Tag Archives: couple’s therapy

The Big Three Marriage Issues and the Hope of Counseling

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Was it marriage counseling or divorce counseling?

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

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

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

Money

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

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

CHORES

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

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

SEX

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DIVORCE COUNSELING

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

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

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

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

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

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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The Transcendent Single Father

Relationships come and go. Breakups and divorces happen. Heck I’ve had two divorces. The real transformation comes when you have children with a partner. Almost by magic, the shift happens. You’re still in love with your partner, but suddenly this other tiny human is sucking up all of your love cycles. You love them both, but push comes to shove, you’re going to go with the kid. It’s human nature. Nurture, I suppose, is the word. You’re going to protect, cuddle, shelter, and encourage this tiny human for the rest of your life.

The basis of that parenting plan was built on the old model of parenting. Dad = breadwinner, Mom = love & nurture. That was simply not true for us.

If the marriage comes to an end, often it is tragic, but survivable. And for me, the children were the shining point of truth for me. Was I going to give in to the depression and financial crash of the divorce, or was I going to get back up and be the dad I needed to be? My choice was clear. My path to recovery and resurgence was less assured.

At the very beginning of the end I had a tough choice to make. Things had been strained and getting worse between my then-wife and I for almost a year. When she snapped and blurted out in couple’s therapy that she had, in fact, gone to see an attorney, I was caught with my proverbial pants down. I knew things were tough. I knew we were more friends and parents than lovers, but D I V O R C E ? What?

In that very session, she asked me to leave the house. “Give me and the kids some relief. Some quiet time. A little cooling off.” Our therapist seemed to agree. Again, another shock. Wait… What?

Time slowed down. My mind flashed back on my parent’s divorce and the bloodshed that followed. I had never contemplated divorce from this woman staring angrily, tearfully, at me from across the therapist’s office. The both awaited my response.

“No way.”

It was early April. Our two children (3rd and 5th graders) had two months left to go in the school year. And these two people were suggesting we tell them, “Daddy had to go on a business trip.” I paused and took a deep breath.

In this collaborative process of divorce I was a bit naive. I trusted that we were negotiating with everyone’s interest at heart. I was misled.

We were not really in couple’s therapy. We *were* in therapy, for sure, but it was a slightly different approach. SCT (Systems Centered Therapy) is about separating what’s real from what are merely feelings and emotions. And while I still respect the therapist deeply for all he was trying to do, he missed the mark on this one. By a long shot.

“Our kids are two months from finishing the school year. We’ve lived as roommates for six months. I’m sure we can be big enough to share the house until Summer break.”

They both looked at me with concern and disapproval. We ran out the clock on the session with us agreeing to disagree about this MAJOR POINT in our marriage and eventual divorce. Mind you, this was the first time I learned that my then-wife had been looking at her “options” with a lawyer.

It was the counselor at the kid’s elementary school who talked some sense into my then-wife about letting the kids finish the year. “They will need the time to regroup. Don’t do it while they still have to come to class every day. Give them some time off in the Summer. I’ve seen this kind of thing really hurt children in the long run.”

Yes. We, as the adults in the room, can take the high road and figure our shit out. Our kids needed to finish the year, and maybe even have a few weeks of Summer before we split the atom.

It was a rough few months. I fluctuated from anger to compassion. I wanted to patch things up but there was no talk of reconciliation. She was still convinced that maybe a separation would give her some perspective. She dangled it out there like some hope. It was a false hope. She was making plans, doing spreadsheets, and outlining her roadmap towards divorce.

Occasionally we’d cross paths in the hallway and I’d extend my arms, almost by instinct, to hug her before I realized what I was doing. I usually mumbled an apology. “Sorry. I’ll figure this out. I’ll do better.”

As the weeks drew on it was harder and harder to make nice. We could easily disguise our frostiness while getting the kids ready for school, because I was usually the one up and making breakfast and corralling everyone, while my then-wife got her hair and makeup done. This was my time, my mastery: joyfully waking, feeding, and delivering my kids to school. The fact that it was our last year as an intact family, was known only to myself and my soon-to-be ex-wife.

