Tag Archives: co-parenting agreement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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image: selfie and passer-by, andreas schalk, creative commons usage

Putting Your Divorce in Context, For Yourself and the Kids

wholeparentbook.com keep calm and remember the kidsOne of the biggest jobs in getting to the positive side of divorce is figuring out, and often explaining, how and why you and your co-parent split up. And while most of this work happens within your own mind, you have a lot of people in your life you have to explain things to. And your kids are first up.

In my parent’s divorce I don’t remember how I found out, but it was raw and unfiltered. I didn’t understand and I didn’t have anyone to talk to about it. I think it happened while I was in third grade, and while I was at school. The memory is sketchy, but something about getting called to the office and talking to my mom on the phone. We were going on a Christmas vacation and my dad wasn’t coming. (I’m sure this isn’t right, but it is early biographical memory, so the experience is more about the feeling and less about the actual event.)

In the case of my marriage and my kids I knew that I wanted to do better. And their mom and I worked very hard to learn and negotiate the best way to do it. Since we were in agreement that we would divorce we were able to put our focus on building a parenting plan and exploring what would be best for the kids. We spent our money on a family counselor who specialized in children and divorce rather than lawyers. It was a good decision.

And it was not easy. I was still living in the house when we began seeing our divorce therapist. And there were still large amounts of emotions to process, both together with the therapist and alone as we began to write our own context stories about “what happened.”

In our case, I had gone against the recommendation of our marriage counselor and my then-wife and I refused to simply move out of the house. I saw the way my context-less and unplanned breakup affected me between 3rd and 5th grade, and I was determined to do better for my kids. And perhaps I was also terrified. Yes, I was terrified and ashamed.

So during the months of April and May, while our kids finished up 1st and 3rd grades, we stayed in the house as roommates. And there were some good times along with the bad. There were moments when I imagined we would reconcile, as I hoped we might. We didn’t. We maintained the facade to enable our kids to reach the safety of summer before we dropped the nuclear family bomb on them.

The process of divorce takes time. There are a lot of details to work out. And rushing into that process while throwing your kids and current family structure under the bus is not a good idea. I kept repeating this phrase, “There is no hurry. We’re making our parenting plan and doing what’s best for the kids.”

It was awful. It was not what I wanted. And yet, I agreed to take the steps as they came along, and move forward towards dissolving my marriage.

And that’s the goal: do what’s best for your kids. You and your soon-to-be-ex will recover. As adults we have resources, experience, and the context of our own lives to provide some safety and hope during this painful process. You’re kids have only the two of you. And your actions, every single one of them, will have consequences and echos that will reverberate right one in your children’s lives as they make choices about relationships thoughtout their lives (marriage, divorce, even co-parenting).

Brené Brown’s great book, Daring Greatly, has a line to remember for all parents (both married and divorced): “Who we are and how we engage with the world are much stronger predictors of how our children will do than what we know about parenting.”

The way we conduct our lives, the way we recover gracefully from the divorce, the way we deal with emotional struggles, all these things demonstrate for our kids, set the guiding example for them. This is how you live your life, we say with our actions. And divorce and recovery from divorce is no exception, and in my case, may have been the guide I used for what I didn’t want to repeat in “my divorce.”

In some ways the early exit from the marriage would’ve been easier. You hear things like, “let the healing begin,” and other maxims that are supposed to make that release more logical. But in my case, my parent’s divorce, and my father’s rage and alcoholism that gave me the courage to stand-in and stand up for what I believed was better for my kids.

So we went to the nice but expensive counselor’s office once a week and talked about things like “time with Mom” and “what’s in the best interest of the children.” And we processed a lot of feelings on that couch together, now working to separate rather than come back together. But in all of it, my wife and I were framing up the future lives of our kids, and we were smart enough to know that we were JOINING IN DIVORCE, in the same way we were joined in holy matrimony.

The rest of the story, the way we conduct ourselves as co-parents, as individuals struggling with sadness, confusion, and hardships, all of these things, are also us showing our kids how healthy (or working to be healthier) adults make their way in the world. Life throws us curveballs and it’s up to us to deal with them in the most positive way we can.

