more you can channel those away from your family and into a therapy session the better. Once you both have a handle on the major upsets the triggers are easy. But know that how you deal with the anger, is the appropriate anger response you are teaching to your children.

TEN: Healthy and Honest Anger can heal us all.

So we get angry. And our entire family is involved in the dance of anger, when someone let’s a fireball rip. What we do next is of critical importance. If everyone runs for shelter and the raging person simply gets what they want, we may be setting an example for acceptable behavior that will haunt us and our children for years to come. If, rather, we learn to share healthy anger (often expressed as a disappointment, rather than a “you did this wrong”) and we talk through the resolution, even with our children present, you can see how this healthy interaction can lead to more confidence and comfort around angry people.

It it important to learn about the dance of anger, for men and women. And it is even more critical to understand the enormous impact your dance of anger has on your children. Give them healthy examples of dealing and discharging anger, and you will give them tools to deal with their own anger and anger of others. Show them how anger can be contained, and how the loving family can remain even when anger is occasionally expressed.

In my marriage, perhaps we hid too much of the anger. My kids don’t have many healthy examples of anger negotiation. And thus, even as young middle-schoolers, their response to anger is often to shut down completely, and even cry, depending on the severity of the anger. And this is anger not directed at them at all. We’ve got some work to do, showing them what healthy anger looks and feels like. And I’m sure as they enter their teens we will have plenty of opportunities.

Please take an opportunity to leave your feedback and experiences in the comments.

Always Love,

John McElhenney

reference: The Dance of Anger: A Woman’s Guide to Changing the Patterns of Intimate Relationships

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image: rage and love, lisa widerberg, creative commons usage

Lean Into Anger: Healing My Father’s Fury


Anger scares most of us. And as a man, these days, I don’t have many opportunities to experience incoming rage, but it does happen. Today was one of those days. This morning, a man who was unhappy with something I had done called me on the phone and simply came unglued at me. After about two minutes of yelling he ended up hanging up on me.

the dance of anger as an adult male - the whole parentMy physical reaction was a bit delayed. I sat there in shock and fixed the problem. It took another minute. I tried to check-in with myself to see if I was scared, angry, sad, or what. I felt nothing. I did want to run out of the room. I did want to call the man and tell him I’d never help him again. I did want to lash out and strike something or someone. To return some of the unwanted negative energy that had just been jolted, unfairly and without warning, into my day, my system, my physical body. Anger is physical.

And the physical effect of this encounter had shut most of my logical faculties. I was sitting there. Looking at this computer. Stunned. Unsure what to do next.

My dad had this effect on me sometimes. After he divorced my mom and moved out he would occasionally call me on the phone and give me a taste of his rage. (Growing up it had mainly been directed at my brother, who was eight years older than me.) As my father remarried and descended with his drinking partner further and further into an alcoholic death spiral, he would occasionally call me and chew me out for not “respecting” him, or not loving him.

As a 12 and 13 year-old kid I did my best to defend myself logically from the onslaught. The emotional damage was much harder to understand or deflect. My dad raged on. And the next day, when I would talk to him about something, he had no recollection of even being mad at me. I guess he was blacked out when he called.

As I walked further and my body began to loosen up, I started flashing on my father’s yelling.

As I grew up, with this random and roving fury in my life, I became a bit dysfunctional around anger. I was afraid of making my dad mad, so I became more and more afraid of making anyone mad. I learned to lie, if it meant I could avoid being yelled at.

Unfortunately this behavior, as an adult, and more specifically, as an adult in a relationship with a woman, this inability to tolerate anger was less effective. In fact, it was part of what got in the way of maintaining a healthy marriage. But as I am learning, it’s not too late to lean into the anger. Avoiding confrontations at all cost has consequences too. And the term “soft man” was not too far off the mark when describing my fear of other’s anger.