All this time, over those two months, we were meeting with our “parenting plan” therapist and our “financial split” accountant. And she was meeting with her attorney. Since we had agreed not to fight over anything I didn’t seek legal advice at that time.

So we examined our combined estate from the three scenarios. 1. she keeps the house and pays me for the equity; 2. I keep the house and pay her for the equity; 3. we sell the house and split the equity. And we began to talk about what was “in the best interest of the children” in the divorce therapist’s office.

In this collaborative process of divorce I was a bit naive. I trusted that we were negotiating with everyone’s interest at heart. I was misled. As it turns out, my then-wife knew, and the divorce therapist knew, but I did not know, that we were going to straight for the divorce-in-Texas package. See, traditionally men have been assholes as well as the primary breadwinner. And traditionally, the mom has been the shelter and love provider, and perhaps even the stay-at-home family hub. And for us, the stay-at-home-mom-plan is sort of how we initially set out on our parenting journey together. However, I was no absent father. That had been how my dad was.

The part that is missing, the heart of my relationship and my agreement with my then-wife, was that we would parent these children 50/50 with all of our love and focus. Everything in our lives revolved around being the best parents we could be. I handled the first half of the day (wakeup, breakfast, and school) and she handled the afternoon. We both wanted the kids to have a parent home when they got off the school bus. And we were 100% successful in that accomplishment. And I believe our kids still show the resilience of that decision. We parented 50/50 because that’s how we believed our kids would become balanced individuals themselves.

In the divorce therapist’s office, however, the story changed. Questions about our parenting responsibilities became much more loaded. And I was challenged on my ability to fix dinner. What? Seriously? I tried to push back, “And what about mornings and breakfast and getting the kids to school? How much of that responsibility have you had in the morning, over the last 5 years?” I was a very conscious and present dad. I was not the absent father with she was not the stay-at-home mom. We *had* been doing parenting 50/50 just as we planed.

I was not the absent father with she was not the stay-at-home mom. We *had* been doing parenting 50/50 just as we planed.

Divorce however, is not about what’s fare, or what’s real. Divorce is a battle. Even in the most positive divorce, with the most friendly parents, things can get messy pretty quickly when you’re talking about the rest of your lives with your children. I’m guessing her maternal instinct kicked in.

The conversation about the schedule and parenting plan changed dramatically. And when things got too heated, the therapist would talk to each of us individually to reset. In one of these cooling periods, she leveled with me, “Here’s what she’s going to get if you guys go to court.”

And it was at this very second, when my heart was shattered and broken, that I gave up. I didn’t mean to. I didn’t know what else to do. The toll of the two months of guarded-living had broken my fighting spirit.

Maybe I had done enough. Maybe some of the wisdom about the “mom” and the nurturing was true in our case, even if it didn’t feel as lopsided as the term non-custodial parent indicated. And I was facing my divorce therapist alone. And she was looking at me and saying things like “in the best interest of the kids,” and “most fathers react this way.”

I was NOT most fathers.

We tore up the 50/50 schedule that I brought into the counseling session. We started again with the SPO and the non-custodial rights and responsibilities. And while I gave up a huge piece of my “dad time” that day, I’ve never stopped working to show up for my kids at every opportunity afforded me. That I am afforded that opportunity only 31% of the time, instead of 50% is an issue. But that was not the time to fight. Or if it was, I was not capable of another battle. And the therapist was looking at me, sharing her compassion with me, and telling me, “This is what she’s going to get. Let’s start here.”

Today I’m certain I would try to do it differently, given the chance. And perhaps in the near future I will be given an opportunity to reset the schedule. But the damage was done, the divorce proceeded with all the typical restrictions and legalese. When I did consult a divorce attorney it was only to look over the decree her attorney had drafted. For me it was really about the parenting plan, and we had gone over that with a fine toothed comb.