It was awful. It was not what I wanted. And yet, I agreed to take the steps as they came along, and move forward towards dissolving my marriage. I did the best I could at being the same old cheerful dad who roused everyone on school mornings and got breakfast going. I still fained affection for their mom (I was still feeling it, but I was learning to contain my outbursts of “can we reset and not get divorced” and change them to “I’m feeling a lot right now, give me a moment.”) and soldiered on towards the goal, my exit from the house and from the marriage.

And through it, I learned a tremendous about myself, my own resilience under great stress. And I showed my kids, I demonstrated, how to stay positive even when things were falling apart around me.

When we told the kids, we kept it simple. As parents, we tried to keep our feelings in check and really listen to the kids.

And we worked with the counselor. And we worked with the financial divorce specialist and worked out scenarios. (She keeps the house, he keeps the house, sell the house.) And we talked about how we were going to talk about it, reveal it, to the kids. The lovely and innocent kids, busily scurrying along with 1st and 3rd grade epiphanies and troubles.

And when that moment came, a few weeks into Summer, our kids reactions were honest and telling. We agreed that we wanted to tell them together, to explain the situation to them. We were not leaving them, we were simply going to live in different houses.

My daughter’s reaction was first, “What pets are you going to take?” We had agreed that their mom would keep the family house. And while the negotiations were never easy, we agreed that they would never get rough either. We didn’t fight in our marriage, so we weren’t going to fight about the divorce. (Maybe we should’ve fought more in our marriage… different discussion…)

My son was next, “So that means we’re gonna have two houses for Christmas, like the twins?” My sister was a single mom with twins who had been through the divorce process several years ahead of us.

“Yep, just like that,” we said.

There were no immediate tears. We sat together in the living room all just a little bit shell-shocked. And my son jumped up excitedly and decided we should all go to a movie. It was clear he wanted one more outing together. And when that didn’t look like it was going to happen he retreated to his room and collapsed in tears.

We kept it simple. As parents, we tried to keep our feelings in check and really listen to the kids. And we had given the event a timeline, and after about an hour of “just spending time with them” as they processed, I left.

It was one of the hardest moments of my life. I had already been living at my sister’s house for a week under the context of being ill and needing some rest without family chores and interruptions. I’ll never know exactly how those days went down for them, but after school was out, I knew they had time and safe spaces to process whatever they needed to. And I knew their mom was onboard with building a positive context for what was coming.

You will be putting your marriage and divorce in context for the rest of your life, as you negotiate and navigate future relationships. And your kids will have your example about how to live through a very difficult time. It is critical you take your resentment and anger outside the family. You will be angry. You will have resentment and regrets. But these are parts of your adult context that you can work on without processing any of it with your family.

Get help if you need it. I sure did. But make sure you understand the most critical part. Your kids are watching and learning how to be in the world. Show them the best example you can. Show them you can still love them and their mom, even when you have decided not to live together.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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Reference: Brené Brown, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead

Co-parenting Is Not Always Easy, But We Have a Choice

The Whole Parent - End SarcasmMoney issues might have had a great deal to do with the breakdown of trust and adoration in my marriage. And even though the marriage is over, the conflict and misunderstanding around money is a difficult topic. Even when you love one another, it’s difficult. When it comes up after divorce, it can easily escalate, like war.

But we can stop it. I can stop it. Even if I have no control over the discussion, I have my part and my participation in it. The pause and silence are my friend. If I always try and answer, even when I don’t have an answer, I find myself defending things I wasn’t trying to propose. If I respond with anger, I NEVER get what I need.

I learned something, only recently, that has worked with some effectiveness: I try and respond with an update. At least I’m not freezing my ex out of the discussion. I may not have the answer. (And at this moment, today, I certainly don’t have the answer.) But I am engaging in the conversation.

I don’t have to respond in-kind. I can take the higher road and do my best at giving an honest respond, and if possible a solution.