Today, when I noticed how shut down I had become, I had to make a radical adjustment to my day’s agenda. By paying attention to the physical response in my body, I made a decision about 15 minutes after the event, to go for a long walk. I chose to skip the conference I had been invited to, and get my body back to center by going some vigorous exercise to release my body from the shock it was in. I made sure the project situation was handled correctly and cut my chords as I headed for the door.

And as I started walking I began to notice how I was holding the fear in the tension of my entire body, my normal response to being yelled at. And about 15 minutes down the road I was taking deep breaths and allowing my mind to go back over the rage event and pick out what was had been triggered in me.

If we look at anger research we know that most rage is not actually about the event or problem that set it off. When there is so much pent-up fury, and one simple mistake becomes a volcano, there is probably more beneath the mountain of the man than a simple issue. When we don’t process our anger, or get it out, it comes out in other ways. In today’s case, it comes out sideways and a partner gets blasted for something that, in hindsight, wasn’t worth getting too worked up about.

Rather than return fire or fall into depression I owned my feelings and released what had been held inside.

Still, it happened, and trying to diffuse the event by excusing the rager is not a very effective way of getting to the root of the issue for me. See, the rage ended up being my issue, not this other man’s. He’ll go on about his day, maybe blow up at a few other people, and no problem, same ol’ same ol’. For me, it was more important to understand what had shut down in my body, so I could listen and recover the joy of my day. Before this happened, I had plans to return to a conference, with people who were looking forward to seeing me, but I had to let that go too.

As I walked further and my body began to loosen up, I started flashing on my father’s yelling. And this time, rather than getting scared, I felt sad. What my rager today had triggered for me was the sadness I felt at being yelled at by my father. Probably 30-seconds in, it was no longer about the issue for me, it was about my relationship with my dad. UG!

I felt the tears come up and I welcomed the expression of this old hurt. The energy of another man’s rage had allowed me to feel the sadness surrounding the rage of my father. Wow, that’s pretty big stuff. I could feel the ache in my body. But it wasn’t from wanting to run away or rage back it was sadness at wanting to connect and be embraced by my father.

Several years later, when I was in high school, I no longer had regularly scheduled dinners with my dad. Instead I would call him and say, “Hey, can I come over for dinner?” And actually, part of what I was doing was gauging how drunk he was, before I asked. Sometimes, when my mom and I lived only a few miles away from him, I would run to his house.

Today in the rain, walking, I could recall that muscle memory of running towards my father’s house, running towards him in any way I could, to find a connection. I was desperate to establish some love between us. Even as he continued his random drunk-dial rantings at me, I continued to strive for a relationship between us. Such is the struggle between father’s and their sons.

This man, today, who yelled at me was not my father. And his actions had little to do with the error that he perceived. His rage and yelling was about him and whatever was going on in his life. And maybe he’s come to believe that this is an acceptable behavior. I don’t agree.

But today I am not looking for him to apologize or own his mistake at taking his frustrations out on me. Today I am not looking for my dad to give me a hug and say how much he loves me. The two wishes are tied together by the feelings that coursed through my body and paralyzed me as this younger man was attacking me, but I can now feel how that longing and sadness was the unfinished business I brought to the confrontation today.

I walked it off. I don’t expect to rehash the moment with today’s disappointed man any time soon. It is not often that we as men get a chance to experience the terror of being raged at. And today, rather than return fire or fall into depression I owned my feelings and released what had been held inside me in some scared 12-year-old boy’s memories.

My dad died when I was 21 years old. He was afraid to die. And he was angry at God and the world for allowing his death to happen. He was no longer angry at me. He was no longer capable of being a scary figure in my life. He was small, curled up, and very angry. But like today’s man, he was no longer capable of hurting me with his anger.

As the story continues, I’ll explore how my anger has evolved and how I’ve learned to harness it both in relationships and parenting. I won’t pass the rage of my father on to my kids, and for that I give thanks.

Always Love,

John McElhenney

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images: father and son in pool, my rage, john mcelhenney, cc 2014