The basis of that parenting plan was built on the old model of parenting. Dad = breadwinner, Mom = love and nurture. That was simply not true for us. And it is not true now. But now, my kids are in 7th and 9th grades and the time with them is much more sparse and rational. My then-wife and my fancy divorce therapist sold me the old party line about Dads and Moms in divorce. I hope that if you are in this situation you consult a lawyer who can negotiate on your behalf. If you parented 50/50 you should divorce 50/50 as well. The traditional divorce schedules and laws established when my parents were fighting it out, no longer apply for most families.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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Massive Action: The Return Journey Begins Now

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I did not want an incremental win. I needed a massive win, so what was required of me, as the captain, was massive action. I had been on this oxygen starved shelter (mom’s house) for nearly an entire year. The options for #relationship were a joke, though I sort of tried. The options for employment were plentiful, but I needed a pretty substantial sum of money to be able to pay my child support and head planet side again.

Somehow, I felt that everything was going to plan. I have no idea where I get these positive-for-no-reason tendencies, but I leaned into the cold coming of 2015 with a joyful heart.

So for the full of Spring, Summer, and Fall of 2014 I worked. I studied. I worked out. I joined the online dating community, I took a break from the online dating community. I started a relationship with a woman who continually told me she didn’t want a relationship, but she was happy to have relations with me. MEH. I had job interviews out the wazoo and all of them seemed to progress swimmingly until the final offer was due and did not come.

I understand I’m a risk. I’m a syndicated blogger. I’m a single parent. I’m opinionated and subversive, and vocal about my political leanings. I tried to separate my personal from my private online, I made my Facebook page private and “friends only.” But still nothing seemed to work. In fact, a lot was NOT working.

On the other hand, a lot of things were going to plan. Maybe not at the speed I would’ve liked, but the time alone gave me plenty of opportunities to get my shit together, as they say.

I found my second relationship a non-starter even though we tried through several months of the summer. I upped my commitment to exercise and physical improvement over the summer, and in October I launched a new blog specifically around wellness, fitness, and healthy eating. And I continued to work the web and my network for opportunities.

And in the early days of November I got a call from a former colleague about a client of his who needed someone to fill in on their social media team while they tried to replace a senior staffer who had taken a new job. And one interview in and I was given a contract for 100 hours of consulting. (That’s a big deal.) Christmas, as they say, was saved. And I guess I did a good job, because before the end of November I was asked if I would sell them another 100 hours in December. Of course. So I closed out 2014 with both the joy of new work, the inclusion in a virtual team, and a lot of alone time to contemplate what in the world I wanted next in my life. All of my life. Each part of it.

In November I chose to disconnect from the dating scene. I not only shut down my profiles on OK Cupid and Match.com, I simply quit thinking of myself as looking. I mentally closed the energy leak that was “hunting for a mate.” I chose to redirect that energy towards completing the freelance/remote job at the highest level and continuing my quest for meaningful work. Or at least, work that could provide life support services.

And even while the poor economy was hitting us in waves, I could see the eventual goal and recovery. I could also imagine the eventual recovery of our love for one another as well. But something got in the way of those plans.

And there was a pause. A great pause. A moment of joy and celebration at Christmas that signaled the phase change that was about to begin. We were in our survival base, we were together, along with my mom, and we were enjoying Christmas. I had money in my pocket, I was able to buy the kids a few extra things for Christmas, and we celebrated the coming year together. The kids went back to mom’s for New Years Eve and I went to a friend’s house to see, if there were any interesting women to talk to. Still off the market, in my mind.

As I left the party around 10:15 into the biting cold and drizzle, I said a prayer of thanksgiving. I was so happy with my life at that moment. Even alone, even at my mom’s, even as I knew from the client they would no longer require my services in January. Somehow, I felt that everything was going to plan. I have no idea where I get these positive-for-no-reason tendencies, but I leaned into the cold coming of 2015 with a joyful heart.

And then everything changed.