And sometimes, the response, “I’m thinking about this and will respond to you by Monday,” often has a soothing effect, for both of us. I’m not left with this need to respond, and while I haven’t given the answer, I have expressed my intention and timing for my response. This gives us both a little time to think/work on the answer.

In conflict, my ex-wife and I often do better if we write it down. We even used love letters in our courting period. We both enjoy putting our ideas in logical sequence and giving them some considered thought. This is a great way to diffuse the potential emotional escalation. And when I take a pause, I can often reframe my initial angry response in a more loving and considered manner.

So today, I can slow things down. I can let her know that I am thinking about her question/request. And then I can set an expectation for when I will be giving her my response.

I don’t benefit at all from firing off a knee-jerk reaction to an angry email from my ex-wife. I don’t have to respond in-kind. I can take the higher road and do my best at giving an honest respond, and if possible a solution.

So much of co-parenting is about negotiation and compromise. We no longer have the same loving emotional ties to our former partners. We no longer have to make their urgency and priorities our own. But we owe the considered response to the parenting relationship. By taking our anger elsewhere, we can keep the focus on the REQUEST from our ex and try and keep the response to an ANSWER.

Sometimes I have to parse out the request. And sometimes I don’t have the answer. But the tone and method of my response is up to me.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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Note: The image is of me, and represents my intention to keep sarcasm out of all my responses to my ex-partner.

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I Am Not the Problem, We Are

The family of origin - The Whole ParentThere are bumps along the road to single-parenting and our hopeful arrival at co-parenting cooperation. And what ripped our marriage apart is probably still the dysfunction that we deal with as separate parents, doing our best.

The thing to remember is this: the other parent is doing the very best they can.

It’s hard to swallow sometimes. When the discussions get difficult, it’s easier to blame the other person for the issue. But if it’s an issue it’s a joint issue.

A few of the rules have changed, but if we can return to the memory of that love that existed, and see how it is transformed into the love of our children, and “for” our children, we can do a better job at responding with compassion and empathy.

The hard fact is this: We are no longer married, but we are in a relationship forever. The things we used to fight over as a couple are still between us. And just because the loving relationship is gone, the love and anger at loss-of-love is not gone. So, this morning when I got another “you done me wrong” email from the mother of my children I chose a different path.

I offered information. I answered the questions that I could. I suggested an in-person chat, which she has rejected over the last six months of “parental” negotiations, and then I stopped. I stopped short of contradicting her accusations. I stopped myself from responding in-kind with my grievances. And I tried to imagine the woman that I fell in love with, as a friend, struggling with some parenting and financial issues.

We are triggered by our ex-mates. We could not have married them, and had children with them if the connection was not elemental and deep. That connection is still there. A few of the rules have changed, but if we can return to the memory of that love that existed, and see how it is transformed into the love of our children, and “for” our children, we can do a better job at responding with compassion and empathy.

Kurt Vonnegut’s book Slapstick had a memorable line that framed a good portion of my young adult life, after I acquired it. It is my mantra when dealing with family matters.

“A little less love, and a little more common decency please.”

I am sad sometimes that I no longer have a partner and cheerleader in navigating these difficult times. But that role/relationship ended several years before the marriage did. And now I have two fabulous kids and their mom.

Own your anger. Process it with someone else. You’re ex-lover, ex-partner, and the other half of your co-parenting relationship does not deserve it, and will not be served by your venting.

I don’t have to take on her issues, I don’t have to make her priorities my priorities, and occasionally I have to get mad and stand up for the NO that needs to be said. But I don’t ever have to say it in anger or personal frustration. That shit is mine. And I will do well to deal with it here. Outside of the relationship with my ex-wife.

Finally, in my self-recovery process I learned about how important it was to get the anger out. To write the anger letter. (This is a great gestalt for most relationship problems.) WRITE IT, BUT DON’T SEND IT.

Own your anger. Process it with someone else. You’re ex-lover, ex-partner, and the other half of your co-parenting relationship does not deserve it, and will not be served by your venting. Do vent. Find a healthy release for YOUR stuff. And then return to the love of your kids, and the memory of the love you once had for their other parent.

Always love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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