Recruiters had begun calling in December. It seemed the job market was coming back online after the holidays. I had several interviews. I made it to several second and third round meetings. And in a miraculous series of events I was offered a full-time position at a company that was only a few miles from my old neighborhood. YES, I said.

In the first week, as my job started I started looking for a new rocket ship.  There was no delay this time. The new company was solid, my Huffington Post writing was known, my single dad status was also already part of my profile. Right away I knew this company culture was a winner. From the daily lunches to the drop-by traffic at my cube, I felt I had found my new tribe.

Today, this very morning, in fact, I have begun the process of warming up the rocket ship, the new house, for the kid’s arrival tonight. It’s like an old country and western song, I got my job back, I got my house back, I got my dog back… And… There’s more. But the co-pilot story is still developing, so I’ll keep things simple.

I also rejoined the tennis club that I lost 5 years ago when I left my home for single-dadhood. I’m even closer to the courts this time. Much closer. It’s a nice walk across the river to the well-lit green hard courts that had kept me sane for much of the hardship of a difficult marriage.

So what makes a marriage difficult? Kids? Money? Power struggles?

But at the moment of truth, when I was given six months salary with benefits, I was pretty clear that we needed to work out a more equitable split of the financial requirements of our marriage.

For us there seemed to be a tipping point, after the kids were packing away each day to elementary school, there seemed to be a new opportunity for growth in our relationship, for time to connect. And even while the poor economy was hitting us in waves, I could see the eventual goal and recovery. I could also imagine the eventual recovery of our love for one another as well. But something got in the way of those plans.

As I was involuntarily separated from my big-corp job at the time, I also came to understand that the price I had paid was too high. We couldn’t live in our neighborhood and thrive on my income alone, even with the corp gig, we were living just outside of that SAHM dream. But I think my then-wife’s desire for that lifestyle was strong. Perhaps she had gotten the idea when we met that I had enough money to make that happen for us. And had things gone to plan, it’s very likely that we could’ve managed that ideal dream for a longer period of time than we did.

But at the moment of truth, when I was given six months salary with benefits, to leave the job that had shown me the classic “hi honey I’m home” American dream, I was pretty clear that we needed to work out a more equitable split of the financial requirements of our marriage. And I think we had vaguely agreed on this principle. As in, “when the kids were older she would return to full-time work,” but I don’t think she was ready. Or I think the unexpected loss of the secure and plentiful fuel source freaked her out a bit.

Rather than lean into the future together we began to lean in different directions. She became madder and madder that I wasn’t able to simply replace the income. I was confused because it seemed to me that I had been given six months to figure out my next move. I think that was the idea behind the severance and career counseling we were offered. I got a good deal and an opportunity to reassess. What I got in my marriage was a come-to-jesus moment where I expressed optimism about the future and our ability to rejigger the income sources and where she expressed, “Holy shit, you need to get another job, and quick!”

In the drama that ensued over the next year our separation anxieties got worse not better. She dug in her heels and did not earn any income for the next 12 months. I started a social media blog and got my writing chops honed and began working to find the next “sustainable” job. The severance ran out, the healthcare benefit turned into a very expensive Cobra payment, and the job market did not offer me any quick wins. And while she claimed to be looking for work as well, she was also singing a song about re-setting her career and trying to find a meaningful new career, and basically pushing ever harder on me to replace my good job.

That’s how the first home base became a hostile environment for both of us. We labored to keep the kids out of the fray and we began couple’s counseling two very different perspectives. Again, I was optimistic and hopeful. “Things are going to work out.” She, on the other hand, expressed anger and cynicism at the idea of counseling. “I can’t believe we spend this much money on counseling and we can’t even earn enough money to support ourselves! Maybe if we worked more and did less therapy we’d be better off.”  It was a no-win scenario. And in the end I was the one who lost.

And in the last 10 months, living at my mom’s house, I have been strategizing about my new plan.

  • Get fuel source.
  • Find new rocket ship.
  • Execute to plan.

And here we are… The future begins now.

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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